×

Capital beat: Unrest grows among House Democrats

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ



Monitor staff
Saturday, April 29, 2017

Fighting factions of New Hampshire House Republicans have been in the spotlight this year. But behind the scenes, the chamber’s Democrats are facing similar squabbles.

Two members recently jumped ship, switching their party affiliation to Republican. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Members say at least three more representatives are considering a move to the Grand Old Party, having become unsatisfied with the approach of Democratic leadership.

“There’s dissatisfaction,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Leishman. “Most Democrats would think with the controversy around Trump, we might gain some Republicans, more moderates, and yet we are losing Democrats.”

The strife is largely driven by differing opinions on how the caucus should be acting, members say. For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats are entirely in the minority at the State House. And the party is still trying to find its stride in that new role.

So far, House Democrats’ stance has largely been to sit back and watch as Republican party infighting threatens to derail the GOP’s own agenda.

But some are frustrated the left isn’t making a bigger attempt to push back against the majority and promote its own ideals. In a recent high-profile vote on a transgender rights bill, the chamber capped debate at a few minutes per side, giving Democrats little opportunity to talk up their position.

“We haven’t come up with a good approach to play offense while on defense,” said state Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats in New Hampshire typically put up a united front. But this year, party fissures in the House have been on rare public display.

This was most notable when two of the chamber’s veteran Democrats urged the caucus to vote for the state budget rider, a stance in direct opposition to what Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff advocated on the floor.

Ultimately, most House Democrats sided with Shurtleff. But 14, including several on the powerful House finance committee, voted with Republicans in favor of the budget bill. The small group argued the party should have supported the legislation so it then could have added amendments, such as increasing funding for mental health or higher education.

“In my nine terms in the House, (this day) ranks as one of the worst days in my legislative history,” Leishman wrote in an email distributed to all House Democrats after the vote. “One half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. Yesterday our caucus came away very hungry.”

The party fissures are unlikely to affect policy as much as Republican fractures. But Democrats’ ability to stick together in the minority is key if they are to have any chance of blocking GOP policies, working with them to get things passed or setting a unified message for future elections.

The next major test is the final state spending plan, which comes back around to the House in June. If the Republican Freedom Caucus and other conservative House groups still oppose the budget, Speaker Shawn Jasper may have to seek support from the left. In that case, the minority will hold a lot of power and unity will be key.

Shurtleff said despite some differing opinions, Democrats are together on major policy issues.

“There’s always going to be people that think maybe something should have been done differently,” he said. “Overall the caucus is united. We’re in good shape going into the second half of the biennium.”

The Democrats who defected wouldn’t talk about why they switched party affiliation.

“I talked about that enough,” said Rep. Mariellen MacKay, now a Nashua Republican. “I don’t think I want to do that anymore.”

Eight-term Rep. Robert Theberge’s only response was to “ask the minority leader” about his switch.

Shurtleff said he’s not sure the reason, but mentioned the fact that he recently had to move Theberge out of a coveted aisle seat to accommodate another representative with medical problems. It’s hard to believe that’s the whole cause.

While many members acknowledge some issues in the caucus, several said the Democrats will come together when it counts.

“There is always some strife on both sides,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, of Durham. “It is the rare leader who is able to capture the enthusiasm of every member of the caucus.”

Love lost

Two of the state’s top Republicans are taking a break. House Speaker Shawn Jasper and Gov. Chris Sununu haven’t spoken in more than three weeks, since the state budget tanked in the lower chamber.

“I certainly spoke on a regular basis with Governor Maggie Hassan. I had been speaking on a regular basis with the governor,” said Jasper, who added he “doesn’t know” why the pair haven’t talked of late.

To be fair, Jasper hasn’t reached out to Sununu for a chat, or walked down the flight of stairs that separates their offices to stop by. “Governors are very busy,” the Republican said. “Normally we will wait for the governor to say ‘Hey, let’s sit down and have a chat’.”

It’s not a total communication breakdown; Sununu’s office said it has been in constant communication with Republican House leadership. It’s not entirely clear who is giving who the cold shoulder, but there was finally some outreach. The next meeting between the two Republican leaders is scheduled for Tuesday.

Resignation wars

In the face of calls for his resignation, Republican Rep. Robert Fisher has stood his ground, saying “Here’s my message to the public: I am not disappearing.” That of course would imply that Fisher is regularly showing up to the State House, which hasn’t always been the case.

The second-term Republican isn’t on a committee, where the bulk of legislative work is done. According to his voting record, Fisher has missed about half the House session days this year, including the two most recent when the chamber considered the budget rider bill and a measure to ratify town elections moved by the snowstorm.

Sununu and GOP Party Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester called for his resignation last week after a national news organization reported Fisher is the secret creator of a misogynistic online forum.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)