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As Speaker of the House, 'Old school' Chandler is back on top

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 03. 2017 1:05AM
Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, speaks Thursday before being voted in as House Speaker at the State House in Concord Thursday. (David Lane/Sunday News)

CONCORD - Gene Chandler, a 70-year-old, unapologetic "old school" conservative Republican, is back on top of the political mountain.

"I'll give it my best effort," Chandler says.

The Bartlett resident finally got back the gavel to be Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, almost 13 years to the day from his high-wire fall from grace.

That's when the Legislative Ethics Committee voted in November 2004 to proceed with formal charges against then-Speaker Chandler for failing to report $64,000 in cash gifts from annual corn roasts that he had used to buy groceries and clothing, fix his car, stay overnight in Concord and occasionally pay some utility bills.

The panel ultimately recommended Chandler be expelled but the full House instead voted to reprimand him.

He pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor, performed 100 hours of community service and did not run for a third term as speaker while keeping the Carroll Count seat he's held for 18 straight two-year terms.

But don't try to tell this soft-spoken, North Country politician last week's second-ballot victory was some form of redemption.

"No, I am well past that," Chandler said.

Indeed, Chandler's revival from that ethical lapse had long been in the works.

Even after Chandler bowed out, his replacement as speaker, Stratham's Doug Scamman, put Chandler right back on as chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee. Two years later, Chandler became the number three Republican.

And in 2010 Chandler ran for speaker, losing narrowly to New Boston conservative firebrand Rep. Bill O'Brien, who then made Chandler speaker pro tem, which continued his road back to the top.

"I take things as they come. I guess you take advantage of things as they come along," Chandler said.

Even though there were six GOP candidates, Chandler was optimistic about victory this time especially since he pledged merely to manage through the next year and not to run for speaker after the 2018 elections.

"I thought I had a pretty good chance," Chandler said.

Some GOP conservatives believe Chandler won due to his management style, a soft touch that doesn't sweat the little details and freely tolerates policy debates within the ranks.

Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, and a leader in the House Freedom Caucus, didn't even vote for Chandler - he turned in a blank ballot both times because Chandler wouldn't give any policy commitments.

Hoell predicted the House will be a much calmer place under Chandler than two-term Speaker Shawn Jasper, who resigned Friday to become commissioner of agriculture.

"I have no beef with Gene," Hoell said. "He is not a vindictive guy. He is not a policy wonk; he will let the trains run on time."

Jasper had infuriated conservatives, referring to his state budget critics as "terrorists."

Chandler won't criticize Jasper - who after all made him deputy speaker.

"Everyone has their own way of doing things," Chandler said. "There is no question I am probably more laid back. I tend to run things slow, that way they might happen naturally. I don't take things personally for the most part."

Chandler knows there was an easier path to victory had he cut a deal and promised top posts to win key blocs of votes.

"I never have done that when I have ever run. I draw the line at that, right or wrong. I think it's the right way to go. You get going with deals right and left and pretty soon, you're lost even if you win," Chandler said.

Still, Chandler has some wounds to heal among the rank-and-file.

After the first ballot when Chandler came up two votes short, a supporter of his chief GOP rival, Bedford Rep. Laurie Sanborn, told the closed-door GOP caucus he'd keep opposing Chandler unless he pledged not to name Goffstown Republican Rep. John Burt to a leadership post. Sanborn had already endorsed Chandler after losing among Republicans.

But some Sanborn allies were still furious when Burt dropped out and endorsed Chandler.

Another speaker hopeful who went with Chandler, Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, took to Facebook last Thursday to protest the snub.

"On an unrelated note, what happened to John A Burt today should never happen in the House, or in caucus. He handled it with class," Smith posted.

In response, Burt joked about it.

"A very sad day on that part, but we got through. It was done in (private) caucus as it should be. But I am sure someone will let it out," Burt answered.

Some conservative House members like Gilford Rep. Glen Aldrich weren't laughing and saw Chandler's win as a moderate sellout.

"I don't see how 'Jasper-lite' is going to bring the party together," Aldrich wrote. "We had a real opportunity to make a difference and blew it."

Rather than congratulate Chandler, Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley wanted to dredge up his past.

"People who know Chandler remember him for his corruption lawsuit, illegal cash gifts from lobbyists, pocketing fundraising money for personal use and looking the other way on sexual harassment," Buckley railed.

Chandler said he's got close to a 40-year record of pursuing results rather than trying to score partisan points.

But this crusty moose hunter admitted when the gavel finally came to him, he fought to keep from breaking down.

"I do get a little emotional, I didn't focus on anything until after the vote. When it happened, I wish I could have taken an hour off and gone off and taken a deep breath rather than go right up to the well, but that's how it's done," Chandler said.

The personally private Chandler wasn't sharing; maybe he was thinking of his late wife of more than 30 years, Nancy, a North Country icon herself, teacher and naturalist who started the first ski-area nursery at Attitash Mountain in Bartlett prior to her death in 2003.

Chandler said he's leaning towards running for the House again in 2018.

"I haven't decided. I lean towards running but I haven't made that decision yet. It gets a little more difficult every year," Chandler summed up.

"The campaigns are getting more brutal now; it's not as much fun as it used to be."

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