2018 Stories of the Year: State House becomes younger, more diverse

  • Representatives find their seats before the start of a special session of the NH House to address the state's opioid epidemic at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 12/29/2018 7:37:55 PM

In the first major election since Donald Trump became president, Democrats put Republicans on their heels.

Voters gave Republican Governor Chris Sununu another two years, but the blue wave washed over the rest of the state’s top offices.

New Hampshire continues to have an all-Democratic congressional delegation and over at the State House, Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives (final count: 234 Democrats to 166 Republicans), state Senate (final count: 14 Democrats to 10 Republicans) and Executive Council.

The makeup of the Legislature is set to change, too, with a younger and potentially more diverse field poised to enter the next session.

The House of Representatives clerk announced last week that the average age of a state representative in the coming biennium is 61. The oldest member is 92; the youngest is 19.

One of the 19-year-olds taking office is Cassandra Levesque – a former Girl Scout from Barrington who successfully lobbied to increase the marriage age in New Hampshire when she was still in high school.

Closer to home, political newcomer Safiya Wazir, a 27-year-old former refugee from Afghanistan, found herself in the spotlight.

Her story – overcoming political strife in her home country, becoming an American citizen and beating out two longtime Concord residents to become the first refugee to hold a Concord state representative seat – drew national attention. Her platform – education, healthcare, paid family leave and affordable housing – secured local attention.

There were other firsts. Former state Rep. Melanie Levesque, of Nashua, narrowly defeated incumbent Kevin Avard to become New Hampshire’s first black state senator.

And political organization Stonewall Democrats said 11 LGBTQ+ candidates secured political office, including two transgender candidates. They say it’s the largest LGBTQ+ State House delegation.

In the Congressional 1st District fight, former Executive Councilor Chris Pappas’ became the first openly gay man to win a congressional seat in New Hampshire. His opponent, Eddie Edwards, would have been the first black man to hold a congressional seat.

In the eastern part of the state, Gerri Cannon of Somersworth and Lisa Bunker of Exeter became the first transgender state reps.

The state doesn’t keep demographic data on candidates or elected officials, so whether historical wins or demographic shifts happen in the Granite State is mostly anecdotal.

Some managed to retain their footing amid the upheaval.

Democratic Congresswoman Annie Kuster of the 2nd Congressional District easily held onto her seat for a fourth term, beating opponent Steve Negron by a 3-to-2 margin.

Sununu cruised to his second term, defeating challenger Molly Kelly with 52 percent of the vote.

And no election story would be complete without a mention of Bill Gardner, the longest serving Secretary of State in the country who faced his first challenge in a very, very long time.

Despite challenger Colin Van Ostern’s efforts to unseat him – leaning on aggressive fundraising, Gardner’s time on Trump’s ill-fated voting fraud commission and a promise of change in the office – Gardner retains his title going into 2019.

Also circling the midterms was a question of whether a controversial voting law would come into play.

The 2017 law requiring new voters to provide more documentation if they register within 30 days of an election faced opposition from the get-go, and opponents didn’t hesitate to take the fight to the courts. But as the midterms drew near, people became antsy, wondering if a sudden shift in procedures would cause chaos at the polls.

When a Superior Court judge blocked the bill law two weeks before the election – only to then amend the order a few days later, allowing it to be used until Election Day – it seemed like chaos was inevitable.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, saying they’d “received inquiries from local election officials” on how they should proceed after the order.

In a down-to-the-wire decision, the Supreme Court agreed the order “undermines the entire election process” and that the amendment created even more confusion.

The hubbub didn’t stop New Hampshire voters from turning out. An estimated 580, 214 ballots were cast for the Nov. 6 election, according to the Secretary of State’s website, clearing Gardner’s predictions for the day by 40,000 ballots.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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