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Gov. Sununu wants House Speaker Shawn Jasper as agriculture commissioner

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 12. 2017 9:55AM
Speaker Shawn Jasper has been nominated by Gov. Chris Sununu as New Hampshire's next commissioner of agriculture. (Union Leader File Photo)

CONCORD -- Gov. Chris Sununu wants House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, to serve as the next Commissioner of Agriculture, in a move that leaves the question of House leadership wide open. 

And there’s no shortage of candidates looking to take Jasper’s place. 

“I have asked Speaker Shawn Jasper to apply to be the next Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food for the State of New Hampshire,” said Sununu in a statement released Thursday morning.

Longtime commissioner Lorraine Merrill, whose family owns a 370-acre dairy farm in Stratham, recently retired. Jasper worked closely with Merrill in shepherding a $2 million relief fund for drought-stricken dairy farmers through the last session of the Legislature.

“I can think of no better choice to continue Commissioner Merrill’s legacy than Speaker Jasper and urge the Agricultural Advisory Board to carefully review his application,” said Sununu.

Jasper says he’d never considered resigning the speakership or applying for the agriculture post until last Thursday, when the governor asked him to consider the idea. “I didn’t give him a definitive answer until Tuesday,” he said.

Jasper rose to the speakership by forging alliances with Democrats in 2014, but had enough support in 2016 to win the post with only Republican votes.

The move is seen by some observers as a way to hopefully forestall another divisive battle for the speakership in the future, while at the same time filling an important post in Sununu’s cabinet.

A source who was briefed on the decision said the hope is to create a leadership group that contains some representation from the more conservative faction of the Republican caucus, which brands itself the Freedom Caucus.

House members calling themselves the Right of Center Group continue to meet regularly with former Speaker Bill O’Brien, the Mont Vernon Republican who was deposed by Jasper in 2014. Many in that group hope to get some top positions on the leadership team in the wake of Jasper’s departure.

Awaiting confirmation

Jasper said he would resign the speakership when and if he is confirmed for the agriculture position by the Governor and Executive Council.”

His resignation would set the stage for a special election in Hudson to replace him as state representative, and an election among House members for an new speaker.

Ultimately it is up to the Agriculture Advisory Board to review the speaker’s application, and bring forward a recommendation to the governor. “The governor is urging them to carefully review the speaker’s application," said Sununu spokesperson Ben Vihstadt.

State Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said he plans to run for the speaker position. State Rep. Jim McConnell, R-Swansey, also a Freedom Caucus member, confirmed his intention to seek the post as well.

Other potential candidates include Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, and former Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, as well as Rep. Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford, who came within a handful of votes of upsetting Jasper in 2016.

Baldasaro said he supports Chandler but will run if Chandler does not garner sufficient support.

Jasper said he will support Chandler, who has promised to fill out the remainder of Jasper's term but not pursue the position after the 2018 elections.

The Agriculture Advisory Committee has a meeting scheduled for Nov. 7, at which time they could conduct interviews and quickly make a recommendation.

“My hope is for the sake of the Legislature that this nomination can be before the governor and council for the Nov. 22 meeting,” said Jasper. “That’s a tight timeline. I don’t know that will necessarily happen. But it will be problematic if we get into an election for a new speaker much later than the first part of December.”

Tentative voting dates

If he does move on, Jasper said he hopes the current leadership team and committee chairs can remain in place at least through 2018, no matter who becomes speaker.

“Former Speaker Chandler has said he will not run for a full term next year, and I hope enough people see the wisdom in that,” Jasper said. “That would allow the normal process to play out for speaker’s race next year and not have turmoil, since we already have chairs, vice chairs and a leadership team in place. I believe the Legislature will see that’s the right thing to do.”

The House clerk has already notified representatives of tentative election dates for a new speaker.

Should Jasper be confirmed as Commissioner of Agriculture, each party will caucus on Nov. 29 to pick a speaker candidate. The House would then meet in session on Nov. 30 to elect a speaker. Since Republicans hold a majority, their choice is expected to prevail.

House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, said he would be a candidate in the Democratic caucus.

Problematic pattern?

Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, the only declared Democratic candidate for governor so far, called the move “a continuation of Sununu’s pattern of giving away important state positions in order to fix political problems, not based on qualifications or experience.”

“Speaker Jasper has not been actively involved in agriculture for decades,” said Marcharnd. “He wasn’t asked to apply by Gov. Sununu because he was the most qualified person to be commissioner, he was asked in the hope it would simplify a difficult political situation for Sununu and the New Hampshire GOP.”

Jasper, who ran the family poultry and egg farm in Hudson from 1979 until it closed in 1983, defended his credentials.

“Agriculture has been in my blood and a part of my life since childhood when I worked in the family poultry business,” he said. “I have maintained a strong relationship with the agricultural community in the state through my adult life and am a proud Life Member of the Future Farmers of America Alumni Association.”

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Thank you, Sununu