MANCHESTER, N.H. — For a month, Jay Ruais was the only declared candidate for mayor of the largest city in northern New England. Not any longer. Two more contenders jumped into the race after incumbent Mayor Joyce Craig said she won’t seek reelection.
Alderman Will Stewart announced his mayoral candidacy on Wednesday, then At-Large Aderman June Trisciani followed suit on Thursday, creating a three-way contest, with plenty of time left for more candidates to step forward.
This race in Manchester is shaping up to be New Hampshire’s most consequential election this year. The victor will be expected to tackle perennial frustrations over homelessness and public safety, while also promoting economic development and chairing the school board, in a city that’s home to more than 115,000 people.
Though technically nonpartisan, this contest is inextricable from partisan realities. Candidates talk openly about their political affiliations, and each party’s heavyweights aren’t shy about weighing in. So even though the city’s ballots won’t specify who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat, voters will know.
The candidate filing deadline is in July. The primary will be held in September, then the two top vote-getters will advance to the general election in November.
Ruais, 37, got a running head start on the campaign trail by announcing his candidacy in February. He’s been meeting voters face-to-face, sitting for media interviews, and collecting endorsements from high-ranking Republicans, including Governor Chris Sununu, Executive Councilor and former Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas, and others.
Right out of the gate, Ruais acknowledged difficult periods in his past. He wrote op-eds that describe his struggle with alcohol abuse and the fact that he was arrested 13 years ago for driving under the influence — his second such offense.
“I think it’s essential for individuals to be able to understand that failure is not final and that mistakes you make in your past don’t have to be predictive or determinative of your future,” Ruais told the Globe in a conversation over coffee at MoeJoe’s Family Restaurant on Candia Road.
Ruais recalled how completing a court-ordered rehabilitation program in November 2010 deepened his sense of empathy for people and the challenges they face. While he was already eight months sober and headed into a new job, others leaving that facility were headed back into some very difficult life circumstances, he said.
“When I was in that rehab, I saw people who were just like me, people who had the same exact problems that I had,” he said. “So what is the difference between me and them? … The only difference is that I had some opportunities that they may not have.”
That experience was top of mind this winter, Ruais said, when the city was debating how to evict unhoused people from a large encampment on Manchester and Pine streets. The city should strive to serve people experiencing homelessness, to give them opportunities and a more hopeful path forward, he said, by focusing on accountability, compassion, and housing.
“I don’t want to criminalize homelessness. I don’t want to criminalize addiction or mental health. I don’t think that’s the right approach,” he said. “I don’t think that you can arrest your way out of the problem. But I think if you can use the enforcement mechanisms that we have as a way to divert people into treatment, I think that’s a winner.”
In recent years, Ruais joined the Army National Guard as an infantry officer and has worked for Catholic Charities New Hampshire. His work has included support for a sober transitional living program for homeless veterans in Manchester and a transitional shelter for pregnant and parenting women.
Earlier in his career, Ruais cut his teeth in politics as a staffer for Frank Guinta, a Republican who served two non-consecutive terms in the US House of Representatives after serving two terms as Manchester’s mayor.
Through the first few weeks of Ruais’ campaigning, Mayor Craig kept quiet about whether she would seek reelection, then she announced March 16 that she won’t seek a fourth two-year term.
“The city is in a place now where we’ve made tremendous progress, and I feel really good and proud about new leadership coming in and taking over and moving forward with that progress,” Craig told the Globe. “The momentum is going in the right direction.”
Among the city’s accomplishments during her tenure, Craig cited new small businesses, an innovative biotech industry, thousands of new housing units, school curriculum improvements, additional resources for police, less crime, and more.
Police Chief Allen Aldenberg said the overall crime rate in Manchester in 2022 was down 16 percent compared to the 10-year average. That includes a 14 percent drop in property crime and a 30 percent drop in violent crime. Nonetheless, the city’s residents are experiencing real quality-of-life concerns, including those related to people who keep committing crimes while out on bail, Aldenberg said.
“When people are repeatedly ignoring the order of a court in terms of their bail conditions to continue to reoffend, to continue to re-victimize people, that’s serious. That matters. And that’s when people don’t really care about your crime stats,” he said. “They care about those people that are constantly reoffending and are not being held accountable because the offender in a lot of cases, in most cases, knows that there’s no real repercussions.”
Craig and Aldenberg have testified in Concord in favor of bail reform legislation that seeks to combat this “revolving door” phenomenon. Aldenberg said he’s optimistic that lawmakers will pass some version, and city leaders have been fully supportive of his department.
What’s next for Craig remains to be seen. She left open the possibility of seeking higher office, but she declined to say where her ambitions might lead. Her announcement served as a green light for her Democratic allies, including aldermen Stewart and Trisciani, to go public about their desire to succeed her.
Stewart, 44, who’s in his third term representing Ward 2, announced his mayoral candidacy Wednesday evening at the Don Quijote restaurant on Union Street, where he thanked community leaders and his supporters for their work on behalf of the Center City neighborhood.
“We have always been an immigrant city and an industrious city, a place that has taken people in, like me, from all over the world, and together we have built great things,” Stewart said. “That’s who we are and that will never change.”
Stewart, who moved to the city nearly two decades ago, recounted his professional experience in Manchester first as a newspaper reporter for The Hippo, then as a community organizer for NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire, where he said he challenged “slumlords on the West Side” and launched a tutoring program for “primarily immigrant and refugee children just across the street here in the Center City.”
Stewart has served also as vice president of economic development for the Greater Manchester Chamber, president of the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber, and now executive director of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, where he works to attract people to the state.
“The city’s future, to a very large degree, is dependent on how well we’re able to attract and retain the talent we need,” he told the Globe.
“My vision really for Manchester is that I want it to be a city that people move to, and not from,” he added. “I want Manchester to be a city that’s proud of itself, that’s proud of its great schools, its safe streets, its vibrant culture, its strong neighborhoods, innovative businesses, and its rich diversity.”
Trisciani, 56, announced her candidacy Thursday evening at The Puritan Backroom restaurant on Hooksett Road. She said she plans to focus on lowering housing costs, bolstering public safety, growing Manchester’s economy, improving schools, and expanding career opportunities through vocational programs and more.
“We are at a critical juncture — an inflection point where we get to choose what we want our city’s future to look like,” Trisciani said in a statement. “We know that today Manchester faces some tough challenges: housing is too expensive and too many of our fellow citizens are unhoused and our streets are not as safe as we’d like.”
“But, as I’ve always said, Manchester is resilient,” she added. “With the right leader and with common-sense solutions, together we can overcome these problems to create a better, more affordable, equitable and vibrant Manchester.”
Trisciani, who is serving her first term as an at-large alderman, is a fourth-generation Manchester native who owns her own small business, interior design firm j.ellen Design. She lives in Ward 1.
Trisciani told the Globe that she would never take for granted the idea that a Democrat will win this race. After all, Manchester had Republican mayors Frank Guinta and Ted Gatsas for the 12 years before Craig took office.
There are others, too, who could jump into this contest. Community leaders who have expressed interest include Victoria Sullivan, who ran for mayor in 2019 and 2021; Rich Girard, who ran in 2021; and Jim O’Connell, who serves on the school board.
Sullivan, who served previously in the New Hampshire House of Representatives as a Republican, went toe-to-toe with Craig in the past two general elections. She lost by 2,610 votes in 2019 and by 1,231 votes in 2021. She has been a vocal critic of Craig’s leadership and said both Stewart and Trisciani are “part of the problem” in Manchester.
“People continue to ask me to run for mayor, and I think that is because they see me out there continually fighting for our city,” Sullivan told the Globe. “Right now I am weighing a run, but will always do what I think is the best way for me to continue that fight.”
Sullivan has said she won’t be deterred by high-ranking Republican leaders buoying Ruais’ candidacy with early endorsements. Ruais has connections to Sununu, Gatsas, Guinta, and others, but he’s still pretty new to the city, she said.
“That leaves a lot of ground to make up for when running against people who have been very active in the city for years,” she said.
Still, some who have supported Sullivan in the past said it’s time for her to bow out. Representative Will Infantine, a Republican from Manchester who backed Sullivan’s two mayoral campaigns, said he considers her a friend but believes she should pass the baton to Ruais, who appears to have momentum. Infantine was among the Queen City leaders to publicly endorse Ruais this week.
Sullivan isn’t alone, however, in viewing Ruais with a skeptical eye. Girard said he doesn’t think Republicans need to consolidate their support behind Ruais at this stage.
“He’s never been on a ballot, unknown to the voters, inexperienced with city issues and government, and has no relevant work experience that would prepare him for the job,” Girard told the Globe.
Girard, who campaigned previously for the New Hampshire Senate as a Republican and who worked for Manchester Mayor Raymond Wieczorek in the 1990s, finished 126 votes behind Sullivan in the 2021 mayoral primary, so he didn’t advance to the general election. He told the Globe he is considering another mayoral bid and plans to make his decision by April 12.
O’Connell, who’s in his second term on the school board and serving as its vice chair, told the Globe that he’s been considering a possible mayoral bid for months. Had Mayor Craig decided to seek reelection, O’Connell said he would not have challenged her because he agrees with the general direction she has set, including in her capacity as chair of the city’s school board.
O’Connell said public education should be “a core value and a core good” for everyone. Given the general state of GOP politics, he said, any Republican who has ambition for higher office is stuck showing deference to public policies that advance the privatization of public schools and promote culture war narratives.
“I think if you were a Republican candidate whose ambition was to be a great mayor in Manchester and you were not looking to further office, I think you could certainly … do a good job,” he said. “The difficulty is anybody looking to go beyond.”