Wheeler recapturing seat

At press time Tuesday night former Executive Councilor David Wheeler was well on his way to defeating Nashua Alderman-At-Large Diane Sheehan in the race for an open seat on the state Executive Council on Tuesday.

With 73 percent of the precincts reporting, Wheeler was ahead 44,618 to 36,915.

Sheehan, a Democrat whose Facebook page shows the slogan “On Track for NH’s Future” made commuter rail a basis of her campaign, was making her first try for statewide office.

Wheeler was a District 5 councilman from 2000 to 2004 and 2010 to 2012 and in the September Republican primary he overwhelmingly defeated Steve Hattamer of Hollis.

Sheehan defeated Jennifer Daler, of Temple, in the Democratic primary.

When he was on the council in 2012 Wheeler cast the deciding vote in the council’s decision to not accept a $3.7 million state and federal grant to explore the feasibility of a rail line, to Nashua, Manchester or Concord, a big issue for Sheehan and the other Nashua aldermen.

Sheehan also accused Wheeler of being inaccessible and driven by a conservative ideology with a bias against public transportation. The rail extension would cost far less than he maintains, she said, and it could be essential for the economic future of southern New Hampshire.

Wheeler said he likes the idea of commuter rail, but there aren’t enough potential riders yet and the state can’t afford it. A rail line to Nashua, he said, would hurt the public transportation that already exists: the Boston Express bus service.

If there were a rail line between Nashua and Boston, he said in an interview, there would not be enough ridership to keep the bus’ finances in the black, and state money would be better spent on local transportation projects.

Sheehan pointed to her business background and experience on the Nashua Regional Planning Commission and said Wheeler’s conservative stance also prompted him to reject a $900,000 federal contract to have Planned Parenthood provide health-care services to low-income women and families across the state.

The District 5 seat has been held by Debora Pignatelli, who is stepping down. The Nashua Democrat cited a short-term health issue when she announced her decision in May.

With the election of Wheeler the council will have a 3-2 Republican majority. Voters returned the other four incumbent councilors, two Democrats and two Republicans, to their seats.

The council has authority over affairs of the state, approving expenditures of state and federal funds, voting on state contracts worth more than $25,000 and approving spending of most of the funds the Legislature approves each year. It also makes certain key state appointments, including agency commissioners and approves the appointment of judges and oversees the state’s 10-year highway plan.

Along with nine Nashua wards, 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@cabinet.com.