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February 16. 2012 7:44PM

Fergus Cullen: Running for governor, Gatsas would have much to explain

John Stephen's announcement that he will not run for governor leaves Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas the last major figure in either party still thinking about joining the race, at least publicly. It's time for the mayor to make a decision.

Gov. John Lynch's declaration last September that he would not seek re-election came at an awkward time for Gatsas. The mayor was in the midst of his own re-election campaign, and he had already promised — repeatedly — to serve a full term if re-elected. Tough to ask Manchester voters to hire you for the next two years while simultaneously making plans to run for a different office. So Gatsas played it coy about the governor's race while his ego enjoyed others speculating about his future plans. As Oscar Wilde observed, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Should Gatsas run in a Republican primary, his candidacy will not be about his positions on issues or votes he cast as alderman, state senator and mayor. It will not be about his temper, his my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, his fondness for big government, his deal-cutting with labor unions, his tax increases or whether he broke a promise to the people of Manchester.

It will be about Gatsas's situational loyalty to the Republican Party vs. his unremitting devotion to the Party of Ted, judged by Republican activists, many of them Tea Partiers, 90 percent of whom are not from Manchester and will be making first impressions about a candidate most have barely heard of. They will have a hard time squaring Gatsas's past behavior with the idea of making him their party's nominee.

In 2005, as Gov. Lynch began his first term, Republicans relied on a 16-8 state Senate majority to check the new governor's policy agenda. Sen. Tom Eaton of Keene was president of the Senate, having twice defeated Gatsas for the post. But Gatsas never stopped scheming and undermining the leader, and in September of that year, Gatsas built a coalition of disgruntled Republican members and Democratic senators to pull off an unprecedented mid-term coup. Eaton was forced out and Gatsas become president. Liberal Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Larsen of Concord seconded Gatsas's nomination.

Political backstabbing was not new to politics, of course: Et tu, Brute? Of greater interest to conservative activists is what he did with his wrested power. Eaton had led Republican resistance to Gov. Lynch. In Eaton's place was a Vichy Senate, with Gatsas the collaborationist General Petain. President Gatsas became the governor's chief ally and legislative enabler for the rest of the term, helping create Gov. Lynch's image as a bi-partisan centrist that proved politically unstoppable, with devastating consequences for the conservative cause.

When election season came around in 2006, Gatsas declined to endorse Republican gubernatorial nominee Jim Coburn. Gov. Lynch reciprocated by not campaigning with Gatsas's opponent, Bob Backus, even while the governor campaigned aggressively against other Republican incumbents. On Election Day, Republicans lost six state Senate seats and their majority. Gatsas, representing one of the safer Republican seats, was re-elected along with enough rump caucus allies that he remained Republican leader.

Two years later, Gatsas still preferred being leader of a minority to being a member of a majority in which he might not be in charge. Republican state Senate candidates in 2008 were asked whether they would support Gatsas as leader as a condition of receiving financial support from the Senate PAC he controlled. When Republicans failed to gain any seats that year, the caucus, thanks to the courage of a couple of new members, dumped Gatsas and elected Peter Bragdon of Milford as their new leader. Thus did Gatsas complete the same political arc as Robespierre — overthrow one leader only to get overthrown himself — minus the guillotine.

Demoted by his peers to the role of back bencher, serving in the Senate was no fun. Gatsas resigned his seat and ran for mayor. Who did Gatsas choose for the honor of swearing him in to his first term at City Hall? His old buddy, Gov. Lynch.

Good luck explaining all that away to conservative Republican primary voters.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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