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A House divided: Newly elected Speaker Shawn Jasper faces challenges

Last modified: 12/6/2014 1:08:29 AM
As soon as newly elected House Speaker Shawn Jasper stepped foot in the State House yesterday, he was a wanted man.

“It has been incredibly hectic,” said Jasper, a Hudson Republican. “There are so many people who have been stopping by the office.”

In addition to the well-wishers on hand, some Republicans were already turning their backs on the new speaker.

The representatives elected Jasper as their speaker Wednesday, during a session that lasted nearly eight hours and revealed fractures in the Republican Party.

It was a dramatic rise to power for Jasper, an underdog candidate who emerged late in the game to defeat Republican nominee Rep. Bill O’Brien by pulling support from the Democratic caucus and Republicans seeking an O’Brien alternative.

Now, Jasper has a lot of work to do – as he told the House after winning the job Wednesday – to pull the legislative body together.

It’s a task that has grown more challenging given the contentious vote.

After Wednesday’s outcome, several Republicans expressed anger that Jasper defeated the party pick with help from Democrats. Republicans had won 239 seats in the most recent election and control of the legislative body.

“I find it appalling the speaker would be elected by a majority of the Democratic Party,” said Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican who backed O’Brien. “Let the games begin.”

It appears they already have.

A Republican speaker traditionally serves on the state party’s executive committee, an oversight body. But after Republican Doug Scamman won a four-way speaker race in 2004 with Democratic backing, the party changed its bylaws to allow only a Republican leader on the committee who was picked by a majority vote of the caucus. That means Jasper would not qualify.

“We need strong conservative voices on this important body,” state Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn said in a statement. “I am committed to ensuring that our House Republican Caucus is represented on the Executive Committee by a person who has actually been selected by a majority of Republican members.”

O’Brien, of Mont Vernon, is calling for an election Monday to pick a committee representative, who would in turn lead the House Republican caucus.

“Right now the Republican caucus is without a leader,” said Rep. Stephen Stepanek of Amherst, who is helping to organize the Monday vote. All Republican representatives can participate, he said, and submit their name for consideration.

Other Republicans said they are ready to move forward and support Jasper.

“Our vote has been done,” said Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican who nominated O’Brien for speaker Wednesday. “I think Shawn Jasper is an outstanding representative and will make a fine speaker.”

At the close of Wednesday’s session, Ladd said he went up to the speaker’s podium, congratulated Jasper and pledged his support.

“I moved forward the minute I walked out of that hall,” Ladd said. “The vast majority will follow the speaker.”

The Republican Party has been split for several years, and Jasper will be more of a unifying force than O’Brien, said New London Rep. David Kidder, who seconded Jasper’s speaker nomination.

“For a while there’s going to be a little angst among some members of the party,” Ladd said, but he expects the caucus to clear that hurdle. “The House deserves great credit for . . . having the wisdom to do what they did.”

Jasper, for his part, said as speaker, he expects to deal with any trouble by being even-handed to all of the members and standing up for House process.

“I am not going to put up with people who are constantly disruptive by just acquiescing to their behavior,” Jasper said. “I will take actions necessary to make it clear to the House – even if I can’t stop their actions – their behavior should not be acceptable in a body such as ours.”

Jasper, 55, was first elected to the House in 1984. In November, Jasper won his 11th – although not consecutive – House term.

When the party nominated O’Brien to again be speaker, Jasper began making calls to see whether support existed for an alternative candidate. “I was certainly hoping that it wouldn’t be me that was in this position,” Jasper said ahead of the vote. “Ultimately I looked around, and it was me.”

Jasper had been deputy majority leader under O’Brien, when the Mont Vernon Republican was speaker between 2011 and 2012. Following disagreements with O’Brien and members of his leadership, including one over a voter identification bill, Jasper left several committee posts.

“Bill O’Brien doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being able to work with people, and I don’t think that type of personality is suited for the challenges we’re going to face as a party that’s going to have to cooperate with the governor,” Jasper told the Monitor in November, ahead of the caucus vote to nominate O’Brien as speaker. “It’s fair to say Bill O’Brien has burned a lot of bridges.”

Leading up to Wednesday, Jasper pitched himself as an alternative candidate who would respect the rules of the House and the work of the committees. He defeated O’Brien in the third round of voting, earning a majority vote 195-178.

After the win, Jasper made his first call to his wife, Laurie, from the speaker’s chair. In the hours following, his cell phone voice mail box filled up, reaching capacity so it couldn’t accept new messages, just as O’Brien’s had the night after he became the Republican speaker nominee.

Jasper hasn’t spoken to O’Brien since becoming speaker, he said. But he has met with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“We talked about how we could work together for the benefit of the people of the state of New Hampshire,” Jasper said. “We understood that we would disagree on many issues, but that there would be no reason to be disagreeable.”

And he has talked to Democratic House leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook.

Jasper “is a very strong individual,” Shurtleff said. “I think we’ll see far more bipartisanship than anybody anticipated.”

Jasper didn’t name any specific legislative goals. But he said that generally, the priority of government should be helping to grow the economy and improve the state’s business climate to create better paying jobs.

In the past, Jasper has cast ballots against gambling, raising the minimum wage and repealing the death penalty. He has already submitted several bill proposals for the next session, including one to repeal a law that restricts cell phone usage while driving.

Jasper’s political experience also includes more than 15 years as a selectman in Hudson. But no stranger to political upset, Jasper lost re-election to that post in 2012.

Next Wednesday, Jasper plans to name his leadership team and appoint committee chairs, drawing from a range of representatives, not just his own supporters.

“I’m looking to who are the best qualified people to lead the House,” Jasper said. “That just naturally crosses all lines of consideration of who they supported.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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