After 2 decades serving Concord, Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen announces retirement

Last modified: Thursday, June 05, 2014
For the first time in 20 years, Concord voters won’t see Democrat Sylvia Larsen’s name on the ballot for state senate when they go to the polls this November.

Larsen, 64, said on the Senate floor yesterday that she won’t seek re-election, an announcement that surprised and solicited praise from many of her colleagues. During an almost tearful speech, Larsen explained she is stepping down to spend more time with her family, including her husband who loves to travel, her daughter who was recently married and lives locally, and her son who just graduated from law school. She will remain as Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman through the election and said she is optimistic that Democrats could gain a Senate majority in the fall.

“I still love what can be accomplished through political involvement, and I plan to stay involved, just not as a candidate. I believe in the adage that when one door closes, another one opens, so I will be open to what lies ahead,” she said on the Senate floor. “I’ll always cherish the friendships we have made and the milestones we’ve achieved.”

Larsen was elected to the Senate in 1994 and has served as Democratic leader since 2002. From 2006 to 2010 she served as Senate president and, from 2008 to 2010, presided over the country’s first female legislative majority, with 13 women serving in the 24-member Senate. Larsen’s district covers the city of Concord and the towns of Hopkinton, Henniker and Warner. The district is strongly Democratic, and Larsen has held an impenetrable grasp on the seat since she first took office. Concord School Board member Kass Ardinger plans to run for the seat on the Democratic line, and Larsen said she is “enthused” by Ardinger’s candidacy. No Republicans have officially announced a run for the seat, but the party says it has several possible candidates. Other Democratic candidates may also emerge.

Senators from both sides of the aisle praised Larsen on the floor for her integrity and for leading by building consensus. Larsen said it was her philosophy to always respect the minority party when she served as president, in hopes that Democrats would be respected if and when control of the Senate flipped back to Republicans.

“Senator Larsen is an extraordinary human being whom I think has taught us all a lot, but most of all how to comport yourself,” said Sen. Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat who previously served as Larsen’s chief of staff. “No matter how difficult the situation, no matter how dark the day, no one is ever more even-tempered, no one is more graceful than Sylvia Larsen.”

‘Calm, cool, collected’

Larsen was adept at trusting the skills of people around her, which helped her build an effective leadership team, several people said. Attorney General Joe Foster was the majority leader during Larsen’s first term as president and Gov. Maggie Hassan during her second.

“Sylvia had the brilliance to make Joe Foster her primary co-leader,” said Peter Burling, a Democratic National Committee member and former senator. “My observation is Sylvia . . . recognized people for their strength. You empower them as much as you can and you let them go.”

Foster, for his part, said Larsen was easy to work with and someone from whom he learned a lot.

“She’s calm, cool, collected, level-headed, but also tenacious when she has an issue she wants to promote or push forward,” he said.

Retiring Sen. Peter Bragdon, who served as Republican minority leader during Larsen’s presidency and later as president, also thanked Larsen as well as his predecessor as president, Republican Chuck Morse, saying it’s been a hallmark of the Senate for the parties to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Looking back on her tenure in the Senate, Larsen said she’s accomplished nearly everything she set out to, including creating a constitutional school funding arrangement in response to the Claremont lawsuits. One of her disappointments, however, is the Senate’s failure to raise the minimum wage this session. Among her other accomplishments, Larsen listed shepherding through a tax-free college savings plan, the first in the nation of its kind, establishing universal kindergarten, expanding access to health care through the recent Medicaid expansion deal, which she helped craft, and protecting women’s access to reproductive health care.

‘Work across party lines’

During the 2010-11 session, Democrats held only five seats in the state Senate, which was frustrating and difficult at times, Larsen said. Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat, recalled several bills related to reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood coming from the House that year.

“We were able to work across party lines to put a stop to a lot of that work. Even though there were only five of us, we were a strong five,” Kelly said.

Ardinger, who will run for Larsen’s seat, said yesterday that Larsen has been a strong senator who has always been mindful of her constituents. When the Legislature was about to freeze school building aid in 2009, the Concord School District was starting the process of building three new elementary schools. Larsen made sure to keep the school board informed about legislative action and, because of that, the board was able to obtain funding for 40 percent of the building project before aid was cut off, saving Concord taxpayers significant money.

During her 20 years in office, Larsen said she thought about running for higher office, such as governor or a congressional seat. In the 1990s, she received personal appeals from U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, who served as both House majority and minority leader, to run for Congress.

Former governor “John Lynch and I talked about it over time, but I’m much like John in that I love New Hampshire, and I realized I don’t really want to be a commuter,” she said. “I like being in New Hampshire.”

Without another campaign to run, Larsen’s immediate future will consist of spending time with family and traveling. She and her husband, Robert, are planning an October cruise down the coast of South America. She’ll also work hard to keep her seat Democratic and maybe turn the Senate Democratic, too, although it’s looking to be a strong wave year for Republicans.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)