Democrats look to set the path forward with new leader

  • Both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature give Governor Chris Sununu during the State of the State address at State House on Thursday, February 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 11/17/2020 4:09:52 PM

Just before the pandemic pushed it into silence, New Hampshire’s Representatives Hall roared with anger.

A handful of Republican lawmakers had declined to take part in anti-sexual harassment training – a new requirement for all members as laid out in a rule passed in 2018.

On one day in February, Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff doled out a uniquely legislative punishment: a reprimand for each disobedient representative on the House floor.

Democrats saw the reprimands as proportionate justice for the defiance of common-sense training. Republicans saw it as a show trial. Weeks before New Hampshire shut down during the first wave of COVID-19, raw partisan exasperation seemed to be at all-time highs.

Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages back in a second wave, the political situation is vastly different. Republicans now command the chamber after flipping a number of seats in the general election this month. And Democrats have been left searching for their footing as they plan their next step.

This week, four Democrats are striving for the position of leader of the Democratic caucus, which will convene Thursday to choose its next leader. As the candidates work to craft a path forward, the shadow of that day in February – and the inter-party vitriol it inspired – could shape what kind of minority leader is chosen.

Some of them have already vowed to heal those divides.

“I’m not interested in throwing bombs,” Rep. Marjorie Smith said in a recent interview. “I’m not interested in setting up an environment where anyone is the enemy. Everybody in that Legislature was elected by his or her constituency.”

Smith, a 24-year lawmaker, says she disagreed with the speaker’s decision to publicly punish the lawmakers, preferring it be handled privately through the House Ethics Committee.

And she argued she would take the same approach as Democratic leader as she’s taken as the chairwoman of two committees: even-handed and objective, with an extended hand across the aisle.

Meanwhile, Rep. Doug Ley, the current House majority leader who was part of the leadership team that doled out the in-person reprimands, stands by that decision.

“The reprimands certainly proved to anger people,” he said. “They also for some people were viewed as the correct thing to do, because these people had flouted the rule.”

But in their new minority position, the Democrats shouldn’t assume the role of combatants, Ley said. He argues a caucus led by him would be focused on winning back the majority in 2022, but in a positive way, through policy, rather than obstruction.

Ley, who has the endorsement of Shurtleff, is no stranger to political conflict on the House floor.

A speech he delivered in 2019 admonishing members of the House for disparaging other representatives attracted a furious reaction from Republican Leader Dick Hinch, who labeled Ley a “rogue partisan extremist,” whose speech had only exacerbated the division. Hinch called on Shurtleff to remove Ley from his position.

And Ley has had his own issues with the Legislative Ethics Committee over conflicts of interest with his day job. While serving as a lawmaker, Ley has been president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a union position.

In 2019, after months of closed-door meetings on the matter, the committee informally rebuked Ley for not recusing himself on certain votes that would affect that union.

In an interview Tuesday, Ley said he will follow the guidance moving forward and recuse himself on appropriate votes, but that he would not resign from the AFT position, comparing the decision to the representatives who own businesses and vote on business taxes.

As for the partisan tension, Ley vowed to keep the waters calm if elected leader of the Democrats.

“I will not personalize it,” he said. “It’s hard not to do. In the heat of the fight, you can have a temptation to go down that pathway.” But, he said: “I would lead from a position of principle.”

Rep. Renny Cushing, a longtime Hampton progressive who has spearheaded the fight to legalize marijuana in the Granite State, is also running for the position of Democratic leader, he announced Monday. Cushing was not available for an interview Tuesday.

Then, there’s the would-be reformer. Rep. Matt Wilhelm of Manchester is a newcomer to the House, heading into his second term this year. But Wilhelm, one of the younger members of the body, says that he’s running in part to change the makeup and strategy of the party itself.

House Democrats, and the state Democratic Party in general, need to better integrate their campaign and fundraising arms with their legislative leadership arms, Wilhelm says. It’s his central takeaway from an election that saw federal Democratic candidates do well, and many state Democrats get wiped out.

“We’re at an inflection point,” Wilhelm said in an interview. “We have to think about not just how we govern but how we campaign and communicate.”

But for Wilhelm, the partisan loss in trust after that day in February, which continued into the pandemic and a trio of bitterly divided sessions in June and September, will be a key factor for the next head of the House Democratic caucus.

“We saw tensions ratcheted, and we felt the impacts of that, throughout the next however many months,” he said. “I think that’s another reason why it’s important that we really take a look and have an intraparty conversation about leadership moving forward, because I do think a fresh start could be beneficial.”

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




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