'I didn't want to have to do this'
NASHUA - Following a storm of controversy in light of her criminal background, the first openly transgendered person elected to the New Hampshire House will resign her post.
"I didn't want to have to do this," Rep.-elect Stacie Marie Laughton, D-Nashua, said. "There's been a lot of people that have said, 'Stay strong, keep your head up, stay in it.'"
"I'm super disappointed because I was looking forward to this more than anything. It's my lifelong dream to serve my community, and what better place to do it than the city that I was born and raised in."
Laughton, 28, was elected with two fellow Democrats last month to represent Nashua's Ward 4 in Concord. She said she made the decision to resign Tuesday after being contacted by state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, who urged her to consider her options given potential challenges to her candidacy.
"No one actually asked me to resign, but they were asking me to seriously consider all of the different things that have been presented to me ... and they urged me to make a final decision sooner rather than later."
In 2008, Laughton was convicted of credit-card fraud, falsifying evidence and identity fraud. Then a male, he accepted a plea bargain that sent him to jail for 4 1/2 months. Laughton completed parole in November 2010, but the sentence also requires 10 years of good behavior, throwing into question whether she is now legally eligible to run.
She also owes about $1,816 on an original restitution bill of $1,992, a bill she has been paying regularly since 2008, Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Lyons said.
According to state law, a person sentenced for a felony, for the period between sentencing and "final discharge," may not vote or run for public office. Nashua City Clerk Paul Bergeron said in most states "final discharge" means completion of imprisonment, probation, or parole.
"Under that definition, Stacie would be eligible to be a candidate for, or to hold public office," said Bergeron, himself a former state representative. "Whether that definition applies here in New Hampshire I don't know."
But Bergeron said Laughton dropped out before a ruling was made by the Attorney General's Office. "I suggested to her that ultimately it's your decision whether or not you want to resign at that time, but I let her know that the AG's office was researching what the term meant."
Law is not clear
Assistant Attorney General Mike Brown said Tuesday that Laughton's eligibility to run and serve in public office is under review, and he must review all the sentencing documents.
He said the law is not as clear as it could be, and it uses language that includes the "final discharge" of the sentence.
"There is a distinction to be drawn between the right to vote and the right to hold office," he said, citing the criminal code. Secretary of State Bill Gardner said election law and a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling also address the issue of felons and voting.
Gardner said someone cannot register to vote if they have been convicted of a felony and are serving a sentence through probation, parole or imprisonment.
He was uncertain about what impact a suspended sentence would have on the ability to register. And he said registration forms do not ask potential voters if they are serving a felony sentence.
Veteran state Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said nothing in House rules prevents a felon from serving in the House, but the House can vote to unseat members if it feels strongly about an individual.
The law also throws into question Laughton's seat as Ward 4 selectman, which she intends to keep if possible. In cities, selectman is an office that deals with overseeing elections; a special election will likely be called following Laughton's resignation. As selectman, she would oversee that election.
Laughton's election drew national and even international headlines. But it took a turn for the worse when the Laconia Daily Sun published details of Laughton's criminal background while she was still living as a male, under her given name Barry Charles Laughton Jr.
Laughton said because of all the negative media attention of the last several days, her decision was less about legality and more about survival.
"For this particular election, after all the negativity, I need to just personally take a step back," she said.
The resignation comes a day after the outgoing House Majority Leader called for Laughton to step down. Laughton didn't reject the idea that top Democrats also wanted her to resign because they didn't want to deal with the political fallout.
"Maybe (Ray Buckley) didn't want to take on too much of a political battle," Laughton said, "and maybe to start off the session with this wasn't the best."
Buckley issued a statement shortly after the announcement, saying he respected Laughton's decision not to be seated in the House.
Asked what her message was to the voters who wanted her to continue fighting, Laughton said: "I tell them not to lose hope. And I'll also say that I'll be back, to stick with me because I'm not done serving the people.
Democratic House Caucus Director Gene Martin was helping Laughton draft her resignation Tuesday afternoon, to be formally sent to the Secretary of State's Office.
New Hampshire Union Leader reporter Mark Hayward contributed to this article.