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Q&A: Chris Pappas likes mixing politics and ice cream

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 11. 2015 8:32PM

MANCHESTER - When it's hot this summer, and you want the ice cream made in-house by the Puritan Restaurant, there's a chance that a future governor, congressman or U.S. senator will hand you that refreshment.

But, in balancing his "hands on" restaurant ownership with a political career that has him viewed as one of the state Democratic Party's rising stars, Chris Pappas said those wanting the second-term executive councilor to run for Congress or for governor may have to wait.

"Look, there's going to be plenty of time for politics ahead," the 34-year-old Pappas said in a lengthy interview at the Puritan Restaurant, which his family has owned for nearly a century.

And that future, say some of the state's political leaders, is promising for the Manchester native who graduated from Manchester High School Central and then earning a political science degree from Harvard.

"He could be a future governor, senator or congressman," said state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley. "He's not only somebody who would be a winner, but he's someone who can work across party lines."

"Councilor Pappas is a successful businessman and a highly effective advocate for the people of New Hampshire. I enjoy serving with him in the Governor and Council process and, with his impressive talent, business experience and dedication to public service, I am confident that Councilor Pappas has a bright future," Gov. Maggie Hassan said.

Pappas has run for political office each election cycle since returning home from college in 2002, winning two terms in the state House of Representatives, two terms as Hillsborough County treasurer and two terms representing the Executive Council's 4th District.

He said his love of all things political began while he was attending Central in 1996 and volunteered for current U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's first run for governor.

To this day, Shaheen remains "a political hero of mine," he said.

Shaheen returns the favor.

"I met Chris when he was in high school volunteering on my first campaign for governor. I've enjoyed watching his career develop, and I know he'll continue to do great work into the future," Shaheen said.

Pappas said he also admired former Gov. John Lynch and the late - and legendary - Republican Executive Councilor Ray Burton.

Pappas has lost just one election. It was in 2010 when Republican Bob Burns took his treasurer seat in the second of their four head-to-head elections. Pappas then went on to defeat Burns twice, in 2012 and last year, for his Executive Council seat.

"He's really one of the friendliest people you'll ever meet," Burns said of Pappas. "He's a really popular guy."

Burns calls Pappas "one of the most polished politicians" in New Hampshire, something he called "a 50 percent compliment" because besides political acumen and an acute sense of timing, it also means that, in Burns' words, Pappas "delivers platitudes" people may want to hear.

Burns said he is interested in running for the District 4 seat again, but likely wouldn't if Pappas seeks re-election. And, he said, Pappas would be a formidable opponent for anyone, including popular U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who is up for re-election next year.

"Never underestimate Chris Pappas," Burns said. "That's what I've learned over the years."

As for seeking higher office, Pappas isn't naive. He understands that people view him as a future candidate and is humbled by those who wear "Draft Chris Pappas" buttons signaling they want him to run against U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, R-N.H., next year for the state's District 1 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I wouldn't say 'courted' by the (Democratic) Party," he said of those trying to persuade him to run. "I would say (I'm) being prodded by those who are good supporters who have been excited to support me in past elections.

"It's certainly flattering. But I also know how difficult campaigns are," he said.

So those folks may have to be patient.

"I think there's a time for it. I think in the fullness of time I'll think about opportunities that may be there in the future," he said.

The Puritan is what may keep Pappas from pulling the trigger on a statewide campaign for higher office in the near future, despite the buttons some people may wear. He said his position on the Executive Council gives him "this great balance" between serving constituents and the Puritan's customers.

"I really enjoy having my feet in both worlds," he said.

Meanwhile, running for governor or U.S. Congress would mean having to give up his time at the Puritan.

"It would be tough to have to walk away from that at some point in time," Pappas said of the restaurant.

The restaurant, which today boasts seating for up to 300, about 250 employees and possibly the state's best chicken tenders, was opened in downtown Manchester as a candy store and ice cream shop in 1906. In the 1930s, the business expanded to open a hot dog stand at the Puritan's current location on Hooksett Road and expansions later included the Backroom restaurant and, most recently, a conference center.

"The place has kind of grown organically over time," said Pappas, who is the fourth generation to take co-ownership of the establishment. His father, brother-in-law and a cousin are the other owners.

Pappas said he continues to personally make some of the restaurant's ice cream - he made a batch of mocha chip just a few days ago - and still does nearly every job at the restaurant, including mopping the restrooms.

He was about to be asked if he really did more than oversight work when his father, Arthur, walked by wearing an apron.

"You would see me in an apron if I wasn't in a sweater talking to you," he said.

As he walked through the restaurant, servers and cooks joked with him like they would a fellow employee, rather than their employer.

"I love him," waitress Lyndsay Stenbeck said of her boss.

For fun, Pappas likes to run, trying every day to get in a few miles. He also enjoys traveling and playing golf. But his guilty pleasure? He's a game show nerd and once appeared on ABC's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" He said he played "a little too cautious" and walked away with $17,500 rather than risking what he'd earned to go for a bigger prize. He said he plans to try to appear on "Jeopardy!" at some point.

Pappas, who is openly gay, said he isn't sure why he isn't commonly known for his sexuality, given that he's a vocal supporter of gay rights issues - his first speech on the House floor in his first term was to advocate for marriage equality.

"I don't know and I can't put a finger on it," he said of his not being labeled as a gay candidate or office holder. "New Hampshire is a live-and-let-live state and we accept our neighbors for who they are and know that we're stronger at the community and state level when we have people with different backgrounds and different points of view."

He said he is single, but he hopes that marriage and children are in his future, perhaps along with his seat in a higher public office.

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