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Hassan says dinner table lessons still ring true

New Hampshire Sunday News

November 10. 2012 11:56PM
Maggie Hassan addresses supporters at the Puritian Backroom in Manchester Tuesday night after winning the race for New Hampshire governor. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

As a child growing up with two politically active parents, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan learned at the dinner table to share and defend her views.

As a mother raising a child with cerebral palsy, the Exeter attorney realized that patience and determination went a long way.

And as a politician running for office in a state split politically, the former Senate majority leader concluded that voters wanted Democrats and Republicans to work together to make the state better.

"I come to this role from a belief that you make the best decisions when you have as many different perspectives and experiences at the table as possible, and everybody needs to be heard, and you need to make sure you have a process that allows that to happen, and that is what I tried to do with the state Senate, and that's what I'm committed to do as governor," Hassan said Friday.

When not handling political matters, Hassan, which rhymes with "fasten," enjoys reading P.D. James mysteries, following Boston sports teams and hosting Sunday night family dinners surrounded by friends and neighbors.

Born in Boston, she grew up in a home in Lincoln, Mass., where discussions about current affairs were mandated.

"When you are the child of two educators, both of whom care about community service a lot, there are a lot of dinner conversations in which everybody is expected to weigh in," she said. "My father used to actually go around the table person by person and ask them what they thought, so everybody from family members to our guests were expected to either think out loud or have an opinion, and we did."

The family lived in Washington, D.C., from 1965 to 1969, when her father, Robert Wood, who survived the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, served as undersecretary and later secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Lyndon Johnson.

Today, Hassan, 54, and her husband, Tom, have two children, Meg, 19, and Ben, 24. While governor, Hassan plans to remain living in a house at Phillips Exeter Academy, where her husband is principal. Ben lives with them.

"Ben is one of the most patient and one of the most determined people that I've ever met, and for somebody with his level of disability - he can't speak or walk or use his fingers - but he is expressive, and he communicates in his own way and does so in a very determined way that I just find remarkable," Hassan said.

"Ben requires 24-hour care, so we have somebody who has been his caregiver for 23 years who does essentially the day shift, and then we have some respite providers, some nurses who come in to help," she said. "Our family covers the night shift. Ben generally sleeps well at night, and that is how we do it, and we have family and friends that help, too."

Hassan said she has learned several lessons as Ben's mom.

"One is that your children are who they're going to be, and we had a very good and early lesson with Ben that we were going to let Ben be who he was, and it's been a great gift to realize that early on, and secondly, that patience and determination can go a long way," she said.

Advocating for her son, who has cerebral palsy, led Hassen to pursue her political ambitions. Then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in 1999 appointed her to the Advisory Committee to the Adequacy in Education and Finance Commission.

In 2002, Hassan planned to run as a state representative, but redistricting gave her a better opportunity to run for state Senate. The Democrat lost that race but won in 2004. She served three terms before losing her seat in 2010.

In defeating Manchester attorney Ovide Lamontagne by more than 80,000 votes Tuesday, Hassan became the second woman elected governor in the state. New Hampshire voters also elected two women to the U.S. House, giving New Hampshire an all-women congressional delegation, the first ever in the United States.

Hassan said the state's citizen Legislature and its many local boards give women more opportunities to become involved in politics.

"I think some of it is a natural evolution, but I go back to the fact that New Hampshire is such an independent state with a lot undeclared voters who really do election by election choose the person who they think is best for the job," Hassan said. "I think women bring a breath of experience and a somewhat different perspective to the role that helps increase the possibility of problem-solving going forward just because the better the mix you have at the national level and the state level, the more people who are at the table, the better the decisions are going to be, and I think that's one of the things that New Hampshire voters spoke to."

Republican Bob Clegg, a former Senate majority leader who worked closely with Hassan, called her "tough. She was a good advocate for her side."

Clegg, now a registered lobbyist, said Hassan was open to listening to good ideas regardless of party. "I actually think she'll be very effective," he said.

Hassan said she looks forward to governing with greater Democratic numbers at the State House starting in January and putting the campaign behind her. She called negative television ads from outside political groups "an unfortunate part of political life now."

Her family also faced attacks on the Internet, including postings questioning the heritage of her husband, who's Irish-Catholic, and claiming he allowed "radical Islamists" to speak on the Phillips Exeter Academy campus.

"Look, there are always desperate smear attempts in campaigns and on the Internet, and I just think it's important to focus on the big picture always," she said.

"What I want all of the citizens of New Hampshire to know and people from outside of New Hampshire to know, too, is that we are a place that welcomes all people of talent and energy to our state to participate and contribute," Hassan said. "I call us the it's-all-hands-on-deck type of state, and it's a remarkable place, how people really love to pitch in, roll up their sleeves and get the job done."

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Michael Cousineau may be reached at mcousineau@unionleader.com.

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