ROCHESTER, NH — Residents were intrigued, but not exactly shocked, when a race for the state House of Representatives in small-town Rochester ended in a stalemate last month: 970 votes cast for the incumbent Democrat, 970 for the Republican challenger.
In the purplish state of New Hampshire, where Rochester sits between the liberal South Coast and the more conservative Lake District at its center, the connection only confirmed what people already knew: their city of 30,000 , like their country, is politically divided. And like many Americans, they’re trying to navigate the divide with a cautious approach: keeping their views to themselves and trying to get along.
Last week, state lawmakers voted to send the tie race in Rochester’s Ward 4, where there are about 3,000 voters, back to the city for a special election, scheduled to be held in February. Both candidates said they were determined to win, although they dreaded the challenge – familiar to many hopeful presidential candidates – of inspiring voter turnout in the icy and muddy midst of a New Hampshire’s long winter.
“It’s going to be hard work,” said David Walker, the Republican, a longtime City Council member who challenged state Rep. Chuck Grassie, a three-term Democrat. “I don’t see a lot of old people going out in the cold, but you just have to knock on doors and get them.”
The two men have known each other and worked together on city business for years. Mr. Grassie said he mentored Mr. Walker during his early years on the board, helping the newcomer learn to read a budget. Mr Walker said he had previously helped Mr Grassie in an unsuccessful mayoral campaign.
They live half a mile apart on the same street of modest homes, separated by a cemetery, a ball diamond and their neighborhood polling place, a brick elementary school.
Low-key despite their unresolved rivalry, the candidates say they see no reason to become enemies now. “I dropped by his house the other day and said hi,” Mr Walker said. “He said, ‘Oh, you came to concede?’ And I said, “No”.
The soft tone of the local deadlock contrasts sharply with recent national races with split results, such as that of Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the Democrat who last week fended off a challenge from Herschel Walker, a Republican, in a runoff bitter and chaotic. . In Rochester, as in many small towns and villages, politics tends to be hands-on, with the drama remaining in town hall.
David Walker, 59, who recently retired from a career as an engineering supervisor, describes himself as “conservative but not hardcore”. He said voters he spoke to during the campaign were most concerned about inflation, the economy and heating costs this winter, and he wants to rein in what he called reckless spending by Democrats.
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Mr. Grassie, 70, an energetic 18-year-old grandfather who worked as a stockbroker, city planner and special education teacher, was one of the leaders of the New Hampshire House Progressive Caucus and a supporter of causes such as coastal protection, tax relief for elderly residents and the decriminalization of marijuana.
While the tie race conjures up visions of a city crippled by frequent and heated disagreements, the day-to-day reality is much calmer, residents said, some of whom are struggling to contain boiling tensions.
“We have a no-politics rule,” reported Richard Brunelle, store manager of Jetpack Comics in downtown Rochester. “We don’t even play that game here.”
The rule became necessary in 2020, he said, in the run-up to the last presidential election, when the national contest increased friction among locals. Former President Donald J. Trump lost New Hampshire to President Biden in the election, 45% to 53%, but the result was much closer in Rochester. Mr. Trump prevailed in the city by the slimmest of margins, beating Mr. Biden by 235 out of more than 16,000 votes.
Voter turnout topped 65% in Rochester in last month’s election, which included the race for the State House in Ward 4, a resounding display of commitment, and patriotism is a visible thread running through the city. Residents can get their hair cut at the Allegiance Barber Shop or the Freedom Beauty Salon, where American flags fly in front. But while Mr. Trump remains a topic of periodic debate, local politics seem to elicit less interest. Half a dozen residents interviewed downtown said they knew about equality but knew little about the candidates or their positions.
Mark Marchionni, owner of Revolution Taproom and Grill, sees this as a problem.
“The less people focus on national issues and the more they focus on local issues, the more they will find they have in common,” he said.
Mr Marchionni and his wife, Stacey, initially envisioned the eight-year-old business as “a modern version of a colonial tavern” – where, historically, people shared news and discussed politics while drinking beer. But fulfilling this mission has become more difficult.
“We see division in our guests, especially after a few drinks,” Ms. Marchionni said as she wrapped a red ribbon around a Christmas tree in the dining room. “I think a lot of people are avoiding talking about politics more than they used to, and I think that’s unfortunate.”
Passionate about history with his own vision of America, Mr. Marchionni sometimes finds it difficult to resist such talk. “Once in a while I have to shut him up and remind him, ‘We own a business – we’re in the middle of the road,'” his wife said.
New Hampshire has the largest House of Representatives in the country, with 400 members, each representing approximately 3,000 residents. That means his state-level politics are more local than most. In Rochester, many voters know the candidates personally, relationships that can make their decisions less party-oriented and less predictable.
When one of his council races ended in a tie in the 1980s, Mr Grassie said, the deadlock was settled with a genius coin toss, after each candidate chose a sealed envelope containing a piece of paper that said either “face” or “face”. .” Although his opponent was allowed to provide his “lucky coin” for the draw, Mr Grassie emerged victorious, he said.
Stranger solutions have been tried. At least once in state history, Mr. Walker and Mr. Grassie said, two candidates in a tied race have been allowed to share a seat in the legislature, taking turns attending sessions.
The newly elected legislature could have done more quickly without the current tie last week by voting to determine a winner. With Republicans holding a slim majority, 201 to 198, Democrats feared such a move and urged the body to resist a power grab and respect the will of voters.
Ultimately, the representatives who gathered in the 200-year-old chamber, under the portraits of Aboriginal sons Franklin Pierce and Daniel Webster, returned the decision to the city. Watching the live vote from home, his legislative email address disabled while awaiting the final outcome of the race, Mr Grassie chafed at being sidelined. “I should be there, meeting new members, getting things done,” he lamented.
As the candidates mustered the strength to relaunch their campaigns (“I’m tired,” each confessed in separate interviews last week), high school social studies teacher Stacy Horne was planning a lesson on the tie race . Ms Horne teaches a required course for juniors and seniors at Spaulding High School in Rochester, “Civics in NH and the Nation: Growing Up Granite”, and in the tied result she saw a chance to bring home a crucial point.
“When we talk about turnout and why people don’t vote, someone usually says, ‘People feel like their vote doesn’t count,'” she said. “It’s a perfect transition into the tie – you look at Quarter 4 and see it all depends on who shows up that day.”