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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Senator’s bill would make N.H. the 43rd state to observe “Juneteenth”

It took 20 years of legislative battle for New Hampshire to recognize the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a state holiday.

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark hopes it won’t take that long for New Hampshire to join the 42 states (and counting) that observe Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of American slaves.

“It seems to me that this is an opportunity to recognize and honor an important tradition in the history of African Americans, and it’s hard for me to see why anyone would object to New Hampshire doing this,” said Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat who plans to file a bill next year to recognize “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” though not as a full state holiday.

Juneteenth, June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger announced slavery was abolished in Texas. In recent decades it’s become a general emancipation celebration, and is officially recognized in 42 states plus the District of Columbia, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

The eight states where it isn’t officially observed, according to the foundation: Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

New Hampshire doesn’t have a sizable black population – 1.4 percent of the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 estimate. But Juneteenth has been celebrated for years in Portsmouth, where African Americans have a long history, and Fuller Clark said she was happy to sponsor a bill seeking statewide recognition of the day.

It sounds uncontroversial. But the King holiday certainly wasn’t.

The first bill to create a state holiday honoring King was introduced in the Legislature in 1979. It failed. So did a number of bills in the 1980s.

In 1991, the Legislature voted to recognize Civil Rights Day as a holiday, replacing the old Fast Day, but it took until 1999 for the Legislature to pass legislation establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day.

New Hampshire was the last state to honor King with his own day, and the fight at times took on a nasty tone – in 1996, a white supremacist group from Mississippi rallied at the State House to thank the Granite State for its resistance.

“Like you, I feel so good that we can this year celebrate with the rest of the nation,” then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen told a crowd in Manchester on the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Day in 2000.

Fuller Clark said she doesn’t think a Juneteenth celebration would carry the same controversy. King, she noted, was considered a more divisive figure in the past than he is today. And while some argued against singling out one civil rights leader to honor with his own holiday, Juneteenth wouldn’t have that issue.

Winant in waiting

John Gilbert Winant might get a statue in view of the State House after all.

Winant – progressive Republican, three-term governor of New Hampshire, first chairman of the Social Security Board and U.S. ambassador to London during World War II – has seen his stock rise in recent years after decades of relative obscurity.

In 2012, the Legislature voted to study erecting a monument to him somewhere in Concord, though expressly not on the State House grounds.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat and Winant buff, said the study committee members met last week at St. Paul’s School, and got a “tremendous reaction” from the school in terms of interest and willingness to help. (Winant studied and taught at St. Paul’s, and is buried in the school’s cemetery.)

The current thinking, Shurtleff said, is to locate a statue on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Library, just across Capitol Street from the State House, perhaps modeled on the Red Auerbach statue outside Faneuil Hall in Boston, where the former Celtics coach is depicted sitting on a bench.

But, Shurtleff cautioned, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

ENDA on tap

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s in a tough spot. Again.

Back in April, the New Hampshire Republican was one of the key votes in the Senate to block legislation expanding background checks for gun sales, earning her months of negative ads and anger from gun-control supporters.

In June she voted for comprehensive immigration reform, earning the ire of many conservatives.

Next up: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a federal ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s scheduled to come to the floor tomorrow for a cloture vote.

The bill has 56 Senate sponsors, including Shaheen. But it needs 60 votes to proceed to an up-or-down vote, and Ayotte was one of a handful of senators still undecided last week.

“She’s reviewing the bill and has been talking with colleagues on both sides of the aisle who have been working on the legislation,” wrote Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone in an email Friday.

The bill’s been endorsed by the New Hampshire Federation of College Republicans and others, but is opposed by conservative groups like the Family Research Council. Ayotte isn’t up for re-election until 2016, but she’s already facing rumblings on her right.

“There is no question in my mind that she will garner a primary challenger,” former state GOP chairman Jack Kimball told Roll Call last week.

Ethics headache

How big a political headache for Sen. Peter Bragdon, and New Hampshire Republicans in general, is the Legislative Ethics Committee’s decision last week to open an investigation into his hiring by the Local Government Center?

It’s certainly not good. Bragdon’s not the Senate president anymore, but he was the highest-ranking Republican in state government for three years, and his name is now appearing next to the words “ethics probe.”

The investigation could lead to a formal hearing and, eventually, a recommendation for punishment.

Or the ethics committee could exonerate Bragdon of any wrongdoing, which would blunt the ability of Democrats to make it an issue in next year’s campaign.

Regardless of the outcome, recent history is telling.

The last three investigations by the ethics committee targeted Rep. Dan Eaton in 2010, Rep. Peter Leishman in 2009 and 2010 and Rep. Gene Chandler in 2004 and 2005. Whatever price they paid in the short term, all three men are still in the House.

Mr. Bass in Washington

For 2014 watchers, there’s a fresh sign former congressman Charlie Bass is seriously considering a run against Shaheen.

Bass, knocked out of the House last fall after seven terms, was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday by The Hill’s Alexander Bolton. Bass was there to meet with Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and other GOP leaders.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Bass told Bolton.

The election is a year away, but Shaheen’s fundraising head start – she had $2.8 million in the bank as of Sept. 30 – might push Bass to enter the race sooner rather than later, if that is his intention.

He started looking at a possible run after state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley opted out of the race two months ago. Republicans Jim Rubens and Karen Testerman have kicked off their campaigns for the seat, ensuring a contested primary next September.

For whatever it’s worth, Shaheen and Bass looked friendly enough Friday when their paths crossed in Bretton Woods, where both attended an Executive Council meeting and reception honoring Executive Councilor Ray Burton.

News of record

∎ Happy birthday to Executive Councilor Chris Sununu (Tuesday).

∎ The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union will hold its 27th annual Bill of Rights Award Dinner tonight at Fratello’s in Manchester. Valerie Cunningham, co-founder of the Greater Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, will receive this year’s award.

∎ Tuesday is Election Day in Concord and other New Hampshire cities.

There’s also a special House election in Nashua’s Ward 8, where Democrat Latha Mangipudi faces Republican Peter Silva.

∎ The Legislature’s two-week special session on Medicaid expansion will kick off Thursday, when both the House and the Senate will meet at 10 a.m. to vote on rules.

∎ The state GOP will hold a 160th birthday party for the Republican Party, featuring Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, Friday night at the Executive Court in Manchester.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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