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Domestic violence arrest of Woodburn muddles Democrat hopes for Senate majority

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 05. 2018 9:34AM


CONCORD - The stunning arrest last week of Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn on nine domestic violence-related charges against his "intimate partner" provides a daunting hurdle in his party's quest to gain a majority in the state Senate in this November's midterm elections.

The party will now face a challenge to retain the three-term incumbent's seat - previously considered a slam-dunk - and then flip two other seats from Republican to Democratic to get a majority of the 24-member body.

Meanwhile, unlike in many elections, all 14 Senate Republican incumbents are running again this fall.

"Obviously it's a problem; we've got to face that," said state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, the longest-serving member of the upper chamber. "I think in terms of retaking the Senate, I do think it hurts us."

What's far less certain is if the politically ambitious, 53-year-old single father of five can retain his North Country seat, even if he's able to resist the serial call of leaders in both political parties for him to resign.

"Where Jeff comes from there is a very different mindset. People are much more likely to stick with someone they feel has been fighting for them," said former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, a State House lobbyist.

"Up there, times are tough and families frequently get into arguments that sometimes go over the edge."

Woodburn faces an Aug. 20 arraignment on the simple assault, domestic violence, criminal mischief and criminal trespass misdemeanors that Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald's office has brought regarding conduct that spanned from August 2017 through June.

According to the domestic violence charges, Woodburn twice bit a female adult, once on the hand on Dec. 15, 2017, and then again on her right forearm resulting in bruising this past June.

Woodburn is also accused of striking the victim in the face on one occasion, in the stomach with his hand and kicking in the locked door to the victim's home, according to the criminal complaints that were released Friday.

Gov. Chris Sununu, the chairmen of both major political parties, the entire congressional delegation and all but one of Woodburn's Democratic colleagues said he should resign.

"This morally reprehensible, violent behavior has no place in public service, or anywhere else," Sununu said. "Domestic violence will not be tolerated in New Hampshire. Senator Woodburn must resign. Immediately."

Woodburn made no mention of resigning and said he will vigorously defend against these charges.

D'Allesandro was the only Senate Democrat who refused to sign the statement of his peers that Woodburn had to go.

"We have a process; we believe in the process and let it take place, and it will be what it will be. When you hear the charges, that's not a good thing," D'Allesandro said.

"Jeff's got to go back to his family and work with it."

On the ballot

Even if Woodburn had heeded the call and quit, it wouldn't change the choice voters have this fall unless Woodburn's circumstances changed dramatically, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said.

"He would have to become disqualified to hold the office. If he were to move and register to vote in a place in a state that was not within the Senate District then he would be disqualified," Gardner said.

The only other way for him to come off the ballot is if he had some incapacitating illness, Gardner said.

As long as Woodburn defeated any write-in attempt to unseat him, he would be the Democratic nominee after the Sept. 11 primary.

Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity, said Woodburn's able criminal defense lawyers should be able to keep this case in court through the general election.

"The likelihood of there being an outcome before Nov. 6 is probably pretty low," Moore said.

"This is a defining moment for Attorney General Gordon MacDonald. The message clearly is that the old boys' network in Concord is really over. There's a new sheriff in town," he said.

If Woodburn is the Democratic nominee, he would face Republican David J. Starr of Franconia, a retired BAE Systems engineer whom the party recruited after nobody filed to run against Woodburn.

"I don't even know his name," Gardner confessed. "This was not a seat anyone was paying any attention to until this week."

According to candidate surveys, Starr says he favors legalizing marijuana, some abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the death penalty, but is against casinos and broad-based taxes.

Dante Scala, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the stampede of leading Democrats against Woodburn was more about party leaders holding onto a base they need for a big Blue Wave in 2018 - women voters.

"Female voters are always essential to a strong Democratic voting (turnout), but if Woodburn became a running MeToo story, that would undercut the message that Democrats are trying to get out to them," Scala said.

As for the North Country's reaction, there was a similar political attack back in 2006 when then-Gov. John Lynch and the congressional delegation all said longtime Executive Councilor Raymond Burton had to quit because campaign aide Mark Seidensticker was found to be a convicted sex offender who had just been arrested for trying to buy alcohol for two teenage boys.

Burton apologized, won reelection and held his seat until he died while in office in November 2013.

"They all were against Ray and he proved them all wrong, and the people made a choice to send him back because he was a favorite and a terrific human being," said D'Allesandro, who has taught and coached at Kennett High School in North Conway.


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