My Turn: Good government bills meet the buzz saw of the governor’s serial vetoes

  • Gov. Chris Sununu AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/13/2019 8:00:15 AM

What does partisan gerrymandering look like in New Hampshire? Two Strafford County towns form the “Bowtie,” a House district bound by a single geographic pinpoint, two triangles one could not even walk over the point is so small, municipal boundaries improbably touching.

Concord’s Ward 5, my home ward as long as I could vote, arguably one of the most Democratic in the state, is the only ward carved out of the city and glommed on to high-turnout neighboring Hopkinton, whose votes can easily crush that of any single Capital City ward. It was rumored that this monstrosity was an effort by former Republican Speaker Bill O’Brien to drive from office longtime representative and Ward 5 resident, former majority leader Mary Jane Wallner, a Democrat. Indeed, under the current map, Hopkinton has controlled two of the three seats in this House district since 2012. A part of a Manchester state Senate district has similarly been grafted on to Republican Litchfield to try to thwart Democratic contenders.

And of course, last but not least, the notorious “Dragon District” – Executive Council District 2, which arches its back from Keene on the Vermont border all the way to Somersworth on the Maine border. The Dragon was created to pack as many Democrats as possible into its reptilian form, including Democratic hotbeds Keene, Concord, Durham and Dover. Keene, in particular, was cleaved off the district that historically included Nashua to make it harder for a popular Democratic incumbent from the Gate City, Deb Pignatelli, to be elected. Indeed, the seat has ping-ponged for a number of years between Councilor Pignatelli when she has run and a perennial conservative adversary. The district is uncannily reminiscent of the original “Gerrymander” – a district from 1812 in Massachusetts, the word a combination of Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s name and a salamander, which the misshapen district resembled.

In response to such egregious politicized lines, this year the Legislature passed an independent redistricting commission to redraw lines that presently favor Republicans – a bill lauded by leading Republicans and Democrats alike, including the Republican chairman of the Ballot Law Commission, attorney Brad Cook.

Surprisingly, the governor has vetoed this popular bipartisan bill, ensuring that the practice of the party in power at the census claiming the line-drawing spoils will continue unabated, if the veto is not over-ridden. The O’Brien-era gerrymandering led to Republican control of the Legislature and Executive Council for the better part of a decade. 2020 is a crapshoot for both sides in terms of who will prevail in dozens of districts that tip Republican (despite Democratic gains against all odds in 2018 on the anti-Trump mid-term wave).

Campaign finance reform has also taken a hit with the governor’s summertime vetoes. The much decried limited liability company (LLC) loophole, which allows wealthy individuals to give exponentially more money to candidates through multiple LLCs they create and control, was all but certain to be closed this year but for the governor’s veto. The governor’s campaigns have been significant beneficiaries of LLC largesse.

A bill that would have brought more accountability and transparency to “issue ads” that parade as campaign hit pieces all but in name for avoiding certain explicit references to a given election, was also vetoed. The Koch-brother-funded Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire has three times dodged complaints for mailers and door hangers that very likely swung races for individual legislative seats, let alone bigger political prizes.

To his credit, the governor has signed one reform limiting contributions and making reporting more transparent for inaugural committees. The governor was perhaps painted into a corner by the unfortunate optics of his 2017 inaugural committee, which had paid his sister, father and close associates about $165,000 out of inaugural funds for party planning and the like, an endeavor that may have run afoul of federal and state regulations against self-dealing by nonprofits.

Time will tell if any of these vetoes are flipped this September. The high-profile override of a veto of the death penalty repeal, with no votes to spare, demonstrates it is not impossible if the legislative will is there – in this case, it will take Republicans of conscience to achieve good government reform – or not.

Time will also tell if Democratic pretenders to the governor’s chair will bring forward plans to comprehensively overhaul the Granite State’s loophole-ridden campaign finance laws and rekindle the push for drawing fair lines in our elections, should the redistricting veto be sustained.

Good government is on the line.

(Jay Surdukowski is a partner at the law firm of Sulloway & Hollis in Concord who was co-counsel in the 2010 redistricting lawsuit on behalf of Democratic members of the New Hampshire House.)

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