Bedford Democrat Shawn O’Connor said in an interview with NH Journal his path to U.S. Congress started in Philadelphia 27 years ago. Then in fourth grade, he spearheaded a campaign for mandatory recycling and enlisted help from James Greenwood, his state senator. Ultimately, O’Connor traveled to Harrisburg, Penn., to stand on the Senate floor as Greenwood cast the deciding vote that made recycling the law.
“I guess I’ve always been an activist,” O’Connor quipped.
He decided to run for the First Congressional seat held by Republican Frank Guinta because “working and middle class families need a representative who will work across the aisle” to address problems, he said.
O’Connor, a Harvard educated lawyer and businessman, aimed high on his first run for political office but has practical knowledge of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked as an aide to his old buddy, by then U.S. Cong. Jim Greenwood.
“I’m very familiar with the rules of the House,” O’Connor said based on his work as a legislative aide. His stint on the Hill plus his business background make him the voters’ best option, he explained.
For example, his plan to raise the minimum wage “thoughtfully” to $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2022 comes with tax breaks for small business. That component will help win bipartisan support and also help New Hampshire, where most businesses are small, he said.
O’Connor believes the federal government should help the Granite State with infrastructure, health care and education.
On his website, O’Connor has vowed, if elected, to introduce 10 bills on his first day in office. The list is a work in progress. But among the measures, he has included a “practical gun safety” law, aimed at stopping crime, while protecting Second Amendment rights, and a bill regulating Wall Street and breaking up the big banks.
O’Connor said he was the lone New Hampshire candidate for high state or for federal office to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
“I’m very proud of that,” he said and added he is firmly in the Sanders – Elizabeth Warren camp of the Democratic Party.
Warren was his law professor when he studied at Harvard Law School.
After college at Georgetown, where he majored in international politics and Latin American studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service and graduated at the top of his class, he enrolled in Harvard’s joint degree program in law and business.
Although he studied hard enough to graduate with honors from Harvard Law and took his Master of Business Administration degree with highest distinction, he also took some breaks to ski, hike and hit the beach.
That’s when he fell in love with New Hampshire. He decided to move here permanently four or five years ago from New York City.
O’Connor sold his education company, Stratus Prep, in 2014 to a private equity firm.
Stratus Prep helped students score high on standardized tests and win admission to college and grad schools. O’Connor started the business in 2006. Two years later, he founded the non-profit Stratus Foundation and offered the service to youngsters otherwise unable to pay.
The foundation assisted with writing admissions essays and “marketing” students, so they could “negotiate the best possible financial aid” package and grants. Among the success stories, he mentioned a homeless immigrant, who earned a law degree and put it to use helping others seeking political asylum.
After the sale, O’Connor stayed on as transitional Chief Executive Officer until September 2015 when the new leadership took over.
Asked how he makes a living now, O’Connor said he’s been “focused 100 percent” on his campaign for Congress. He will look for a new post, if he’s not elected.
Meanwhile, he’s not worried how the top of the ticket will influence the race for Congress.
“I have some real concerns about some things Trump has said,” he allowed. He’s opposed to Trump’s plan to build a wall at the Mexico border, as well as to stop Muslims from entering the country. But ultimately, he believes the First Congressional race is “separate and distinct” and will be decided on the candidates’ merits, not on the presidential candidates’ appeal.
“There will likely be some coattails,” he said. While he’s fine with riding coattails, if either Sanders or Clinton, can provide them, he’s not counting on any help.
New Hampshire’s First Congressional District is one of the top five “swing” districts in the U.S., O’Connor said.
Over the past 10 years, the seat has gone back and forth between Republicans and Democrats and, Guinta and Shea-Porter have duked it out three times. He defeated her in 2010, lost to her in 2012, then won the seat back in 2014.
Both face opponents in primary contests, though. Shea-Porter would have to slide past O’Connor to become the Democrat’s nominee, while Guinta goes up against Rich Ashooh, of Bedford.
O’Connor said voters tell him they’re tired of the yo-yo swings between Guinta and Shea-Porter. He represents a “new fresh voice” able to “break through the partisan divide on issues that affect New Hampshire families.”
He anticipates winning support from voters “fed up with the bickering and paralysis” in Washington.
They want a “fresh face and a new perspective,” he said. “I’m not a career politician. I’m a businessman by trade” and a lawyer who’s been admitted to the bar in a number of states. At Stratus Prep, he valued customer service” and plans to bring a similar focus to representing the district. For one example, he publishes his cell phone number on all his campaign literature and plans to continue being accessible if he’s elected.
O’Connor said he’s been holding “coffee chats all over the district” and is energized by meeting the voters.
Asked for a fun fact about him, O’Connor said he’s skied on three continents – North America, Asia and New Zealand. He’s 39 and had a dog named Bailey. Otherwise, he said, his personal life isn’t all that interesting. He’s passionate about skiing, hiking and the ocean.
Editor’s Note: This is part of NH Journal’s continuing series of interviews with congressional candidates in the 1st District. NH Journal has already spoken with Rich Ashooh, along with Pam Tucker, who recently exited the race. An interview with Congressman Frank Guinta will appear on the site later this week and Carol Shea-Porter next week.