HOUSE MEMBERS’ SELECTIONS of their new leaders last week bodes well for cooperation between the parties over the next two years.
Instead, some of the roughest infighting could occur within the membership of the House Republican and Democratic caucuses.
New House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton emerged as a late candidate to lead the caucus, but his three-ballot victory over Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, and two other Democrats proved he timed it perfectly.
Cushing is no middling moderate. A prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders‘ two presidential campaigns, he has been a champion for social justice and other liberal causes throughout his seven previous terms.
But he’s also a stickler for “the process.” That usually means making sure the minority has a legitimate role in shaping policy and doesn’t get trampled on.
Over the years this has endeared him to many veteran House Republicans, who know what life can be like when the other team has the votes to win.
Cushing has another important skill set. Before becoming a legislator, he was a staffer in the House minority office.
He knows firsthand how this small, very experienced staff can be empowered to do the important things behind the scenes that make the State House run efficiently.
House Speaker-to-be Dick Hinch of Merrimack is just as principled a fiscal and social conservative as Cushing is liberal.
After six terms, Hinch legislated with the goal of getting things done rather than making the other side look bad.
The 2020 session had a few partisan moments, mainly because of COVID-19. But Hinch stayed on good terms with outgoing Speaker Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook.
Tensions are likely to run highest in the separate camps, where the thinking is little room for error exists.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner will report to the state Ballot Law Commission about the 2020 election on Monday.
“The results are pretty impressive — record turnout, record absentee voting, no changes in all of the recounts. New Hampshire seems to do it pretty well,” said BLC member David Campbell of Nashua, a former Democratic House member.
“It’s a testament to the hard work of all the election officials across the state. We’re looking forward to hearing all the details.”
Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, canceled her requested recount of all the ballots in her District 5 loss to Milford Republican Dave Wheeler after a review of Merrimack ballots did little to close the gap.
The ballot panel will take up one complaint, which raised concerns about the recounted returns from the town of Windham.
As we reported last week, the four GOP winners of House seats each picked up another 300 votes, while the top-finishing Democrat, Kristi St. Lauren, lost nearly 100.
A different inaugural
Gov. Chris Sununu intends to make history taking the oath for the third time on Jan. 7.
He will do it outside to avoid crowding lawmakers and guests into Representatives Hall in the State House, where the ceremony is traditionally held.
”Maybe in 2021 the weather will be just beautiful,” Sununu said.
Sununu’s Inaugural Committee is making different plans for the celebration, with the traditional balls in the southern tier and the North Country canceled.
The group seeks sponsors to help finance several “free, family outdoor events” through the year to celebrate sacrifices New Hampshire citizens made during the pandemic.
No dates have been selected, but Sununu hopes by next summer the state will have the all-clear to hold the gatherings.
”We will be raising hopefully a whole bunch of money,” Sununu said.
Dems’ registration gains
The final checklist of New Hampshire voters after the 2020 elections reveals another reason this was an interesting year.
Democrats lost majorities in the Executive Council, House and state Senate on Nov. 3.
And they are now the state’s majority party.
Voter rolls show 347,828 Democrats and 333,165 Republicans.
Independents remain the biggest bloc of voters with 438,239.
The GOP topped Democrats in Coos County party registration. But Democrats flipped the numbers to become the majority in Hillsborough, Merrimack and Strafford counties.
After the last presidential election in 2016 and President Donald Trump’s narrow loss to Hillary Clinton here, Democrats represented 28.2% of registered voters.
Now, they’re at 31.1%, with Republicans right behind at 29.9%.
In another impressive showing by New Hampshire voters, the number of 2020 Election Day registrants was 75,615, the pandemic notwithstanding. That compares to 83,142 in 2016.
State Rep.-Elect Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, represents those in the GOP unhappy with Sununu’s executive order requiring masks.
“I will be attending the House Republican caucus tomorrow without a mask. Try and stop me,” Ammon tweeted last Thursday, moments after Sununu’s announcement.
Sununu wasn’t surprised at criticism of his decision.
“Last I checked, masks don’t have a political party,” Sununu said.
Later, he added, “People are going to do what they are going to do. A mask mandate will exist tomorrow and we want everyone to understand it is not about them … it is about those who are around you.”
Spending panel to meet
The legislative panel advising Gov. Sununu on COVID-19 spending reconvenes Monday afternoon.
The timing is critical. Sununu has a little more than a month now before he must have committed to have spent every dollar of the $1.2 billion block grant New Hampshire received to cover COVID-19 costs.
House and Senate Democratic leaders have been pressing the Sununu administration on how much has yet to be spent.
Taylor Caswell, acting director of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, most recently pegged that unspent surplus at $38 million.
Feltes keeps pressing
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, isn’t going out with a whimper.
The 2020 Democratic nominee for governor is in the final weeks of his third term as state senator. Hopkinton Democrat Becky Whitley will replace him in the Senate.
Last week, Feltes returned to some campaign themes, including more transparency in how the state’s CARES Act dollars are spent.
Feltes filed a Right-to-Know law request regarding compliance with a transparency law Sununu signed in June requiring the administration to identify all people and entities that receive money.
”On July 15, I asked you to comply with House Bill 1129 and fully disclose specifically where CARES Act relief money has gone, to whom, and for what purpose,” Feltes wrote Sununu in a letter last week. “To date, you have not done so.”
The Feltes letter also called for “all plans, reviews, emails, memoranda and any other written message” about plans for the second wave of COVID cases, particularly the new outbreaks of the virus in nursing homes.
Although public perceptions of polls suffered this past election season, they can still be a wise buy for incumbents.
As we reported before the election, the Republican Governors Association’s NH PAC, Live Free or Die, spent heavily on polling.
We know these party PACs can’t coordinate with candidates, but that’s why there are back channels, right?
All public polls showed Sununu well out in front, which might explain why his re-election campaign left $370,000 unspent.
That’s how much more the governor raised than he spent through all of 2020.
We’re still waiting for the final post-election accounting from the Feltes campaign, but you can be sure that till is close to empty.
Most of the other post-election reports from the party PACs affirmed what we previously reported. Democratic PACs had much more money than their GOP counterparts did, but Republicans clearly ended up having enough.
Last council sessions
The Executive Council had its only November meeting last week. It lasted more than four hours.
”We’re paying for all those short meetings we had,” Sununu quipped.
The group has two sessions in December — Dec. 2 and Dec. 16.
It’s clear that all four departing councilors — Andru Volinsky, D-Concord; Michael Cryans, D-Hanover; Russell Prescott, R-Kingston; and Pignatelli — have their to-do lists.
Prescott and colleagues sought financial accounting updates about Harbor Homes of Nashua. Some of that may take place in non-public session next month.
Volinsky, a 2020 Democratic candidate for governor, has wanted updates about state projects that have been reduced or delayed while the Sununu administration seeks to bring the state budget into balance.
Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan gave the council a progress report on the Exit 4-A project on Interstate 93.