On Dec. 4, 1996, Donna Sytek was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives. She was officially nominated by Nashua Rep. Donalee Lozeau, who would become the first female mayor of Nashua 11 years later. Also sworn in that day was a freshman Democrat representing Rockingham County District 31, Terie T. Norelli.
Norelli, a math major and math teacher, found herself on the Science, Technology and Energy Committee, not a coveted assignment. She quickly earned better, more prominent positions.
“She was a star, really, from the beginning,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, who was a freshman representative with Norelli in 1996. Norelli “was clearly very bright and very organized and very hard working,” Smith recalled.
“By her second term, Speaker Sytek named her to the committee on deregulation of PSNH. I can remember her standing up on the floor of the House and explaining to the entire House in plain language to those of us who weren’t science majors what the principles were, both philosophical and technical.”
Norelli impressed colleagues of both parties with her intelligence, discipline and work ethic. Many attribute her rise to the speakership to those traits. In 2006, a decade after Norelli was first elected, Democrats took the House for the first time since 1922. The speakership was a coveted prize, and five Democrats — Dan Eaton, Bette Lasky, Jay Phinizy, Stephen DeStefano and Norelli — declared for it. Norelli outmaneuvered and outworked her rivals. When the vote came, she was elected unanimously.
Norelli’s three terms as speaker were devoted to advancing a Democratic agenda on social and budgetary issues. She presided over the passage of civil unions and same-sex marriage (forcing Democratic Gov. John Lynch to reverse his position on marriage), two budgets that sharply increased spending and taxes and fees, the defeat of a constitutional amendment on education funding, and Medicaid expansion, to name a few salient issues.
But Norelli did not advance a broadbased tax or gambling, though she probably could have passed both. “Her leadership of a very unruly and very liberal House in ‘06 with a Democratic governor, they didn’t put any hot-button fiscal issues on his desk,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy and a Union Leader columnist. “She was pragmatic. They had sizeable majorities and they never pushed an income tax.”
Ask current and former House members what Norelli’s legacy will be, and people will list different legislative accomplishments. But almost everyone mentions her love for and protection of the House itself.
“I do respect her because she valued the institution of the House,” Sytek said. “She emphasized how important it was that we have respect for the institution.”
Smith said: “The biggest accomplishment I think is that she has made it possible for 400 members with disparate views to come together and by and large take a very healthy stab at trying to meet the needs of the people in the state. And that becomes a question of a process and a style rather than policy.”
When she announced on Monday that she was not running for re-election this fall, Norelli summed up her departure this way: “Now I feel that it’s time for me to step back and catch my breath — and give my family a break, too. So I am announcing today that I will not be running for re-election this fall.”
Sytek pointed out that Norelli never said she was retiring. A smart and energetic leader with three terms as Speaker of the New Hampshire House and one term as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures under her belt would have a lot of opportunities to run for office in the future or take a well-paid, high-profile leadership position at any number of national organizations. After 18 years of service, Norelli leaves the House this fall a respected and largely well-liked figure. It is unlikely that her involvement in New Hampshire politics has drawn to an end.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.