New Hampshire Democrats are entangled in a bizarre mud-slinging feud with one of their own candidates for Congress

"I do not know where one would purchase rats."

2015071115   Alton, NH  
Photo by Fred Field
Shawn O'Connor held up an envelope that he said contained names of more than 4,000 people asking for the resignation of Congressman Frank Guinta as he met with reporters at the Gilman Library in Alton, NH after Guinta made his first public appearance (7/11/15) since a campaign funding scandal prompted top NH Republicans to call for his resignation.  O'Connor is challenging Guinta for New Hampshire's First Congressional seat in 2016.
New Hampshire Democratic congressional candidate Shawn O'Connor, pictured here last summer. –Fred Field / The Boston Globe

Even by 2016 standards, this is a weird political fight.

A candidate in the Democratic primary for New Hampshire’s first congressional district is accusing his opponent’s campaign and the state party of engaging in a whisper campaign labeling him as a domestic abuser.

In response, the New Hampshire Democratic Party says that the candidate, businessman Shawn O’Connor, has suggested he be paid to withdraw from the race, threatening to sue the party, in a strange, simmering feud that seemingly boiled over Monday.

The evolving accusations

The accusations really first came to the public eye when O’Connor sent out an email to supporters on April 6, accusing the campaign of his primary opponent, former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, of spreading the rumor he was “a perpetrator of domestic violence.”

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Shea-Porter’s campaign manager, Naomi Andrews, dismissed the allegation, per WMUR, as “a sad, untruthful and desperate attack.”

But O’Connor maintained that the rumors contributed to him losing out on an opportunity to introduce presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in early January. In his email, O’Connor called on Shea-Porter to end her campaign.

“One must wonder if Ms. Shea-Porter would have undertaken such a strategy to brutally attack a straight female, rather than Mr. O’Connor, an LGBT male,” said the email. “It is absolutely unacceptable to knowingly lie about domestic violence to gain political advantage, and anyone who does is unfit to serve in any public position.”

Jackie Cilley, a former Shea-Porter staffer and Democratic state representative, told WMUR  at the time, “There is no doubt in my mind that Shawn O’Connor has been slimed with being the perpetrator of domestic violence.”

However, Cilley emphasized that she had no knowledge that the Shea-Porter campaign was behind the allegations. She also said that after speaking with O’Connor, she believed his account that he had been a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of domestic abuse.

A day after O’Connor’s original email, David Pierce, a Democratic state senator from Lebanon supporting O’Connor’s campaign, told NH1 that “a member of Team Shea Porter” had spread the domestic abuse rumors to him, before later admitting the evidence behind the allegations was lacking. Pierce, however, would not say who that campaign member was.

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O’Connor said he planned to sue Shea-Porter and her campaign for defamation.

The feud cooled publicly for roughly two weeks, until Monday when the NHDP released a statement saying that O’Connor had threatened to sue the party for defamation in early March and had suggested the “NHDP or some other third party” should pay him to drop out of the race.

“NHDP has refused to respond to these demands,” wrote the party’s attorney, William Christie. “Mr. O’Connor has now renewed his threat to sue NHDP.”

An unexpected turn

O’Connor shot back at the party Monday with a lengthy press release of his own. In it, he said he had previously and repeatedly written to the NHDP with a list of detailed allegations he said were being spread by the NHDP and the Shea-Porter campaign.

Among them was that another Democratic state senator, Manchester’s Donna Soucy, had told Pierce that O’Connor planned to buy rats and put them in the kitchen of the Puritan Backroom, a Manchester restaurant run by Chris Pappas, a Democratic executive councilor. Pappas had previously considered running for the first congressional seat, before announcing his support for Shea-Porter last September.

“I do not know where one would purchase rats,” O’Connor wrote, “nor do I know where the kitchen is in the Puritan Backroom.”

O’Connor also added that the restaurant has a “long-standing problem with rodent infestations,” though Manchester city health inspection records dating back to 2006 show no such evidence.

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When pressed on this allegation by New Hampshire Union Leader executive editor Trent Spiner, O’Connor referred to two citations in 2007 and 2011.

Though the citations fell under a violation category that included the discovery of insects or rodents, Spiner accessed the health records and reached out to the city health inspector Tuesday to reveal the citations were for missing weather stripping on a door, which was soon-thereafter fixed.

O’Connor also denied in his press release Monday the NHDP claim that he or his campaign had suggested they be paid to withdraw from the race and said the party’s “unprovoked attack” proved that the NHDP was favoring Shea-Porter’s candidacy.

“This is both undemocratic and un-Democratic,” O’Connor wrote.

The race

O’Connor is a relative newcomer to the New Hampshire political scene, especially compared to Shea-Porter.

The 39-year-old Harvard graduate moved to Bedford from New York in 2013 and in 2014, according to WMUR, donated $1,000 each to Pappas’s campaign and the Manchester Democratic Committee. At the time, O’Connor was reportedly interested in running against Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

However, his focus seemingly shifted to the Granite State’s first congressional seat, currently held by Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, who is viewed as a vulnerable candidate amid a divisive campaign finance scandal and is facing a primary of his own.

But O’Connor, who announced his candidacy last May, would have to get past Shea-Porter, who filed to run to win back her old seat last August.

The Rochester Democrat has traded the seat with Guinta since she first won it in 2006. After Guinta, the former Manchester mayor, won the district in 2010, Shea-Porter reclaimed the seat in 2012, before again losing to Guinta in 2014.

While federal filing records show that Shea-Porter has out-raised O’Connor, the first-time businessman candidate has so far outspent his primary opponent, aided by $1 million in self-financed loans.

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