Nashua Democrat Pignatelli not running for re-election to NH executive council

CONCORD – Nashua Democrat Debora Pignatelli, who has served in the statehouse for 24 years in three different roles, announced May 5 she will not seek a fifth term on the state Executive Council.

“Because of a short-term health issue that I am facing, I can’t really campaign the way this large district requires,” Pignatelli, 66, said in a statement. “The time has arrived for me to take a break from my work in Concord.”

Pignatelli’s decision creates a wide open race for both parties to seize the seat for the Fifth Council District, which spreads from Hudson to Swanzey near the Vermont border, and take control of the Executive Council.

Former Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, who split two decisions with Pignatelli over the past decade, said he’s in and determined to get the council to act as a check on additional spending after two Wall Street rating agencies sent out warnings over the past two weeks.

“We spend nearly every single dollar at the council table, and it’s been clear to me there has been no attempt by this governor and this council to hold the line,” Wheeler said.

Before Pignatelli’s decision, Wheeler said he’d been raising money and speaking at GOP gatherings.

“I was 95 percent sure I would run if she did. I’m sorry to hear about her health issues. I can empathize; I’ve got a bad knee,” Wheeler said.

Nashua Republican Brian Law had reportedly considered running against Pignatelli after his Law Warehouse lost out on a 20-year liquor warehouse contract to Exel Logistics, of Westerville, Ohio.

Pignatelli advocated for the local business that had to lay off 80 employees once it lost the contract. Law Warehouse has sued the state, contending the liquor agency was biased against it and favored Exel, a wholly owned subsidiary of international delivery giant DHL Express.

Former House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Stepanek, of Amherst, had already declared he would seek the GOP nod.

A second Republican was also in the mix, Steve Hattmer, owner of Nashua Anesthesia Partners who serves as chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology and Preoperative Medicine at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua. Over the last decade, he has contributed more than $25,000 to New Hampshire federal candidates.

Hattmer, a Hollis area resident, is a close ally of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Wheeler said he’d met with Stepanek and Hattmer recently and said it wouldn’t affect his decision.

“They are both good men, but I’ve got a proven track record and experience with getting things done. This is what primaries are for,” Wheeler said.

A variety of Democratic legislators and perhaps city officials could consider running now that they no longer have to face Pignatelli, a veteran Democratic activist seen as nearly unbeatable in a party primary.

“I’ve spoken to a few Democrats about it recently, some who hold elective office, some who have expressed an interest to serve in the past,” Pignatelli said, declining to say who those people are.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a one-term Democrat, was joined by both major party leaders praising Pignatelli’s longevity and devotion to the state.

“Through a nearly 30-year career as a state representative, a state senator and, most recently, an executive councilor, Deb Pignatelli has been a strong and thoughtful voice in Concord for her constituents,” Hassan said in a statement. “It has been an honor to work with her at the council table, and I thank her for her dedication to serving the Granite State, as well as her friendship. The people of New Hampshire will miss her leadership and advocacy.”

GOP state Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, of Nashua, said Pignatelli’s departure improves the Republican Party’s chances of taking the seat. Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the council.

“While we didn’t agree with Councilor Pignatelli on every issue, we thank her for her years of service to the state of New Hampshire. We wish her the best of luck in the future and a speedy recovery from the short-term health issue that she is facing,” Horn said. “Republicans now have an excellent chance to pick up the District 5 seat and take back the majority on the Executive Council. We are confident that our party will nominate a fiscally responsible candidate who will win in November.”

Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley disagreed, saying Pignatelli’s legacy will pave the way for a Democrat to replace her.

“The impressive body of work Councilor Pignatelli leaves behind will serve as the foundation for the new Democratic councilor that will follow in her footsteps in November,” Buckley said.

In 2012, Pignatelli avenged her own defeat by taking back the council seat from Wheeler. This came despite Wheeler helping to redistrict the voting area to be more GOP-friendly by taking Keene out and adding Hillsborough, Deering and Weare to the territory.

Pignatelli served 10 years in the state Senate and six years in the House of Representatives before first joining the council a decade ago.

The hallmark of Pignatelli’s service on the state’s quasi-board of directors was her fierce opposition to no-bid contracts and desire to make the council’s business more transparent and accessible to the public.

“I have always encouraged an open and civil political process that produces fair decisions, small and large,” Pignatelli said. “Often, that is more important than the passage of a specific piece of legislation or the casting of a specific vote, and I am most proud of that effort.”

As accomplishments, Pignatelli cited her work on restoring commuter rail service from Boston through Nashua and on to Concord that’s now under study, fighting for toll relief for Merrimack, preventing a new tollbooth on F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua and bringing a new welcome center off Exit 6 in Nashua.

The council approves all contracts more than $10,000, hundreds of political appointees and thousands of nominees to boards and commissions.

Pignatelli cited her support for Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis and Attorney General Joseph Foster, both Nashua residents.

“Our state government is in very good hands with our able Governor Maggie Hassan. It has been my privilege to work with her and five other governors,” Pignatelli said.

“I thank everyone who has supported me as a state representative, state senator and executive councilor over 25 years. It has been a great honor to serve.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).