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For new, young lawmakers, work-life balance just got a lot harder

  • Gov. Chris Sununu (kneeling) talks with incoming state Reps.-elect Willis Griffith (left), Israel Piedra (center) and Manny Espitia in the basement cafeteria of the State House on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, December 01, 2018

Nicole Klein won her State House seat handily. Now she’s hunting for a job.

The 30-year-old Manchester resident, newly elected in Hillsborough’s District 11, took a break from work over the summer to focus on her campaign, netting the highest vote count in the two-seat district. But as salaries go, the Legislature’s $100 yearly stipend is not going to cut it, and now Klein is looking for something more permanent.

“As soon as possible, man; I need to make the dough!” she joked outside the State House cafeteria Tuesday, midway through the first day of legislator orientation.

Klein has experience, recently holding a job as a communications specialist at a major company. But as a House representative facing committee duties, caucus meetings and voting days – the latter of which often take up the majorities of Wednesdays and Thursdays – her availability is being squeezed.

Many firms, she fears, will not be flexible.

“I want to put as much time into this as possible, and it’s going to be hard finding an employer that can respect that,” she said, speaking on her new legislative duties. “I’m kind of in a hard crunch, but it’s a learning process.”

It’s a balancing act many now face. After a wave election that swept in a diverse group of new members, the State House is flush with young faces. Forty-four members of the next 400-member House are under 40, party leaders estimate: 34 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

That means a more inclusive and representative legislative body. It also means a string of new headaches for those with careers, families and commitments. From January to June, legislators meet nearly weekly for the Wednesday and Thursday voting days, and committee and subcommittee hearings scattered on other days.

Young legislators say they’ve had to make adjustments. For many, that meant negotiating with employers before they filed their candidacies.

When Rep. Willis Griffith applied for his job as academic support teacher and soccer coach at the New Hampton School, the 24-year-old was already a declared candidate in Manchester. But the school was accommodating, telling Griffith he could shuffle around to different departments in order to balance his new legislative commitments.

The approach was the same for Rep. Iz Piedra, who warned his law firm in Nashua of his pending campaign. His bosses said to give it a go.

“Depending on my committee assignments and my commitment to that, it’ll most likely be staying late the other days at work and working at homes on weekends and evenings to make up as much as I can, catch up as much as I can,” the Manchester representative said of his new schedule.

Then there are the students. Rep. Garrett Muscatel attends Dartmouth College, and his election victory has already scrambled his summers. To keep the winter and spring months free, the Hanover Democrat is adding extra summer commitments and classes on campus to balance it out.

It’s an option that Rep. Denny Ruprecht of Landaff doesn’t have. One of the youngest state legislators at 19, Ruprecht plans to enroll in online college classes to keep his time commitments open.

Even in his teens, Ruprecht knew politics was his passion. “I would love to do this as long as I can,” he said.

But realities await. Ruprecht, who lives with his parents, knows a more stable career will eventually call. “Right now I consider this my full-time job, but eventually I’m going to have to find a way to pay the bills,” he said.

For Democratic and Republican campaign directors eager to harness youth engagement and recruit millennial candidates, the work burden and lack of salary accompanying the job is an inescapable caveat. They have to be straight with prospective candidates.

“We are totally up front and honest with what sort of time commitment it’s going to take,” said Lucas Meyer, president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, whose robust campaigning and recruitment efforts helped usher in this year’s slate of young lawmakers. But Meyer said the party also stresses the payoff.

“Being a state rep is brutal. There’s no way around it,” he said. “You don’t get paid. It’s pretty thankless work. But it’s incredibly important work.”

Joe Sweeney, a former New Hampshire Young Republicans chairman and state representative himself, said this year’s young generation of Republican candidates were amply warned of the sacrifices before their campaigns. Now, the victors are floating a number of solutions to making it work, from staggering their shifts to using sick or vacation days, he said.

Sweeney has been here before, recently serving as a state representative and the student body president of the University of New Hampshire simultaneously. On voting days, he recalled, he would use any minute he could, grabbing a laptop and plugging away on school assignments on lunch breaks.

“It does represent a hurdle to getting young people that are very qualified to be state representative to actually have the time to commit to it,” Sweeney said of New Hampshire’s system. “It was always a balancing act.”

For some, the reality has already arrived.

At orientation day Tuesday, Rep. Jackie Chretien, 35, of Manchester got her first taste of the coming balancing act, when school called her asking if she could fetch sneakers for her son James, who had forgotten his.

“I had to call back and say ah, no, I can’t, I’m up in Concord, so ...,” she recalled.

Chretien has three kids and a full-time job editing scientific manuscripts. The work affords flexibility, but she’s still ready to call on the help of her mom, who lives nearby.

“It’ll be a lot of juggling, but I’m hopeful I can kind of slide around,” she said.

Still, for Chretien and others, sweating through the logistics is well worth the bigger goal: the chance to use their new positions
to make their mark on state
policy.

“Oh, I wouldn’t have gone through the whole election process to not do anything,” Chretien said. “I’m here to make things happen. Or at least help things happen.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)