'For Lamontagne, political itch persists'

Last modified: 7/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
Not by a lot, but Ovide Lamontagne was still leading at 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2010, when he went down to his campaign victory party. The Manchester attorney had been a long shot to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate as recently as late July, when a poll showed him with 8 percent of the vote compared with 47 percent for former attorney general Kelly Ayotte. But - just like a gubernatorial primary 14 years earlier - he mounted a late surge, this time riding a wave of Tea Party support.

"It wasn't until the very end that I felt we could win and, yes, there did come a point that night when I thought I had won," Lamontagne, now seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said in an interview with the Monitor this month.

During a live appearance on WMUR that night, Lamontagne remembers reporter Adam Sexton telling him, "Ovide, we've just received word from our studio that Kelly has overtaken you by 200 votes."

"And I said to him, 'Adam, we should wait until all the votes are counted,' " Lamontagne said. Soon, however, "the numbers started to widen enough that I knew when my head hit the pillow in the wee hours of the morning that this was not going to happen for me."

Three times Lamontagne had run for office in New Hampshire. The next morning he called Secretary of State Bill Gardner to see if there were any aberrations in the vote count. There were not, Gardner said. Lamontagne had two options: Ask for a recount or accept defeat for a third time.

"What are you going to do?" asked his wife, Bettie.

"I'm going to waive a recount and we're going to concede and support Kelly," Lamontagne said.

"Ovide, if you do that, no one will ever vote for you again," she replied. "They want a fighter, and you're turning your back on the people who supported you."

Lamontagne argued that his supporters would want him to exercise his best judgment, and a 1,500-vote margin was too large to overcome unless something truly strange had happened.

"If they can't accept this judgment, then I'm not meant to be in politics," he said.

"All right," she said. "But you're sealing your fate."

 East Side boy


Ovide Marc Lamontagne is quick to note that Notre Dame Hospital, where he was born Sept. 22, 1957, is on the West Side of Manchester. In his family, such a birthplace might be considered exotic.

After World War I, Lamontagne's grandfather went to dental school and moved into the second floor of a triple-decker at 199 Wilson St., in East Manchester. Living on one half of the floor and running his practice from the other half, he fell in love with the store owner's daughter on the first floor.

The couple married, and Lamontagne's father was born on the second floor of the building. He also went to dental school and returned home to practice on the floor where he was born. The family lived across the street from St. Anthony of Padua Parish, and one day Lamontagne's father asked the priest if there were any eligible women in the parish he would recommend. The priest introduced him to Lamontagne's mother, a young nurse. In 1980, Lamontagne's father bought an office about a half-mile away, on the corner of Jewett and Hayward streets, where Lamontagne's brother now practices dentistry.

When Lamontagne was 10 years old, his father won a seat on the Manchester School Board, Ward 7. "Those were formative years - I watched how he ran his little campaign from the house," Lamontagne said.

But his father's two terms on the board were filled with turmoil, as the teachers went on strike and attempted to unionize. Lamontagne remembers taking a call from a woman who pleaded for his father to run again "because he was a man of character and integrity," a message Lamontagne dutifully reported on his tape recorder.

"The next day, he said, 'This is not for me, this rough and tumble world,' " Lamontagne said. "And I value that because you have to know what you can tolerate in terms of political pressure, in terms of disappointing people sometimes and taking a leadership position in a very public way."

It soon became clear Lamontagne had a high tolerance for politics. The oldest of eight children, he jokes that he was "born into management." His grandparents, descended from French Canadian immigrants, "never asked anything of government" and instilled in him a conservative outlook based on "rugged individualism."

After attending St. Anthony's Elementary, he became involved in student council during his sophomore year at Trinity High School. He became president of the council and appointed himself a student delegate to the state Board of Education, driving to meetings in Concord with a dentist friend of his father's who sat on the board.

"While most of the guys were athletes, I was a geek. Guilty," Lamontagne said. "I did things like debate and model Congress and those types of activities."

 Meeting Bettie


Lamontagne attended Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he started out as a pre-med student in the family tradition. There he met Bettie Watson, "an all-star field hockey goalie and a very popular co-ed." Given Lamontagne's proclivities - as a freshman, he interned in the congressional office of Norman D'Amours, a Democrat and family friend from back home - Bettie "wasn't too interested."

Junior year - by which point Lamontagne had been sucked into student government, though he swears he tried to avoid it - he and Bettie started dating when they served as resident advisers in the freshman dorms on the north end of campus. Lamontagne proposed during their senior year, Oct. 19, 1978, at dinner for her birthday, before attending a production of Bullshot Crummond at Ford's Theatre.

They married a month after they graduated, Lamontagne with a psychology degree and Bettie summa cum laude in computer science. Lamontagne was working at the time in the U.S. Senate mail room from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., a gig he got by contacting the office of New Hampshire's newest senator, Republican Gordon Humphrey.

"Bettie will say to you it was under false pretenses that we got engaged," Lamontagne says of abandoning his pre-med track. "When I told my dad I was thinking about becoming a lawyer, he said, 'What, you don't want an honorable profession?' I said, 'Dad, I'm going to try to make it honorable.' "

Before law school, though, Lamontagne wanted "life experience." The couple found teaching jobs at Catholic high schools in Maryland; Lamontagne teaching social studies, Bettie teaching math. In the summer, he formed a construction company with the school guidance counselor, building decks and doing other small jobs.

After two years, a former high school teacher of Lamontagne's called to say he needed teachers at a Catholic school in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he had just been offered a job as principal. Lamontagne was shocked by his wife's reaction - "Let's go!" - and they packed up their 1969 Chevy Malibu and headed west without radio or air conditioning.

Lamontagne discovered that the University of Wyoming College of Law, about 50 miles away, charged just $750 a year for in-state residents. He was able to secure a free ride for two of the three years, and began attending the law school while Bettie continued teaching. He became editor-in-chief of the law review, "which, from a law school perspective, is sort of like student government."

Lamontagne was set to graduate in 1985 and had been offered a job at the Devine Millimet law firm in Manchester, where he was a summer clerk the year before. In the meantime, however, the couple found they were unable to have children. Wyoming had one of the shortest waiting lists for adoption, so they decided to stay until a child was placed with them. As they waited, Lamontagne clerked for a local U.S. Court of Appeals judge. On April 4, 1986, the call came during a "wicked snow storm" that 5-day-old Madeleine was waiting for them about three hours northwest, in Casper, Wyo.

The couple adopted a second daughter, Brittany, and have taken care of a developmentally delayed foster son James, who is now 24 and a graduate of Crotched Mountain School.

Asked about his social conservative views, Lamontagne said his positions are colored by personal experience. On abortion, he said, "when you deal with infertility, you deal with the whole issue of procreation." On marriage, he said "the ideal is a mom and a dad who have their natural children living in a permanent family."

"That's the ideal. I don't think anyone can argue that," Lamontagne said. "I'm not living the ideal in a way. I've adopted children. And they have to deal with the fact that they're not my biological children. That's a burden for them, I'm sure, on some level, whether they've talked to us about it or not."

 Political stirrings


As Lamontagne prepared to move back to New Hampshire in 1986, with Maddie in tow, his parents' longtime neighbors called to say they were selling their home.

He took up the offer, moving his family next door to the house in which he grew up on Young Street. In 1997, they swapped homes with Lamontagne's parents, who no longer needed the larger abode.

"If you've ever seen the show Everybody Loves Raymond, that's what we've been doing for 26 years," Lamontagne says.

Lamontagne has remained at Devine Millimet the entire time. He started out defending insurance companies but was more interested in business litigation. Two years in, he was tapped to head up the firm's commercial litigation group, which settles business disputes. Since 1998, he said, he has mostly focused on corporate counseling, serving as general counsel to construction companies, hospitals and other clients.

In January 1987, Norman Stahl, a senior partner at Devine Millimet, offered Lamontagne an invitation to a pre-presidential primary summit, featuring representatives for potential Republican candidates. Lamontagne went to the forum and was taken with the message of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. He volunteered to work on the campaign.

Lamontagne had worked previously on Ray Wieczorek's first mayoral campaign, but the Bush campaign "really brought me into the political world, much more so on a sort of statewide perspective, by meeting people."

A year later, Stahl again called Lamontagne into his office and introduced him to "a fellow I recognized but I wasn't sure who it was." It was House Speaker Doug Scamman, who was considering a run for Congress. Lamontagne was skeptical about working on the campaign of someone he had never met, but, at Scamman's suggestion, he followed him around the speaker's office for a day.

"I really came away with a great sense that this person is a genuine New Hampshire statesman," Lamontagne recalled, and signed on as the fiscal agent for Scamman's campaign.

Scamman lost to Bill Zeliff, a small business owner and former state Senate candidate, by 500 votes.

"I learned a lot about campaigning, the practical aspects of it," Lamontagne said. "I was still practicing law, but I put in a lot of my personal time as a volunteer for Doug, doing everything from putting up signs to doing the paperwork to representing him in the recount."

 First run


Through the Scamman campaign, Lamontagne got to know Ed Dupont, who was elected president of the state Senate in 1990 and named Lamontagne the Senate's legal counsel for the 1991 session. During this time, Lamontagne began to consider running for Congress himself.

Lamontagne had spoken at times as a surrogate for Scamman, and recalls Zeliff once saying privately, "It's a good thing Doug's running and you're not." Lamontagne said his decision to take on Zeliff, an incumbent in his own party, was not fueled by vengeance, but "I was a strong Doug Scamman supporter, as a lot of people were, and I did not like the way he had been treated at the end of that primary."

"I was young, and when you're young you think you can do anything. And I thought I can do this," Lamontagne said. He said he had initially encouraged attorney Steve Merrill to run, but then Merrill decided run for governor to replace Judd Gregg, who was seeking a U.S. Senate seat.

Lamontagne, then 34, came in second in the primary to Zeliff, though he maintains he could have won if he had not split the vote with Rockingham County commissioner Maureen Barrows.

"It was really a long shot," Lamontagne said. "Looking back, somebody should have sat me down and said, 'Ovide, this isn't the end of your life, this is the beginning of your life. You have a long way to go before you have to do this if you feel compelled.' "

Zeliff, who has endorsed Kevin Smith, Lamontagne's primary opponent in this year's gubernatorial race, said he doesn't hold a grudge against Lamontagne.

"I probably wouldn't have been challenging him if he was a sitting member of Congress, but he was fully within his rights to do it," Zeliff said.

Months later, Lamontagne landed in a new role when Merrill, then governor, appointed him chairman of the state Board of Education. No longer the overachieving student who tagged along to board meetings, Lamontagne's lifelong interest in education policy finally met his desire for leadership.

 Decision time


Lamontagne served three years as chairman of the Board of Education; weeks after he was reconfirmed to the board, Merrill announced he would not run for a third term as governor. The news "shocked the political world here in New Hampshire," Lamontagne said, and set off a series of events that left him with a decision: He could run for governor. If Zeliff ran for governor, he could run for Congress again. Or, he could remain chairman of the board.

Lamontagne chose the first option, albeit two days after Zeliff announced he, too, would run for the state's corner office, setting up a primary clash of old rivals.

"I don't decide to run for office because somebody else is either running or not running, unless I'm promoting somebody else to run or encouraging them to run," Lamontagne said.

For most of the race, Zeliff appeared in control. A UNH/WMUR poll released Sept. 1, 1996, showed Zeliff at 46 percent and Lamontagne at 17 percent.

"Zeliff was the better-known name so a lot of it was just name ID, not necessarily that people were going to vote for Zeliff," said Chuck Douglas, the former congressman and state Supreme Court justice who served as a co-chairman of Lamontagne's primary campaign.

In the final weeks, Lamontagne closed the gap and won the Republican nomination. But there was little time to celebrate. Lamontagne had "spent every last nickel we had in our campaign to win that primary," and for two weeks he had no money to advertise his general election bid against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, he said.

"I was black for two weeks - no television, no radio to speak of," he said. All his energy was spent "trying to raise dollars to get up on the air. By the time I was able to advertise, the attack ads had taken their toll."

Douglas said "part of the problem was the primary had been a rough one, a lot rougher than the one that's going on now."

"I think there were some wounds that weren't totally healed in the Zeliff camp, so you had some people that weren't as enthusiastic," Douglas said.

Lamontagne said he believed "if you became the Republican nominee, the establishment, the infrastructure that was viewed to be largely Republican in New Hampshire, would help you to get across the finish line."

"It didn't work that way," he said. Zeliff said he voted for Lamontagne in the general election and asked his supporters to do the same.

"I don't think that anybody in my camp that was dissatisfied with what happened could even have had any impact on what happened to him," Zeliff said.

What happened was a rout. Shaheen trounced Lamontagne 57 percent to 40 percent. At the top of the ticket, Democratic President Bill Clinton similarly crushed Bob Dole.

Shaheen's pledge not to adopt a state sales or income tax "took that issue away from our campaign," Lamontagne said. But more broadly, he said the election was part of "a change in the political makeup of the state" and indicated that the Republican Party in New Hampshire "was not the same as it had been in the past."

"The party nomination alone wasn't going to take you over the finish line," Lamontagne said.

 Ready to return


After 1996, Lamontagne retreated from public life and focused on his young family. "I didn't decide I was done with politics, but I was grateful the people of New Hampshire gave me my life back," he said. "I dedicated myself to being a dad and being a husband."

He cut a rug with Maddie's dance company on stage at the Palace Theatre. He became the team administrator for Brittany's softball team - "I'm enough of a geek that I shouldn't be a coach" - and set about raising money, scheduling hotel reservations and serving as French interpreter at a tournament in Canada.

But he never lost the itch. In early 2009, he and Bettie had become empty-nesters, and the Tea Party movement was picking up steam. Gregg announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate. On a Friday in February, Lamontagne said he got a call from state GOP Chairman John Sununu, the former governor, asking if he would consider a U.S. Senate run.

"I think I'm ready to return to the political world," he told Sununu.

"Good," Sununu replied. "Keep thinking, keep in touch with me."

In June 2009, he went to Washington to get an insider's perspective on the race. In July, Ayotte stepped down from her post as attorney general to explore a run. Listening to her, however, Lamontagne didn't feel they shared the same conservative views. He cited her support for the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom he called a "liberal judicial activist."

"I knew Kelly had never been involved in politics in her life, never worked in a campaign," Lamontagne said. "And I knew from my own experience, when you're a lawyer advocating a case for somebody else, you're advocating their cause. When it's you stepping up into the public square and declaring where you are on the issues, it tests you."

He lost narrowly, again rallying from behind.

"For some reason, Ovide comes on strong at the end," said Douglas, who said he had given Ayotte his support before he was aware of Lamontagne's candidacy. "I think that he takes a lot of time to go around the state and get to know people or at least be seen and answer questions. It has a ripple effect, and it just doesn't show in the polls."

Lamontagne said he ran in 2010 "to provide an alternative view but not to be negative or be divisive." Having witnessed the impact of a primary recount in Scamman's 1990 campaign, he saw no other option but to concede the race, despite his wife's objection.

As he walked to his press conference inside the Legislative Office Building that afternoon, Humphrey, the former senator, was standing in the stairwell. He told Humphrey, whose office had provided Lamontagne's first post-college job in the Senate mail room, that he had decided to waive a recount.

"Whatever you decide, we're with you 100 percent," Humphrey said.

Lamontagne then overheard Bettie give Humphrey a hug and ask what he would have done.

"Oh, I'd call for a recount," Humphrey said. "I'm a fighter. I'm not like Ovide."

 No regrets


Lamontagne has no regrets about the decision.

"I did not expect, though, in backing (Ayotte) that I would generate some good will from it. But I have," Lamontagne said. "I thought, from a political perspective, from what I was hearing, that I was going to be a gentleman farmer for the rest of my life and never be in a political campaign again."

Far from it. In April 2011, Lamontagne was named "Conservative of the Year" by Tea Party-aligned group Americans For Prosperity, honored at a 500-person gala in Manchester that doubled as a summit for Republican presidential hopefuls and New Hampshire's first major political event of the primary cycle.

He began hosting the Republican presidential candidates at his home, an idea he says was Bettie's but nonetheless led several publications to dub him a "kingmaker." In September he announced his run for governor, accompanied by a steering committee of over 200 names from all corners of the state's Republican spectrum.

"The irony is I think a lot of where Ovide picked up support was when he did not ask for a recount," said Douglas, who had been asked to head up Ayotte's recount team if needed. "That was something that put the party above his personal interests and got him a lot of support from people who otherwise might not have gone his way."

After years as the underdog challenger, Lamontagne, 54, is now the known quantity. His name recognition among voters far exceeds others in the race, including the 35-year-old Smith.

Over the years, Lamontagne says he hasn't "changed where I am on the core issues." His newfound acceptance, his status as a darling of the Tea Party, is evidence that "people are coming to an awareness of how important those core issues are."

"We need principled, tested leadership," he said. "And I bring that with all the scars that come with it."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @mattspolar.)

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