GOFFSTOWN — The two Democratic candidates for governor — ex-state Sen. Molly Kelly of Harrisville and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand — embraced liberal themes on gun control, immigration, aid to education and raising state taxes to meet New Hampshire’s needs Tuesday night during their only televised debate.
Kelly and Marchand took occasional jabs at their own past views and public statements but kept their most negative reviews for one-term Gov. Chris Sununu, a Newfields Republican.
“I ask you to ask yourself who best represents the party that you want us to be and who will best take the fight to Chris Sununu in November,” Marchand said.
Marchand mocked Sununu for spending too much of his two-year term freeing bears, drag racing school buses, fighting with school board members over when to start school every fall and lecturing those working in meat departments of supermarkets about how to seal their cold-cut bags.
“It is frivolity at a time when we need seriousness,” Marchand said.
Kelly criticized Sununu for how he handled a task force on school safety.
“I was disappointed when our governor put together a task force and did not have that task force talk about guns ... that is unacceptable,” Kelly said.
Both candidates faced sharp questions from panelists about their past views or associations.
As a state senator, Kelly had not ruled out voting for a state or income tax, but in this campaign has pledged to oppose one. She insisted that she is a candidate with “values that have not wavered.”
“I have made it very clear in this race as governor, this is my first statewide race and I do not support a sales or income tax,” Kelly said.
Later she clarified that as a governor you represent “the entire state, and as senator you do not.”
Marchand defended his past work for No Labels, a centrist group that had presented candidate Donald Trump with an award as a “problem solver.”
When Marchand heard Trump was to be honored, he quit the organization because Trump and other GOP hopefuls weren’t bipartisan figures.
“I did not get paid at the end because Donald Trump does not represent anything remotely non-partisan,” Marchand said.
After the debate, Kelly said it summed up the difference between them.
“I’ve been a progressive my entire career; he was representing a centrist group that gave an award to Trump,” Kelly said.
As a candidate for governor in 2016, Marchand said he opposed broad-based taxes but in this race he has not taken the veto pledge.
Marchand said this could give cities and towns freedom to pursue their own income taxes.
“Not only do we begin to change the culture, it allows me to get communities to use income as a way to raise revenue as 20 states now do,” Marchand said.
The two parted company over whether lawmakers after the November election should replace Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
“I do feel like after four decades of work and a lot of good work protecting our national primary, it would be a good time to modernize both in our election process and in business with a new secretary of state,” Marchand said.
Kelly said lawmakers will make that decision and she trusts their judgment.
Both vowed to find more money to prevent child abuse, but Marchand said as a state senator in 2011 Kelly let the public down.
“Fair or not, when Molly was in the state Senate she was part of a vote that cut voluntary services by a third as one of those budget-cutting moves,” Marchand said.
Kelly said those cuts were made in the midst of the state’s worst recession and have since been undone.
“There was no one who stood up and fought for children like I did,” said Kelly.
Democrats are hoping this November to get back onto familiar winning ways when it comes to New Hampshire’s corner office.
Sununu, the son of a former governor and younger brother of a former U.S. senator, broke the Democrats’ winning streak of six in a row and eight of the last nine elections, narrowly defeating fellow Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, a Concord Democrat, in 2016.
Since then, Sununu got a balanced two-year state budget, another round of business tax cuts, full-day kindergarten and a five-year expansion of Medicaid from the Republican-led Legislature in his first term.
In this race, Kelly and Marchand both accuse Sununu of too often shooting from the hip, sucking up to the Trump administration and embracing an energy policy that’s more friendly to his major utility campaign contributors.
Marchand, 44, never stopped running after finishing a distant second to Van Ostern in the 2016 primary. A Manchester native, Marchand has hosted more than 300 town meetings and tended to the care and feeding of a good-sized political organization.
Kelly, 68, got into this race late but as a former four-term state senator she attracted plenty of support from party leaders. U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both D-NH, have both endorsed her along with Rep. Annie Kuster, D-NH, the state’s two biggest teacher unions along with Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, the nation’s two most powerful groups supporting pro-abortion rights candidates seeking higher office.
Kelly has raised more than twice as much money as Marchand and that’s allowed her to dominate the airwaves with TV ads, compared to Marchand’s presence.
With three weeks before Tuesday’s election, Kelly had nearly nine times as much money in the bank as Marchand did.
Marchand has mocked her refusal to take a firm stand for or against the Granite Bridge natural gas pipeline that would run from Seabrook to Manchester along the Route 101 corridor. Marchand opposes it.
The panel asking the questions Tuesday were Dave Solomon with the Union Leader, WMUR political reporter John DiStaso and New Hampshire Public Radio political reporter Josh Rogers.
The New Hampshire Union Leader and WMUR are jointly sponsoring this week’s Granite State Debate series. Tonight, all 11 Democrats seeking the 1st Congressional District nomination have been invited to debate, followed by the five on the ballot in the 1st CD Republican primary on Thursday and the seven GOP hopefuls in the 2nd District on Friday night.
All one-hour debates begin airing on WMUR at 7 p.m.