After voters wake up to ‘extremism,’ a new Belknap County delegation takes shape

By: - November 18, 2022 5:51 am

Area residents expressed their frustration with some members of the Belknap County delegation during a meeting of the Gunstock Area Commission in July. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This article was updated on Nov. 21, 2022 at 7:53 p.m. to include a statement from Rep. Tom Ploszaj.

When county-owned Gunstock Ski Area was temporarily shuttered last summer, Belknap County residents vowed to take their anger to the polls.

They wanted to unseat representatives they believed were meddling in ski area business, the same members who had gutted the county nursing home and sheriff’s department budgets.

Only half of last year’s delegation is returning, with voters rejecting six incumbents. And some remaining and former members as well as some political activists believe this delegation will be more moderate and less combative than the last.

The issues in Belknap County revealed a broader tension within the Republican Party, with members of the libertarian-minded Free State Project and others who share some of their beliefs about extremely limited government running as Republicans.  

That led more moderate Republicans – including some in Belknap County and the governor himself – to decry their party membership following Gunstock’s closure that resulted in public outrage. No longer did voters assume Republican candidates shared traditional Republican values – and the issues at Gunstock galvanized voters to action.

“I think Belknap County woke a lot of people up to the extremism within the party,” said Rep. Mike Bordes, a Laconia Republican who won reelection after becoming a vocal opponent of the prior delegation’s leadership, budgetary cuts, and hostility toward Gunstock management. “I think people are researching their candidates a bit better and made more educated decisions when they voted this time around.”

He believes the new representatives will work toward a fair and balanced budget, without cutting necessities like the sheriff’s department and nursing home. The county’s 18 representatives make up the delegation, which is also responsible for appointing a five-person commission that oversees the Gunstock Ski Area. There are currently two open seats for the new delegation to fill.  

The Gunstock debacle also prompted political organizing – and the creation of a new political action committee called Citizens for Belknap County.

“I think sanity will prevail,” said PAC Chairman Al Posnack about the two upcoming appointments. Posnack blamed the past delegation for what he viewed as an attack on Gunstock’s management, ultimately leading to their temporary resignations that effectively shuttered the mountain. Posnack said under Michael Sylvia’s leadership the delegation made political appointments to Gunstock’s oversight board, and then drove those appointees to declare war on Gunstock’s management. Sylvia, a member of the Free State Project, lost his primary. And Posnack believes that problem is now resolved.

“The delegation as it sits now will appoint good commissioners,” he said. “I’m not worried about that.”

But for Posnack, Gunstock’s closure was just a symptom of the core problem: fringe candidates serving on the delegation. Voters were already outraged – the PAC just had to connect the dots.

The PAC advocated for candidates from both parties it believed would govern reasonably and worked to unseat representatives it viewed as extreme. And by the PAC’s own estimation, it had some success in doing so – success Posnack attributes to voter engagement.

“This whole election was about the voters and about how energized and aware they became,” he said. “If you go back a year ago, 90 percent of us didn’t know what a libertarian was, didn’t understand what the Belknap delegation did, didn’t understand how misguided some of those delegates were.”

Four of the representatives Posnack’s PAC most wanted to oust lost in the primary: Sylvia, Norm Silber, Gregg Hough, and Glen Aldrich. Another two lost in the general election: Richard Littlefield and Dawn Johnson. Johnson co-sponsored a bill that would’ve given the delegation control of Gunstock’s budget, House Bill 1078.  

But some of the candidates the PAC opposed remain in power. Peter Varney, Barbara Comptois, and Paul Terry were all reelected in Belknap District 17 by a wide margin. Terry was another co-sponsor of HB 1078. And Bordes said it was somewhat surprising to see both Terry and Comptois gain reelection after their role approving budget cuts to the nursing home and sheriff’s department.

Republican Tom Ploszaj also won reelection to represent Center Harbor and New Hampton, in spite of the PAC’s opposition. The PAC points to Ploszaj’s involvement with the Free Town Project in Grafton, where libertarian-minded individuals set out to take over a small New Hampshire town and gut public spending. Ploszaj denies any involvement with the group. The Free Town Project preceded the Free State Project, which had a similar goal at the state level, with members committing to move to New Hampshire and run for office.​​

But those at the PAC say what’s important is that the balance of power has shifted away from those with the most extreme agendas, including those who backed Syliva, the former delegation chair.

“Those who supported deposed candidates Michael Sylvia and Norm Silber are the minority of the Belknap County delegation, which is a huge win for voters who support more moderate legislators,” said Brian Beihl in an email, an organizer with the PAC. In total, 11 PAC-endorsed candidates won their races, while seven seats went to candidates the PAC opposed.

The voters who sent 18 Republicans to the State House in 2020 elected three Democratic representatives in 2022: David Huot and Charlie St. Clair to represent Laconia (both had served in 2018), and newcomer Matt Coker to represent Meredith.

Incumbent Republican Reps. Travis O’Hara, Juliet Harvey-Bolia, Harry Bean, and Douglas Trottier are also returning. Republican Russ Dumais won election; he served as a state representative in 2014 and was on the Gunstock Area Commission before it became adversarial toward the mountain’s management. 

Newcomers include Republican David Nagel, a physician who touted his support for Gunstock on his campaign website, and Republican Nikki McCarter, a self-described constitutional conservative. 

Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, is among the representatives who will not return to the delegation. Instead, Lang launched a successful bid for state Senate, after serving as a state representative since 2016. He took over a leadership role in the delegation after Sylvia stepped down – ushering in the first raises for certain county employees in three years. He’s earned a reputation as a moderate Republican, willing to cross party lines.

“I’m encouraged by the direction the delegation is going to be taking,” Lang said. “I think we’ll see no drama.”

“Statewide I think people are fed up with the extreme on both sides,” he said. He didn’t provide any specific examples of “extreme left” candidates who were unseated. “I think what the voters want is a steady and calm hand holding the tiller and moving the state forward.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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