My Turn: House, New Hampshire will miss Speaker Norelli
New Hampshire’s speaker of the House, Terie Norelli, is retiring after serving in the House for 18 years.
Terie was speaker from 2006 to 2010, and then she returned to the role in 2012. She is the second woman to become speaker (after Donna Sytek), and she is the first speaker to lead a House Democratic majority in 100 years.
I first met Terie early in her tenure in the House. She was pretty much an unknown legislator then. She served on the lively House Science, Technology and Energy Committee, but I got to know her because of her efforts working to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage.
Terie was the prime sponsor of the bill to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. As a lobbyist for New Hampshire Legal Assistance working on that bill, I was fortunate to get to know her.
It was always a pleasure to work with Terie. She was personable, relaxed and funny. But she was also informed, passionate and strategic. She always did her homework and had utterly realistic notions about bill possibilities.
Looking back, I have to say Terie was the ideal bill sponsor. She was very smart, articulate and responsive to suggestions and criticism. At the same time, she was excellent at reaching across the aisle to find support from Republicans. She understood the need to message in a way that could win maximum support.
Terie taught the value of dogged persistence. We lost and lost and lost, but Terie did not quit. Passing the minimum wage bill took 10 years. The bill was introduced five times before it finally won. By that time, Terie had ascended to being Speaker.
Terie treated everyone in and around the House with civility and respect. She appreciated the essentially volunteer nature of being a state representative. It takes considerable time during the week, and it is a labor of love. The pay is $100 a year plus mileage.
While Terie is a strong progressive, she was the opposite of a dogmatic ideologue. She knew early on that legislators need to be able to work together collaboratively whatever their party affiliation. She respected differences of opinion and believed all should get a hearing.
She recognized the need for and inevitability of compromise. It is in the DNA of the Legislature. She set a respectful tone, consistent with a longstanding New Hampshire House tradition.
She was not a bully. She did not treat the House like it was a narrow club of like-minded true believers out to remove or shun heretics. As speaker, she changed seating arrangements in the House so Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other. Previously, House members separated by party and sat in party blocs.
Terie worked to ensure that all members of the public would be listened to respectfully at public hearings. For anyone who has been around the House for a long time, they know that has not always been the case. Committee chairs can exercise wide discretion. I do believe Terie encouraged her committee chairs toward fairness and giving the public a full opportunity to speak out at public hearings. The tone promoted by the speaker matters.
I do think Terie was a master of the legislative process. The House is quite a different beast than the Senate. You have 400 state representatives and 24 state senators.
House Democrats can often be more progressive and less subject to party discipline than their senate counterparts. Figuring out how to craft a winning agenda and approach that stays true to progressive values is not easy. Compromise can dampen enthusiasm and can stir up political hornet nests. Terie knew how to thread the needle and still win many significant political victories.
As speaker, her legislative accomplishments are impressive. In addition to minimum wage (a battle that must be fought again), I think of Medicaid expansion, participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, marriage equality, in-state college tuition freeze, re-establishing a CHINS program, eliminating the developmental disabilities wait list and the defeat of payday lending. Everyone of these victories was huge.
Terie’s leadership was nationally recognized. She became the president of the National Conference of State Legislators in 2012. NCSL is a valuable, bipartisan organization that serves all the nation’s state lawmakers. NCSL alternates all leadership positions between the two parties each year.
I do think Terie’s role as New Hampshire House speaker will someday be seen as historic. It also reflects an undeniable turning point as New Hampshire shifts as a state in a more progressive direction. I know some people on the right think Terie’s departure is a good omen as far as their long-term prospects. I see it otherwise.
Given the changing demographics of the state, the increased importance of women’s role in politics and the extremist bent of Republicans, it is not going to be another 100 years before the next Democratic speaker. Democratic speakers could become a regular event.
New Hampshire was fortunate to have a leader of Terie’s character, dynamism and reasonableness. She is a hard act to follow, and she will be missed.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own view and not that of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)