Katy Burns: O’Brien’s speech was like revisiting a nightmare
‘Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Carol Shea-Porter and Ann Kuster are enemies of freedom and part of an unfolding disaster. . . .
“Remember who are the enemies of New Hampshire as opposed to those who are our friends with whom we merely disagree on some issues.”
That was just some of the apocalyptic language employed by Rep. Bill O’Brien, former New Hampshire House speaker, when he addressed the so-called Freedom Summit in Concord earlier this month. O’Brien knows enemies when he sees them. And there are a lot.
O’Brien was there to be dubbed Conservative of the Year by the summit’s sponsors, Citizens United and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. But he would have been there anyway.
These – the honored out-of-town guests and the local audience – were his kind of people. Or, as he called them, “champions of American Liberty.” Presumably to distinguish them from the traitorous lot above who clearly detest American liberty.
There were national figures, primarily Congressional conservatives who like the idea of a little exposure in the first primary state, and a raft of local politicos, including a slew of those who were elected in 2010 and chose O’Brien as speaker in January 2011.
They were “sons and daughters of New Hampshire” who helped O’Brien upend the state government during his two-year reign. There would never be “a greater assembly of New Hampshire heroes,” he said. Then he sent forth an overwrought burst equal to anything the writers of, say, Game of Thrones might come up with.
“These heroes before you lightened the crushing footfalls of a liberal-engorged state government trampling on the Live Free or Die Soul of New Hampshire!”
Talk about purple prose! It was the sort of crackpot rhetoric one sees scrawled anonymously in newspaper comment sections, not emanating from the mind and mouth of an elected political leader. Even if he is (fortunately) currently out-of-power, if not out of office entirely. That is frightening.
And it’s more frightening that it found a welcoming audience among other so-called political leaders. At least if one can use the words “political leaders” to describe Iowa’s Steve (“Joe McCarthy is a great American hero”) King and Texas’s Louis (“John McCain supported al-Qaida”) Gohmert, two refugees from the Congressional clown car who made appearances in Concord that night.
In his brief remarks, O’Brien ran through what he clearly thought were his greatest hits, including a motley assortment of measures to weaken environmental protections, cripple unions and restrict voting rights.
What he didn’t talk about were some of his more dubious “achievements” and the outright failures of a reign characterized by autocratic bullying, and manipulation and abuse of procedure.
From its very inception, in the Legislature’s opening session, an atmosphere of rancor and hostility was set. Outgoing speaker Terie Norelli – in a ritual that had been enacted many dozens of times in the state’s centuries-old history – stood at the lectern to turn the gavel over to incoming Speaker O’Brien.
And something happened that had never in memory happened before. Norelli was booed by O’Brien’s supporters.
It all went downhill from there. On that same day, O’Brien and his forces voted to allow guns in the State House, even in the Legislature itself. Symbolic?
Most of O’Brien’s “accomplishments” were possible not because the legislative process worked as it should, with cooperation and compromise among the parties, but because – thanks to an abysmally low voter turnout of moderates in that 2010 election – Republicans, dominated by an inflamed, angry right-wing base, rammed things through with supermajority votes that for the most part couldn’t even be stopped by a gubernatorial veto.
O’Brien didn’t want cooperation and compromise. After all, he was dealing not with legislators of a different party but with implacable enemies, as he made clear over and over. And who cooperates with enemies?
With his supermajority he rammed through what amounted to a new hospital tax (which has since been ruled unconstitutional, which in turn caused the state’s bond outlook to be downgraded to negative). He lowered cigarette taxes even as he cut funds for mental health and other essential public health services, which left the state vulnerable to expensive litigation.
He slashed aid to higher education – a critical investment in our future – by nearly half. He weakened consumer protection measures, including a sadly successful effort to return legal loansharking to New Hampshire.
He completely repealed the state’s minimum wage, first enacted in the 1930s under John Winant, one of a long line of progressive Republican governors.
But some of O’Brien’s proposals were too much even for his supermajority. He failed to destroy Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire. He failed to repeal gay marriage or impose sharp restrictions on abortion, and he failed to force state withdrawal from a vital regional clean air pact.
He failed, despite his efforts to manipulate the outcome through scheduling chicanery, to override a gubernatorial veto of a so-called right-to-work law.
He failed to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in New Hampshire despite his deliberately refusing the assistance of millions in federal dollars intended to ease the state’s participation. In fact, some observers believe the legislative hostility to the act was in part responsible for the fact that only one insurer entered the exchange this year, depriving Granite Staters of the range of choices available in most other states.
In all, O’Brien left a sorry record reflecting a sorry time in New Hampshire’s legislative history.
No one who respects civility, comity and cooperation should celebrate the short, terrible tenure of Speaker Bill O’Brien.
As he closed his remarks to the gathering, O’Brien exhorted the audience to “bring the revolutionary spirit” of 2010.
“Show courage,” he said. “Take back Concord.”
I have a better idea. Don’t.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)