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Renny Cushing drew upon support from old and new reps to be elected House Democratic Leader 

  • Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton at the State House in Concord on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • State Rep. Rennie Cushing speaks on the house floor in favor of repealing the state's death penalty Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. The House voted 225-104 in favor of repealing capital murder. The measure goes to the Republican-controlled Senate next where it faces an uncertain future. NH (AP Photo/Jim Cole)Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, speaks on the House floor in Concord yesterday in favor of repealing the state’s death penalty. Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 11/20/2020 4:37:53 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 4:37:38 PM

For Rep. Safiya Wazir, the strength of Rep. Renny Cushing’s leadership lies in a key trait: inclusiveness. 

As a freshman representative from Concord in 2019, Wazir was still finding her feet, figuring out how to draft legislation and corral support. But Cushing reached out to her with a big opportunity. He brought her on to help lead the fight over the repeal of the death penalty, Cushing’s priority for twenty years. 

In March of that year, Wazir took to the “well,” which is the name for the podium from which lawmakers give speeches. She was the first speaker in support of the repeal bill. It was her first time addressing the 400-member body. Wazir made it count, delivering a personalized plea for repeal by connecting New Hampshire’s capital punishment to her birth country of Afghanistan, which she fled as a refugee.

“Renny has our back,” said Wazir on Friday. “He’s a people-oriented person. He’s open-minded – he's one of the people who listens to both sides.”

This week, New Hampshire House Democrats elected Cushing, of Hampton, to lead their caucus as they prepare for a two-year session out of power. And Wazir was one of the first representatives to nominate him. 

After a tightly-decided vote that relied on ranked-choice voting, Democratic representatives chose Cushing, a longtime progressive crusader on death penalty repeal and marijuana legalization, over a slate of other Democrats seeking to take the reins. 

“Thankful to all who encouraged me to run for Leader,” Cushing said in a tweet. “Proud to stand and fight for (New Hampshire House) Democratic ideas and ideals.”  

First elected to the House in 1996, Cushing has served seven two-year terms, most recently chairing the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. After suffering tragedy in 1988 when his father was killed by a gunman in his own home, Cushing became a three-decade advocate for repealing the state’s death penalty. He used his personal story to advocate less severe punishments even for killers, and kept the pressure on for years until in 2019, he secured a veto-proof majority against Gov. Chris Sununu and succeeded.

As chairman of Criminal Justice, Cushing kept a largely collegial committee, known as much for heated debate as for field trips to jails and occasional bipartisan dinners. 

He’s been the public face of the effort to legalize marijuana in the state, framing it as a criminal justice reform issue as much as an economic one. 

On Thursday, the Hampton representative beat out Rep. Doug Ley, the current Democratic Majority Leader, who had been endorsed by outgoing-Speaker Steve Shurtleff; Rep. Margorie Smith, a long-time member from Durham, and Rep. Matt Wilhelm, a second-term member from Manchester.

Cushing did not take the majority on the first round of counting. Under a ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates by preferences, and if no candidate commands a majority under the count “first preferences” then second preferences and third preferences are factored in. Cushing fell narrowly behind Ley on the first preferences tally, 58-55, but caught up on the second preference count and ended with 107-77 by the time third preferences were tallied, a party official confirmed.

He takes power at a time of transition. New Hampshire Democrats lost their majority in Nov. 3, dropping from a 230-156 advantage near the end of the term – a tally that factors in 13 vacancies – to a 213-187 Republican advantage in the next two-year session. 

On Friday, House Republicans chose their own leader, Rep. Dick Hinch of Merrimack, who will likely be elected Speaker of the House on Dec. 2. The caucus voted for Hinch unanimously.

Hinch, a political firebrand who as Republican Leader in the last session often castigated Democratic leadership and called on them to resign, issued a statement thanking the caucus and promising to unify his party. 

“I have spent the last six years working with members of our caucus from all walks of life, and building consensus to achieve our goals,” Hinch said. “Those who know me know that I have worked tirelessly over the last two years to bring our caucus together and that everyone has a seat at the table.”

For his part, Cushing also benefitted from a broad appeal within his party. A well-known force for Democratic legislative priorities, he had the loyalty of many in the party’s old guard, including Rep. Laura Pantelakos, the “Dean of the House” and longest serving member of either party, who helped nominate Cushing. 

But he also cultivated respect from some of the younger and newer members of the Democratic party, including Wazir. Freshmen representatives are often left out of key decision-making roles, left to fight for their own influence in the building. 

But it was Cushing, Wazir said, who had seen the potential power of her perspective on the death penalty and reached down despite her inexperience. A year later, Cushing helped Wazir jumpstart own legislation, connecting her with Sen. Dan Feltes and Concord Rep. Mary Jane Wallner on a conference call regarding auto insurance reform. 

Wazir argues that as a leader of the party, at a time when younger House Democrats have reached their highest numbers in decades, that instinct of Cushing's will serve the caucus well.

“One of the (things) that was missing was inclusion,” Wazir said of the tenure of Speaker Steve Shurtleff. “Inclusion wasn’t there in the majority that we were in 2018. Especially first-timers, or the younger representatives. Those were not heard as often. I believe, and I’m assuming and I’m hoping with Renny, he will be a strong advocate and he will be a strong voice for everyone.”

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

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