State Senator Jeff Woodburn of Dalton has a little more at stake this election than most of his State House colleagues. If he wins re-election, and his fellow Democrats manage to secure a majority in the Senate, Woodburn is poised to become Senate President, the second-highest ranking official in state government.
But first Woodburn must win re-election to his seat representing the North Country, where he faces an opponent running on a single, very local issue: the Northern Pass energy project.
Ask state Senate candidate Dolly McPhaul what issues are on voters’ minds, and you’ll likely get this answer: Northern Pass.
In ffac, it’s why the Sugar Hill Republican decided to run for state office in the first place.
Northern Pass, a proposed 192-mile transmission line, would bring 1,000 megawatts of hydropower to the New England grid. Much of that would run from Canada through northern New Hampshire, and that’s earned it criticism from activists like McPhaul.
She says the entire project, which would cut through the heart of her Senate district, should be buried and run on state owned, not private property.
“You know, I’ve watched them try to get legislation to require these lines to be buried along state owned rights of way, and they can’t even get it as a recommendation passed," McPhaul said. "I mean, there’s no doubt about it, I would fight for that.”
But before she can take on Northern Pass, McPhaul has to defeat the current District One Senator: Jeff Woodburn, who’s held the seat since 2012. Woodburn’s also the Democratic leader in the Senate and he won with 60 percent of the vote in each of his previous elections.
Woodburn would also prefer Northern Pass to bury all its lines. He also wants to ensure the project would help to boost the local economy.
“What I want is clear tangible benefits. If this thing is going to come through we need to make sure that we get compensated and use this money to produce a better economy," Woodburn said.
McPhaul says Woodburn has been too quiet on the issue. She also points out that he’s accepted campaign contributions from pro-Northern Pass labor unions.
But six years since this project was first proposed, does it still weigh heavily on voters’ minds?
Anti-Northern Pass signs still line roads in District One, with slogans like "Stop Northern Pass" and "N.H. is not for sale.”
As McPhaul knocked on some doors on a recent rainy afternoon, she heard similar sentiments. When she reached Ed Bagley’s house in Littleton, it didn’t take long for Northern Pass to find its way into the conversation.
“If they are going to bury it, that’s something else, but I’m an old fart. I’ve been up here for years, and I don’t like to see all that stuff around here," the 81-year-old Republican said.
Bagley said the power lines would be an eyesore and might result in higher property taxes.
Across town, at a café on Littleton’s main street, 23-year-old Emily Johansson was fine-tuning her resume. She’s also opposed to Northern Pass. She says people in Concord don’t understand why North Country residents are so worked up about the issue.
"We have a lot more forested areas up here that would be greatly impacted by that and I think that it needs attention especially, if you want to represent the state as a whole,” Johansson said.
Carrie Gendreau is President of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce. She says because the North Country relies so heavily on environmental tourism, Northern Pass has been a constant debate.
“It’s a concern that the towers could potentially take away from the scenic beauty, and for Southern New Hampshire it may not be as much as an issue but it certainly is up this way and I think that’s why the conversation is still in process,” Gendreau said.
Woodburn doesn’t bring up Northern Pass much on the campaign trail. He says voters are more concerned about the opioid crisis and the region’s lagging economy.
“It’s constantly holding onto what we do have and trying to move the ball forward to get more progress, more attention, more resources brought back to the North Country and that’s what I’m focused on doing,” Woodburn said.
McPhaul says she’s also interested in things besides Northern Pass.
“We own a small business so I am very concerned about regulation and fostering a climate that will be attractive to new businesses," she said. "I'm also on the advisory board for children youth and families in Concord so the opioid crisis is close to my heart.”
No matter the candidates’ stances on Northern Pass and the outcome on Election Day, the project’s future is largely out of the legislature’s hands. Eversource is currently working through the permitting process and final approval will come down to the state’s Site Evaluation Committee.