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Katy Burns: Oh, lucky us! Bill O’Brien’s back!

  • Former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’™Brien acknowledges the crowd at the Henry J. Sweeney Legion Post 2 in Manchester on Tuesday evening as he announces his U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/27/2019 5:00:13 PM

Last week Eris – the Greek goddess of strife, discord and chaos – looked down on our happy little state and decided for Herself that, well, matters are running too smoothly. Sure, one political party holds the State House and another the governor’s office, but they seem to be civil. Even cooperative on some things.

Aha!, She said to Herself. I’ll bring back Bill O’Brien!

Yes, dear die-hard fans of Granite State politics. O’Brien, the sage of Mont Vernon and general thorn in the collective side of all who would prefer cooperative harmony on our political scene, has announced that he’s re-emerging from wherever he’s been for the last few placid years.

He’s planning to run for the U.S. Senate against Senator Jeanne Shaheen. He wants to bring his talents to Washington!

And so he came out of retirement with all guns blazing. “She has become extreme. She is controlled by – in fact, she is – the swamp.” As evidence of her swampiness, he claimed our two-term senator promotes socialism. And he pledged to help our president wall off our country’s southern border. Fortress America!

In his previous incarnation, before he decided to tackle the project of setting America straight, he confined himself with attempting to wreak havoc in Concord. He lurked for a bit on the back benches of the House of Representatives until he could gather a small army of acolytes and malcontents – Birthers (remember them?), gun absolutists, anti-government zealots and others on the fringes of our political world – to mount a successful coup in that august body.

His first act as speaker was an attempt to kick a duly elected Manchester member, a union employee, from the House for trying to introduce a bill raising the state’s minimum wage. He was unsuccessful. No matter.

The important thing was that he signaled a new tone for our legislature. For several years, havoc reigned under the golden dome.

Wacky legislation is introduced every year – what else would you expect with 400 House members? – but under O’Brien it swelled into a tidal wave of crackpot ideas, everything from mandating that schools teach only “reading, writing and arithmetic” to a proposal that the state stop mandating school at all.

Bills would have forbidden federal authorities from enforcing federal law here, mandated criminal background checks for all legislative candidates and provided that all business signs could only be in English or they would have to include all six “official” United Nations languages, whatever that meant and no matter the cost.

There was also a flood of more serious proposals, looked on with favor by leadership, especially where guns were concerned. In fact, the new legislature’s first act was to pass a law opening the State House, including the legislative chamber, to open gun carrying.

And close O’Brien ally Al Baldasaro posted online a photo of his recent nuptial ceremony with the entire wedding party carrying assault rifles. Yeah, that’s the Baldasaro who, shortly after, achieved national notoriety as an official Donald Trump advisor who advocated dragging Hillary Clinton before a firing squad for treason.

Under O’Brien, the House made serious (if not ultimately successful) attempts to repeal gay marriage and women’s rights to determine their own health care. He tried (unsuccessfully) to repeal clean air laws and worked particularly doggedly (if in vain) to impose so-called Right to Work laws on New Hampshire workers, which would have turned our state into the sort of workers’ paradises that people now enjoy in such places as Mississippi and Alabama.

During O’Brien’s tenure, our legislature became the regular butt of jokes in late night TV comics’ monologues. A particularly popular highlight was the widely shown tape of a contingent of Birther legislative members chasing New Hampshire election officials through the halls of the State House trying to force them to remove President Obama’s name from the upcoming 2012 presidential primary ballot.

O’Brien was notorious for his bullying of members, so severe that one Republican legislator – said to have been reduced to tears by the speaker – even introduced a bill to ban bullying in the chamber.

If members with physical limitations – and our largely elder 400-member legislature has its share of them – didn’t vote according to O’Brien’s pleasure, he would deprive them of their aisle seats in our notoriously cramped legislative hall. And they would be summarily dismissed from their chosen committees.

And the then-speaker’s wrath wasn’t limited to members. When he was annoyed with criticism from the Monitor’s editorial writers, he barred the paper’s well-respected State House reporter from his news conferences.

In 2012, a Democratic rout toppled the Republicans from power, O’Brien among them. And two years later, when the GOP was back at the reins of the State House, a new speaker – decidedly not O’Brien – was elected in a bipartisan vote.

O’Brien returned to the back benches. And, in a snit, he and his small band of allies decamped to an office across Main Street from the State House, planning to become a shadow government in exile to the rude interlopers – raising money, formulating positions, introducing legislation, and so on.

But, alas, no one gave them money. And no one wanted their legislation or – especially – their advice.

The sad little rebellion ended with an abandoned Republican Majority Caucus office on Main Street, a peeved landlord, and Bill O’Brien back in Mont Vernon plotting his Act 2. This must be it. Get ready, Washington, Bill O’Brien is coming your way!

Well, that is, if he gets through a primary.

And a general election – against a formidable opponent people actually like. So, Washington, don’t lay out the red carpet just yet.

Meanwhile, somewhere, the goddess Eris is mischievously smiling.

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