CONCORD, N.H. — In a surprise upset, the incumbent mayor of Berlin, N.H., was defeated by a political newcomer, Robert R. Cone, in the municipal election on Tuesday.
But perhaps the person who was most surprised was Cone himself, who only found out when he noticed late Tuesday night that he had missed a call from Mayor Paul Grenier.
When Cone called him back, Grenier was the first to congratulate him on winning the four-way race by a 49-vote margin.
“I was kind of in shock and disbelief,” Cone told the Globe.
Grenier had been a fixture of Berlin government for 30 years, serving on city council and local boards, in addition to spending 14 years as mayor of New Hampshire’s northernmost city. He did not immediately respond to The Globe’s request for comment. His term expires in January 2024.
But voters in Berlin -- population 9,425, according to the 2020 census -- rejected establishment candidates in favor of someone new.
“I thought it would be more of a race between the current Mayor Grenier and Mr. (Robert) Theberges, but in fact it wasn’t,” said Barbara Tetreault, managing editor of the Berlin Daily Sun.
Like Grenier, Theberges has a long political history, having served as a state representative in the Legislature and in municipal government, where he is currently a city councilor.
Grenier appeared to run a well-funded campaign, she said, with full page advertisements in the paper and mailers delivered to residents, unusual for a city race. Tetreault said she anticipated Grenier would receive around 50 percent of the vote, with Theberges securing about 38 percent, leaving Cone and the other candidate, political newcomer Sarah Mafera, to split the remaining 12 percent of the vote.
Instead, Cone secured 36 percent of the vote, followed by Grenier, with 34 percent. Theberges had 21 percent, and Mafera received 9 percent, according to unofficial results.
Cone, 42, had never run for municipal office before. He grew up in Berlin, graduating from Berlin High School in 1999 before joining the military. He said he’s been back in Berlin since 2012, where he works at the federal prison. He and his wife, Katherine Cone, have two young children.
Tetreault said his lack of previous experience in city government may have helped him win.
“The city’s had a rough period, and I think people just wanted a fresh face,” she said.
Berlin is one of the few parts of the state that lost population during the last census count in 2020. There were about 600 fewer residents in 2020 than in 2010, the census found. Burgess BioPower, a plant that burns wood for electricity and is considered an economic pillar of Berlin, was dealt a blow some expect to bankrupt it when Governor Chris Sununu vetoed a bill, ending subsidies to the plant. If Burgess closes, it would take with it 16 percent of the city’s tax base.
Tetreault said the city’s tax base hasn’t really grown, and a 2020 revaluation of the city shifted more tax burden onto residential property owners, with some seeing significant increases in their taxes. The median sale price of a single-family home increased 81 percent in two years, according to the city, as more buyers sought rural, open space in the wake of the pandemic.
Cone said he wants to address the high property taxes by recruiting small businesses and adding them to the tax roll. He said Littleton and North Conway, with bustling main streets, are two models of economic revitalization in the North Country, largely centered on tourism.
“You’re going to have to find things to capitalize on the tourism because that’s one thing that is definitely driving the area,” he said.
Cone said his campaign approach was to acknowledge that people are struggling. He said he can relate.
“I’m no better than anybody else,” he said. “I struggle day-to-day sometimes to make ends meet. I’m just like you. We pinch pennies to pay for our home heating oil.”
He believes that message resonated with voters in Berlin.
The mayor’s race, like all municipal offices, is nonpartisan, although some Republicans celebrated Cone’s win, as Democrats tried to figure out what went wrong for Grenier.
The state GOP congratulated him on social media for flipping the city from Democrat to Republican. Joe Sweeney, a Republican representative from Salem and former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, also wrote a congratulatory message to Cone on Twitter. “Republicans have FLIPPED Berlin!” he said.
Theberges, a Berlin Republican, also greeted the news with enthusiasm, in spite of losing to Cone. “I’m very pleased,” he said.
“I’ve always advocated that we need young, vibrant educated individuals to serve,” he said.
Theberges described Cone as well-respected in the community, “extremely religious,” and “pro-school.” He said he will help Cone to address the property tax issue, which he said is especially difficult for people on a fixed income.
“I think it was time for a change,” said Cone, noting that he’s ready for the challenge ahead.