Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig is running for re-election next month. Her challenger, former Republican state representative Victoria Sullivan, says Mayor Craig has failed to tackle concerns about homelessness, crime and quality of life. While the two candidates disagree over the nature of the challenges facing the city, public safety is on the minds of many voters this campaign season.
Tim Baines runs the Mint Bistro on Elm Street, one of a handful of spots seen as a sign of the city’s potential. Gesturing out the windows from his restaurant, Baines said the entertainment and dining scene in Manchester is growing, but so are the city’s challenges.
“More days than not you might witness an overdose when you’re dining outside,” he said.
Manchester has struggled for years with the opioid crisis and it’s recently seen a major increase in homelessness. People are living in the parks and streets; some are openly using drugs and asking passerbys for money. Baines said the city is changing.
“The concerns are real, the property crimes are real, the break-ins, the uncomfortable nature that a lot of people feel when asked for money,” he said.
In addition to running the bistro, Baines serves as a city alderman, where he’s criticized Craig and his colleagues for being too slow to address public safety concerns downtown. And these concerns are now front and center in the mayoral campaign.
Watch: Sullivan and Craig both focus on public safety in campaign videos
Craig says she is working closely with the police, including approving money to hire fifteen more officers. But she says homelessness is a separate issue that’s far more complicated to solve.
“We have seen a number of people coming into Manchester who are looking for services not from our city and that’s been a challenge for law enforcement,” she said, referring in part to the people coming to Manchester’s safe stations for addiction services. “The ultimate goal is to get people off the street, get them the help they need, and allow them to be productive citizens.”
Craig said her administration is working with the state to expand affordable housing and deal with the influx of new residents struggling with homlessness and addiction. The city just hired a Homeless Prevention and Response Coordinator to coordinate much of this work.
Craig said Manchester has to balance these efforts with other city priorities like education and economic development.
Does Manchester have a crime problem? It depends whom you ask.
Down the street from City Hall at Sullivan’s campaign office, the top priority is clear.
“I got into this race because the city had turned in a detrimental direction so quickly that I was concerned about the safety of my family,” she explained.
Sullivan said Craig has failed on crime.
“Little crimes are going down,” she said. “Homicides are up 150 percent. And I’d rather someone stole my purse than attacked my person. Opioid deaths are up 30 percent.”
These numbers are technically correct, though the number of murders in Manchester is still low: two in 2017 and five in 2018.
And while preliminary police data shows overall crime this year is decreasing, Sullivan doesn’t buy it.
“When I’ve spoken to people, some of those little crimes aren’t being reported because people have given up,” she said. “They feel like ‘Someone broke into my car. Nothing’s going to happen. I’m not going to report it.’ ”
Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano defended the city’s numbers.
“There’s that narrative out there that, 'Manchester’s so dangerous, you can’t go downtown, you can’t do this or that.' I would disagree with that. I think our numbers show that we’re not a dangerous city, although we do have city problems,” Capano said.
The FBI breaks these city problems into two categories: violent crimes and property crimes.
According to 2018 FBI data, violent crimes in Manchester occur at a slightly higher rate than typically found in similar-sized cities. Property crimes occur at a lower rate.
Flipping through a stack of crime statistics, Capano pulled out a chart of preliminary data from 2019. There’s a slight uptick in aggravated assaults this year. Capano said about half of those assaults are domestic violence incidents.
Quality of life and voter perception
Like Craig, Capano said the challenges being discussed this election are quality of life issues that neither the police nor the mayor can solve by being tough on crime.
“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” he said. “And people need to understand and recognize that. It’s not a crime for someone to be sitting in a park that may not look the way that some want them to look.”
It's also not illegal to panhandle, as long that person is not blocking traffic or doorways. And Capano says when people do violate city ordinances and receive tickets, those fines often go unpaid.
In her campaign, Sullivan is calling for tougher city ordinances. But in general, Sullivan says the best way to help people is less government, not more.
“We need to let the government step back and let the faith based orgs and non-profits step in and do the work they know how to do,” she said. “Government is terrible at solving these problems.”
The candidates disagree on what the problems are, but it’s hard to avoid conversations about public safety on the campaign trail. Both campaigns say they’ve knocked around 30,000 doors, helped in part by campaign staff from the presidential campaign.
Standing beside a yard of Halloween decorations and a Craig sign, Mark Brown says it’s unfair to blame Mayor Craig for all of Manchester’s problems.
“It’s not one person’s fault because crime’s high or low,” he said. “Everyone does a great job. For only being in office one term she’s doing great. But nothing changes overnight.”
But some of Sullivan’s supporters say something did change, for the worse.
Noel Negroni lives in a house in Manchester's North End flanked by signs for Sullivan and a few municipal Democratic candidates, with an NRA sticker on the front door.
Negroni used to run a business downtown.
He says a few years ago, Manchester had fewer panhandlers and people living on the street.
“After Joyce Craig got elected they just flooded downtown," he said. "I mean, I don’t know the facts. I’m just telling you what I saw, and what I saw was a change.”
It's murky territory: the facts versus what someone feels about crime and homelessness. And it's ripe for politics.
Local history proves as much. Campaigning on public safety worked 15 years ago, when upstart Republican challenger Frank Guinta unseated Manchester’s last Democratic mayor, Bob Baines, in 2005. Now Baine’s son, Mint Bistro owner Tim Baines, sees similar tactics in play.
“I think there are parallels,” he said. “I think the opponent that my father had, and the opponent here to Mayor Craig are kind of hitting on the same drum of ‘Manchester is not safe.’ Whether it proves to be successful again or not, we’ll find out.”
Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify a reference to the city's ordinance on panhandling.