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For N.H. Democrats Running For Office, The Political Pull Of 'The Pledge' Remains Strong

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Since the 1970s, every candidate running for governor—or any other major office in New Hampshire—has faced the question: will they pledge to oppose a broad-based sales or income tax?

This year, some prominent Democrats say it is long past time to stop taking what is known as The Pledge. But its political pull remains strong.

To understand how the pledge continues to shape—and some might say warp—politics within the New Hampshire Democratic Party, consider this recent exchange between the party’s two gubernatorial candidates at Dartmouth College.

First up, Steve Marchand, who thinks the pledge is self-defeating.

“So when we say don’t take the pledge – look it’s going to take more than two years to get out of the hole that’s a century in getting to this place, but culturally let us begin, we need additional revenue.”

And here’s Molly Kelly, who took the pledge as soon as she set her sights on becoming governor:

“And I have been clear that I do not support a sales or an income tax and there is no one who is running for governor in this state that does support a sales or an income tax, and I understand that to be the pledge. So I just want to be clear, that I have been clear about that issue.”

Let’s parse this. 

Molly Kelly oppose sales or income taxes--and wants it known. Steve Marchand, meanwhile, opposes the pledge, and says the state needs new taxes.

But what Marchand isn’t saying, and what Kelly points out, is, he doesn’t actually favor a new broad-based tax.

“There is no one running for governor in this state that does support an income or sales tax, and I understand that to be the pledge.”

The last bit is interesting. Kelly had the chance to highlight a difference where her position is the one that’s spelled electoral success for decades, but instead she chose to blur it. And if you listen to Kelly as she campaigned earlier this summer in Littleton, she sounds almost apologetic about taking the pledge.

“I think you also have to be honest about where we are. It is part of our culture, and it is a very hard thing to change. The people of this state have been real clear they are not ready. Maybe they will someday.”

Kelly may not sound proud about her embrace of the pledge and Marchand may stop short of truly flouting it by proposing a broad-based tax. But for anyone running for governor, the logic for taking the pledge is clear: candidates who don’t do it—they don’t win.

In 2012, Jackie Cilley ran for governor on an anti-pledge platform and lost badly in the primary to pledge-taker Maggie Hassan. Cilley says it taught her an unwelcome lesson.

“I’ve learned that it was an absolute non-starter for a campaign. That you could not win in a general election by not taking the pledge in New Hampshire. And I think that’s really sad."

But 2012 was six years ago, and if you attend Democratic political events these days and talk to candidates up and down the ticket, many will tell you things may be changing.

“I think the pledge is an antique.”

Lisa Beaudoin is from Temple.  She’s running for state representative, and hopes to fight for what she calls an equitable tax structure.

“We need to explore all the ways taxes are unfair toward working people, and benefit non-residents and people who can afford to pay their fair share?

But does that mean, simply, that we ought to tax based on income?

“I would need to hear more from the experts on what would be an equitable tax structure in order to have a detailed position.”

It's a pretty smooth deflection for a candidate for state rep. And non-committal answers are what you mostly get if you press Democrats who say they oppose the pledge on the income tax - and that even goes for people whose political identities are already synonymous with it.

“The first step to solve a problem is to recognize you have a problem.”

Back in 2002, Mark Fernald was the Democrats' pick for governor. His platform centered on enacting an income tax. He lost the general election in a rout to Craig Benson. He’s running for state Senate this year.

“What I’ve said from the day I announced is for the legislature to create a non-partisan commission to study how we are taxing now and how it is unfair or how it is fair, and then look at alternatives and see if there can be improvements as to how we raise money. I have said we don’t get this fixed in 2019.”

But people who want to change New Hampshire’s tax system do think the day is coming.

Some expect the same thing that gave us the statewide property tax—a lawsuit over school funding—will force change.  

But this election is also an interesting test case. It’s the first in a generation that won’t include a Democrat whose political career was defined by their pledge-taking. No Jeanne Shaheen on the ballot. No John Lynch. No Maggie Hassan. And Democrats, like Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who believe New Hampshire needs to rethink the way it raises money, see an opportunity.

“I’m making a point in this campaign of trying to normalize the discussion of taxes. And so I’m pretty straightforward about being not beholden to the ghost of Bill Loeb and Mel Thomson, and that we should not be bound by a 1970s political slogan.”

"But if I said Councilor Volinsky, where do you stand on an income tax, what would you tell me?"

“I would tell you that we have to have broad-based understanding of how the current system is a failure.”

For Democrats of Volinsky’s mindset, one trick will be proving that an openness to broad-based taxation doesn’t spell electoral failure for anyone running for governor.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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