Capital Beat: Few females in State House leadership roles 

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Saturday, May 13, 2017

New Hampshire’s congressional delegation is all women. But at the state level, it’s a man’s world.

For the first time in at least a decade, there’s all-male leadership at the State House and in the corner office. The trend reaches across the aisle. Republican majority and Democratic minority leaders in the House and Senate are all men.

“We always strive to have a mix in leadership,” said House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat. “It’s just the way things may have worked out.”

Hearings last week into representatives’ conduct touched off a debate over gender equality at the State House. Democrats questioned whether Rep. Sherry Frost would have been taken to task over her tweets had she been a man. But Republicans argued it’s not about whether she’s a woman – her behavior crossed the line.

New Hampshire has broken ground when it comes to gender in politics. The state sent the first all-female Congressional delegation to Washington and is one of a handful nationwide that has elected more than one female governor. But the recent gains aren’t trickling down to the local level. The percentage of women holding seats in the New Hampshire Legislature has steadily declined from 34 percent in 1993, to 28.5 percent this year, according to national studies and advocacy organizations.

Donna Sytek, the first female Speaker of the New Hampshire House, is particularly aware of the change. For the first time since its inception a decade ago, a leadership program meant to boost the number of elected female Republicans had to take a two-year hiatus due to a lack of applications. The initiative couldn’t find the six-women minimum needed to fill a class.

The Vesta Roy Excellence in Public Services Series will be resurrected this year, so long as enough women sign-up.

“We are giving it one last chance,” Sytek said. “We used to have huge numbers of Republican women. They just started to drop off.”

Women make up just over a quarter of the 400-member House and less than a third of the 24-member Senate. While Democrat women in the Legislature outnumber Republican women, the gaps are thin.

It’s not clear why the percentage of female lawmakers is dropping. House and Senate members make only $100 a year and most are retired or have jobs outside the building. Sytek suggested that more women are working now than when she was in the House in the 1990s.

Legislators point out that men aren’t running the whole show. While male lawmakers hold the highest positions in leadership, females are mixed in too. Republican Sen. Sharon Carson is President Pro Tempore, for example. Republican Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel is the House Majority Whip.

“If you look at the composition of (committee) chairs and vice chairs, I think there is a great distribution there,” said House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, a Republican.

Great distribution is apparently one-fifth. Five of the 24 House committees chairs are women.

Lady lawmakers are notably absent in certain areas. In the Senate, no women serve on three of the most powerful committees that control the state purse strings – finance, ways and means and capital budget. In the House, aside from the speaker and the majority leader, other top leadership positions are primarily held by men.

The lack of women isn’t confined to the legislative branch. All five of Gov. Chris Sununu’s commissioner nominees have so far been men. Two were picked to replace outgoing females, who led the education and administrative services departments.

Applications for the Vesta Roy leadership program are due this week. Sytek is hopeful the group can build a class.

“We’re hoping to increase the pool so there will be more people to choose from when it comes to leadership,” she said.

Another one bites the dust

The House Libertarian Caucus is now two members strong, after another representative defected from the Democratic party last week.

Rep. Joseph Stallcop announced on the State House steps he is joining the Libertarian Party. He follows Rep. Caleb Dyer, who earlier this year left the Republican Party to join the Libertarians.

It’s not clear how much sway the caucus will have. But Dyer said enough members are frustrated with the two-party system that others may make the jump too. A quick survey of state representatives didn’t produce many commitments. Rep. JR Hoell, a Dunbarton Republican, wouldn’t say whether he will become a Libertarian. But he did observe his addition to the two-person caucus would drive up the average age. Both Dyer and Stallcop are 21.

The House has long had a Libertarian streak and this year and next the party is on the ballot. It’s all thanks to Max Abramson, who won 4 percent of the vote in the last governor’s race and qualified Libertarians as an official party.

The Josiah Barlett connection

If you want a place in Chris Sununu’s administration, better join the board of The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. Current members have been tapped as Sununu’s chief of staff, attorney general and a top member of his transition team. Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky pointed out the connection last week at a hearing on Charlie Arlinghaus, the center’s longtime president and Sununu’s nominee to lead the state’s administrative services department. A vote on Arlinghaus’ nomination is expected this week.

Dueling unions

Two of the state’s biggest unions are backing opposing candidates in the special election to replace Democratic state Sen. Scott McGilvray. The state employees union came out in favor of Republican David Boutin, who previously held the seat, but didn’t seek re-election in 2014.

Hours later, the largest teacher’s union, NEA-New Hampshire, endorsed Democrat Kevin Cavanaugh. McGilvray led NEA New Hampshire and stayed on the job after being elected.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)