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Special election puts focus on Nashua House district that's been under-represented in Concord all year long

Marc Plamondon and Matt Wilhelm.jpg
Josh Rogers
/
NHPR
Marc Plamondon, a former Nashua alderman running in Ward 4, and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm campaigned in Nashua Satuday, May 13, 2023.

As former Nashua Alderman Marc Plamondon, sees it, the only thing standing in the way of him representing his city in the Legislature, is if the Democratic voters who predominate in Ward 4 don’t show up at Tuesday’s special election.

“It’s just a matter of getting the Democrats out to vote, and if the Democrats go, this will be a shoe-in and then I just get sworn in,” Plamondon said Saturday.

That sounds straightforward. But when it comes to Nashua’s Ward 4 and the New Hampshire House, not much is straightforward these days.

The outcome of this week’s special election, in the heavily Democratic Ward 4, is likely to give Democrats another representative in the narrowly divided House, cutting Republicans’ advantage to just three seats. But this Nashua neighborhood will remain underrepresented in Concord as the Legislature heads into key session-ending voters — and for the foreseeable future.

And it continues a string of political controversies that have arisen in Ward 4 in recent years.

There were the criminal stalking charges facing Stacie Laughton, the Ward 4 Democratic lawmaker who resigned earlier this year, and whose seat will finally be filled by the winner of Tuesday’s election.

And there remain the circumstances involving another Democrat elected in Ward 4 last fall: veteran lawmaker David Cote. Cote has represented Nashua in the House since the 1980s. He has chaired House policy committees, and briefly served as Democratic leader. But chronic health conditions that put him at heightened medical risk due to COVID-19 have kept Cote homebound since the start of the pandemic.

David Cote participating in a press conference by Zoom in 2022
David Cote participating in a press conference by Zoom in 2022

In early 2021, Cote joined a federal lawsuit targeting Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard. Democrats sought the right to participate in House sessions remotely, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act. After more than two years of mixed rulings, and with the COVID-19 public health emergency officially over, that lawsuit remains unresolved.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have blocked pushes by Democrats to allow remote participation, a practice GOP-leaders in the state Senate have allowed.

“I ran for office so I could come here and be the physical representation of my district,” Deputy House Speaker Steven Smith said during a January floor debate on that policy, which failed along mostly party lines. “And yet, challenges happen. Children get sick, you get sick, but you do the best you can.”

The requirement that House lawmakers vote and participate in committee work in person means Cote amounts to a legislator in spirit only. Since he can’t travel to the State House, he wasn’t even sworn into his seat this session — leaving Democrats with one less vote in the most tightly divided House in generations. Democrats in Concord and Nashua will tell you they're doing their best, given the circumstances. But some acknowledge their circumstances are trying.

“There are a lot of neighborhoods in Ward 4 that have really specific and diverse needs, and we need more representation at the state,” said Ward 4 Alderman Thomas Lopez.

He faults Republicans for not accommodating Cote’s health issues, but Lopez says ultimately, the needs of the community need to come first.

“I had a conversation with Representative Cote, urging him, if he was going to run, to be sure that he could do it, because we had time to recruit other people,” Lopez said. “There are a lot of people in Ward 4 that would pitch in, but out of respect for his position, his seniority, I think a couple of people stood back who would have been able to be representing us all this time.”

Cote, who responded to interview requests for this story only by email, stressed Covid continues to put his life at “extreme risk.” He also said with his legal case pending, he sees himself as taking a stand for people with disabilities, “who should have the same rights to participate in democracy as anyone else.”

For House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, whose caucus is now heading into the season when every vote may count the most — on the budget, and on issues like Medicaid expansion and parental rights — now is the time to muster as many bodies in Concord as possible.

“Look, we are at where we are at: We are fighting for every vote that we can through these special elections,” Wilhelm said Saturday, after sending off a wave of Democratic canvassers to work Ward 4 on Plamondon’s behalf.

About 100 yards over Wilhelm’s shoulder stood David Cote’s house. It was quiet, and the grass was overgrown. It almost looked vacant, but it did have a fresh Marc Plamondon campaign sign in the yard.

Corrected: May 15, 2023 at 3:40 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Marc Plamondon's name. It has been updated to correct that error.
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