Wheeler, of Milford, faces Sheehan, a Nashua alderman,in Executive Council race

MILFORD – Two words are key to the race to fill the Executive Council District 5 seat: commuter rail.

On Election Day, Nov. 4, Diane Sheehan, a Nashua alderman-at-large, is challenging David Wheeler, of Milford, for the seat being vacated by Debora Pignatelli.

Wheeler voted against a rail study when he was an executive councilor in 2012, angering Nashua aldermen, and Sheehan decided to run for the seat after Pignatelli announced in May she was stepping down to deal with a short-term health issue.

Wheeler, a Republican, contends that the state can not afford commuter rail and extension of the line that now runs between Boston and Lowell, Mass. would duplicate the service provided by the Boston Express, jeopardizing the fiscal health of the bus service.

“The bus pays for itself. This is not about getting to Boston,” he said, and a rail project would cost nearly half a billion, endanger the state’s bond rating and use up federal congestion mitigation funds that are needed for local projects, like the Route 13/Emerson Road intersection in Milford.

“We really should not be spending general fund money or borrowing,” he said in a phone interview last week. “The bottom line is there is not enough ridership to keep the bus in black.”

Sheehan, a Democrat, maintains that freight and commuter rail could be vital to the future of New Hampshire, bring jobs to the state, make commuting easier and increase tourism.

The city’s consultant on a rail project reported the extension would cost far less than Wheeler maintains, she said in a phone interview, and the Executive Council’s decision, with Wheeler as the swing vote, means the state lost out on federal funds that would have helped pay for the study.

Wheeler said he agrees that rail “would be a great thing,” and the extension will come someday, but “it is fiscally irresponsible for Sheehan support it now.”

Her opponent’s vote against the rail study, Sheehan charged in a phone interview last week, is a reflection of his conservative ideology that is also apparent in his votes to defund Planned Parenthood.

In response, Wheeler said the state should not be subsidizing “the largest abortion provider in the country.”

Wheeler also said the council needs to be more transparent, and few people are aware of the $292 million welfare expansion contract it signed off on.

But Sheehan also says her opponent had not been not accessible to constituents while serving on the council.

Wheeler is 55 and has been on and off the Executive Council, serving two terms, from 2000 to 2004, and then losing to Pignatelli, and then regaining his seat for the 2010-2012 term, and then losing to Pignatelli in 2012. He has also served as a state senator.

In the September party primary election he beat political newcomer Steve Hattamer, a Nashua anesthesiologist, by a wide margin. He and his wife, Joy, have four children and two foster children and he owns his own business, Maranatha Carpet.

Sheehan, who is 47, has been elected to the Nashua Board of Alderman three times and says she plans to remain on the board if she is elected to the council. In September she beat two-term state Rep. Jennifer Daler, of Temple, for the Democratic nomination.

She has worked as a manager for telecommunications companies and she and her husband, Patrick, have two children.

The New Hampshire Executive Council and the governor are responsible for administering the affairs of the state and approve the spending of most of the money appropriated by the Legislature each year.

District 5 includes 32 communities across southern New Hampshire, including Amherst, Brookline, Hollis, Lyndeborough, Mason, Merrimack, Milford, Mont Vernon and Wilton.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@