CONCORD — Democratic Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, will face a challenge from veteran progressive Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, when the newly elected Democratic House majority meets on Thursday to elect their nominee for Speaker.

As leader of the Democrats in the House for the past six years, four of them in the minority, Shurtleff would ordinarily be heir apparent to the speakership with Democrats holding a tentative 233-167 majority. (Those totals could change subject to recounts, as several House races were won by under 10 votes).

But Cushing has been considered a possible challenger to Shurtleff since last December, when the Hampton rep fired off a sharply worded letter to House Democratic leadership protesting the lack of an election among Democratic reps to choose a leader for 2018.

If there was any bad blood, there was no sign of it Tuesday morning as the two men emerged from a friendly breakfast at which Cushing made his intentions known.

“Steve and I both agreed over breakfast we were friends when this process started and we’ll be friends afterwards, no matter the outcome on Thursday,” said Cushing.

Shurtleff was just elected to his eighth term in the House, while Cushing will be starting his seventh term in January.

Both men cast the upcoming vote as a contest among friendly combatants.

“I like Steve and I respect him, but I bring a different skill set,” said Cushing. “I believe we are in a historic moment. This is the first time in 150 years that we have a House and Senate controlled by Democrats with a Republican governor. It’s important for us to step back and think about how we will work over the next couple of years to create a better government for the people of our state.”

Cushing has been front and center on many key issues for progressives in the past legislative sessions, including legalizing marijuana, eliminating the death penalty and closing the secure psychiatric unit at the State Prison in favor of a more therapeutic setting.

He says he would advocate for greater transparency in the House, including support for videotaping and web-posting all House sessions and committee deliberations.

“I also think the legislature should be subject to the same laws and rules it imposes on other branches,” he said. “Legislative employees should have the right to form unions, and members of the legislature should undergo training for sexual harassment prevention.”

Shurtleff said his track record over the past six years speaks for itself.

“The caucus has gotten to know me and my style of leadership,” he said. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot in this last session. We passed a lot of good bills and were able to keep a lot of bad bills from becoming law, like the school voucher bill.”

Shurtleff says that under his leadership, the Democratic caucus remained united, even though leadership did not “whip” or apply pressure for reps to vote a certain way.

“We don’t tell people how to vote,” he said. “I tell them to vote their conscience and no one will ever question their vote. We’ve always come together on what’s important to us and to the people of New Hampshire.”

Cushing’s bid could be seen as a progressive challenge to Shurtleff’s moderate leadership, but the incumbent leader doesn’t see it that way.

“Over the past few years, we’ve gotten progressive Democrats and labor Democrats and Bernie and Hillary Democrats … all makes and types … but the common denominator is we are all Democrats and we share the same values,” he said.

Social media was abuzz with reps and party activists taking sides.

Nashua Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, just elected to the state Senate, reminded fellow Democrats, “Rep. Shurtleff led record fundraising effort by Committee to Elect House Democrats that helped flip the New Hampshire House.”

Democratic National Committee member and former state party chairman Kathy Sullivan chimed in: “Don’t undervalue Rep. Shurtleff. By keeping the Democratic caucus united, the legislature defeated a lot of bad bills, e.g. vouchers, right to work.”

Progressive talk radio host Arnie Arnesen tweeted: “Renny Cushing has emerged over the years as a statesman. NOW is the time for him to emerge as the Speaker of the House ...”

dsolomon@unionleader.com