Presidential wanna-bes courting Stephen

Last modified: 9/26/2010 12:00:00 AM
John Stephen is playing host a lot these days. The Republican gubernatorial nominee will be welcoming many a would-be GOP presidential candidate between now and Election Day. Yesterday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney helped Stephen raise money in Derry. Tomorrow, it's Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's turn, as he joins Stephen for a fundraiser in Manchester. And later in the week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another possible 2012 presidential candidate, joins Stephen for two - that's right, two! - fundraisers: one in Derry and another in Manchester.

Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown will swing through New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend to - you guessed it - attend a Stephen fundraiser, this one in Atkinson.

The Stephen camp has also gotten phone calls from other potential GOP presidential contenders, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

"You could pretty much say that if someone's looking at a presidential run, we're hearing from them," said Greg Moore, a spokesman for the Stephen campaign.

 Deep country

Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council begin deliberating over Liquor Commission Chairman Mark Bodi's fate tomorrow afternoon.

Closing arguments in the case ended Thursday. The council must now decide whether Bodi deserves to lose his job for getting involved in a legal investigation into whether a Keene bar over-served a customer last year.

The removal hearing, which took up much of last week, centered on the charged political environment surrounding the case, including alleged meddling by House Majority Whip Dan Eaton and accusations of political vendettas.

But Bodi's lawyer, former attorney general Phil McLaughlin, sought to bring a little provincial perspective to the proceedings. Doing his best "country lawyer" routine, McLaughlin described himself as a humble barrister

from way up Laconia, a bit perplexed by the "personalities and points of view" swirling around the capital city.

"I see myself as an outsider," said McLaughlin, who served five years as the state's attorney general. "I'm not privy to the give-and-take of Concord. I used to be, but I'm not anymore."

And you could almost smell the hayfields as McLaughlin described his search for solace while riding his John Deere lawnmower. He even displayed a cell phone photo of him and his grandchildren on the mower.

And he produced the funnel he uses to fill the mower's oil tank as a metaphor for Bodi's case.

"Everything that matters here starts at the top," McLaughlin said, holding the plastic funnel before him. "But it's the outcome that matters. And the outcome is narrow."

 Connection lost

We reported last week on Democratic complaints about Stephen's practice, as state health commissioner, of charging the state for his home internet connection. Moore told us that Stephen needed a high-speed internet connection at his house to connect with the department's web platform and to keep in touch in case of a state emergency. Prior to becoming commissioner in 2003, Moore said, Stephen had a simple dial-up internet link, which did not allow him to get online with the department's Lotus Notes system. Moore also said Stephen stopped billing the state for his home internet at the end of 2006, when he received a state-issued laptop with broadband connection.

But documents brought to light last week show that Stephen continued to bill the state for his home internet well into 2007, and that the practice only stopped when a state administrator decided the expense was unjustified - not because Stephen stopped it himself.

An e-mail from Michael Hoffman of the state's budget office to the health department's finance director, Jim Fredyma, in May 2007 states that "high-speed internet is a common household expense and, if approved for the commissioner, one could argue that there are hundreds of other state employees that could also justify the cost."

The e-mail was in response to Stephen's expense reports for the first four months of 2007, requesting a $183 reimbursement for his internet service and a "leased internet modem."

Department officials appear to have pushed for a reconsideration of the state's policy but were told by Hoffman that "the fact that it has been paid in the past doesn't indicate to me that it is approved, but more likely it was overlooked or not questioned when it should have been."

The total money at issue is relatively insignificant - slightly more than $2,000 over the course of two years. But Pamela Walsh, a spokeswoman for Lynch's campaign, said the issue underscores Stephen's hypocrisy in championing himself as a skinflint with tax dollars - except when it comes to his own expenses.

"John Stephen has established a clear pattern of failing to be honest with the public and the media when confronted with facts about his record," Walsh said.

Asked about the discrepancy with his earlier explanation, Moore said, "I haven't had a time to look at the paperwork, so I'm at a little bit of a loss, and I'm not that intimately familiar with the reimbursements."

Moore criticized Democrats for raising the reimbursements as a campaign issue and accused Lynch of billing taxpayers for overtime for his personal security detail. He also said Stephen's home internet line was a valid state expense because of Stephen's responsibilities.

"The health commissioner is within the state's emergency management structure. And that's an area where we expect our emergency folks to be available 24/7. There are cases where only the commissioner can give approval, things that come up in the middle of the night. How is that person supposed to get access to that information?"

 Hot dog!

Remember Democratic Senate candidate Paul Hodes's ad featuring a hot dog eating contest?

It's back, but not in the way Hodes would like to see it. A conservative group called American Crossroads - which is led by national Republican activists - parroted Hodes's ad, which claims he will "get rid of the pork," to prove just the opposite. The American Crossroads ad, with its own hot dogs parading across the screen, accuses Hodes of supporting the "pork-filled stimulus bill" and other government excess - such as $39 million for office upgrades for politicians. Hodes responded by touting the jobs saved by the stimulus bill, and noting the cost savings that he has proposed - for example, cutting $60 million in "wasteful spending" by the Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, Hodes released his own ad trumpeting his own ideas for cutting spending - and criticizing his Republican opponent, Kelly Ayotte. Hodes said he will support congressional and presidential pay cuts and will oppose deficit spending, while Ayotte would extend the Bush tax cuts. (The Ayotte campaign said that Hodes supported government spending through the stimulus bill and President Obama's health care reform - and that Hodes, by not extending the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, would be raising taxes.)

When it comes to the debate between Ayotte and Hodes on government spending, this is just the beginning.

 And he means it

Former House speaker George Roberts really, really doesn't like the idea of Concord's Main Street being reduced to three lanes.

Roberts, now a registered lobbyist, made his views clear at a public forum Tuesday night at Red River Theatres on a proposed redesign of the downtown thoroughfare. He was the first person to take the floor during a Q&A session and delivered a wide-ranging diatribe against a proposal that includes widening the sidewalks, going from four lanes to three and planting more trees, all to spur economic development.

He ignored catcalls from the audience and a request from Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Main Street Concord, to sit down. At one point, Concord 2020 Executive Director Jennifer Kretovic tried - unsuccessfully - to rip the microphone from his hands.

After several minutes, he took his seat to scattered applause.

Reached later in the week, Roberts, 71, a Gilmanton Republican who served as speaker from 1975 to 1980, made no apologizes for making his views known. He said he's worked in downtown Concord for decades and has long been involved in parking and other issues.

"I'm not new to this," he said. "I'm not some guy off the street trying to raise hell."

For the record, Roberts thinks offering free parking for downtown shoppers would do more for economic development than widening the sidewalks or planting more trees.

 Voter registration

Unsurprisingly, in a primary with many more close Republican races than Democratic races, about 44,000 undeclared voters cast Republican ballots this year compared with just 15,200 who cast Democratic ballots. The vast majority - 48,100 - switched back to being undeclared after casting their vote. But those who didn't gave Republicans a slight advantage in voter registration statewide.

Republicans now have 270,705 registered voters, and Democrats have 266,908. The largest group by far remains the 383,072 undeclared voters, according to the secretary of state's office.

That's in line with New Hampshire history. Until 2008, Republicans had held an advantage in voter registration since the state instituted party registration in 1910. But two years ago, Democrats gained an edge of 1,914 voters.

Democrats were happy to crow about their advantage in 2008. Expect to see the Republicans trumpeting it today.

 Red to blue

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added 2nd District nominee Ann McLane Kuster to its Red to Blue program. The DCCC will give financial, communications and strategic support to Kuster and 28 other House candidates. Kuster earned a spot in the program in part by surpassing fundraising goals.

(Monitor staff writers Daniel Barrick, Ben Leubsdorf and Karen Langley contributed to this column.)

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