Sununu nominates Jasper for N.H. agriculture commissioner

  • Republican Shawn Jasper is handed the gavel after being re-elected as Speaker of the House at the State House in Concord in 2016. Jasper was nominated by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday to become the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 10/12/2017 10:26:17 AM

Republican House Speaker Shawn Jasper plans to pursue an open position as Commissioner of Agriculture, he announced Thursday, stunning lawmakers in both parties and setting off a scramble among potential suitors seeking to replace him.

The decision came after Gov. Chris Sununu approached the speaker urging him to take the role, which will be vacated in November after Commissioner Lorraine Merrill retires.

In a statement announcing the move, Jasper said he’s ready to take the mantle.

“I am hoping that I can continue the good work of Commissioner Lorraine Merrill and to serve the people of this great state by guiding the agriculture community into the future,” the Hudson Republican said.

He added: “It is not a position that I sought out, however it is the only position for which I would even consider stepping down as the Speaker of the House, a role that I have cherished.”

Jasper clarified that he will not resign as speaker unless and until he’s officially approved as Commissioner by the Executive Council.

The announcement spread quickly through the State House, fueling steady speculation on possible successors. Before the day was over, at least six House members – including House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat – had declared their candidacies for the speaker’s post should Jasper be confirmed.

In making a bid for the role, Jasper is beginning a process that is not necessarily a guarantee. His application will first be reviewed and approved by the Agricultural Advisory Board, whose recommendation will be presented to the Executive Council and governor for a final decision.

But legislative officials moved to set up a succession process nonetheless. In an email to House lawmakers Thursday, House Clerk Paul Smith scheduled party caucus sessions for Nov. 29 – during which parties will nominate a leader – and a full legislative session for a final vote on Nov. 30.

Jasper, a twelve-term representative who has served in all major leadership positions and once chaired the Legislative Ethics Committee, has been active in state politics as far back as 1984, serving sporadic terms until 2002. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he ascended to speaker, aligning with Democrats for the vote and rebuffing an attempt from former speaker William O’Brien, a fellow Republican.

Speaking from his office Thursday, Jasper said he had spent time deliberating over the choice, weighing what was best for his family. Departing from the post, which he called “a tremendous honor” was a tough call.

“It’s not easy to say ‘Oh, you know, I’m going to move on halfway through,’ ” he said.

But he called the commissioner role “another opportunity, one that won’t come again.”

The new post would carry a vastly different set of responsibilities. Heading the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, Jasper would be tasked with promoting interests of farmers and food suppliers, engaging in research and funding programs, and liaising with the University of New Hampshire on educational opportunities.

But the speaker said his background in farming gave him particular insight into the area.

Jasper grew up around animals; his family owned a poultry breeding farm in Hudson from the early 1900s to the 1980s, producing around 160 million eggs over 80 years. In his 20s, he took over some of the business himself, briefly studying agriculture at the University of New Hampshire to prepare.

For 29 years, the speaker has also been an adviser to University of New Hampshire’s Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, which focuses on agriculture. Part of the role is bringing students to agricultural conventions and seminars around the country, he said.

Through that fraternity, he added, he’s been able to stay on top of new technologies and trends in the business.

In his own announcement Thursday, Sununu praised Jasper’s experience as a qualifier for the role.

“I can think of no better choice to continue Commissioner Lorraine Merrill’s legacy than Speaker Shawn Jasper and urge the Agricultural Advisory Board to carefully review the Speaker’s application,” the governor said.

But if Jasper’s approval to be Agriculture Commissioner appears favorable, the choice of his successor is wholly unpredictable. For his part, Jasper said he favors Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, to take up the baton, though he noted that Chandler is running only in a temporary capacity ahead of elections in November 2018.

Chandler was not available to comment Thursday.

Coloring the race for a successor are mixed feelings among some in Jasper’s party on his tenure. After his first election, many praised the speaker for working across the aisle to heal partisan wounds from O’Brien’s speakership. But some conservatives saw Jasper’s decision to use Democratic votes to take the top office as a betrayal.

Last year, the rifts came to the fore when Jasper narrowly won his re-election bid following a challenge by conservative-backed Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford. On Thursday, Sanborn announced she would try again, criticizing the House’s failure this year to approve a budget this session or pass right-to-work laws.

Other contenders, such as Jim McConnell, R-Swanzey, and Jim Burt, R-Goffstown, declined to criticize Jasper’s tenure, but vowed to bring the disparate wings of the party together.

A sixth legislator, Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said he’ll enter the race only if Chandler doesn’t receive sufficient support.

From the third-floor office, Jasper said he’ll support Chandler’s bid however he can.

But addressing his own legacy, he was quick to demur.

“It’s too early for that,” he said, laughing.

His real focus, he said, is on getting a job in which he says he can excel.

“It’s been a passion of mine,” he said of the farming business. “It’s my roots – it’s my heritage.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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