A handful of Republican lawmakers and one Democrat are expected to square off at a forum in Concord in hopes of becoming the next Speaker of the New Hampshire House.
Governor Chris Sununu has nominated the current Speaker, Shawn Jasper, to be his Commissioner of Agriculture. Jasper has yet to be confirmed by the Executive Council, but in the meantime, a number of his colleagues have been lining up to be his potential replacement.
NHPR’s State of Democracy reporter Lauren Chooljian spoke with host Peter Biello about who's running and what's next.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Of all the political news dominating the headlines these days, why should New Hampshire residents be tuning in to the speaker of the House race?
Lauren Chooljian: Fair question. This does seem on its face to be a bit insidery, but think about it this way: the House speaker is one of the most powerful characters at the Statehouse. And so whoever that person ends up being, not only does he or she have a lot of sway over which bills or issues become the main priorities, but the speaker’s personality and political leanings can also impact the way things are done in the House.
On the Republican side for example, there are a bunch of different factions in the House. Some are more libertarian, some would describe themselves as more socially conservative. So while they all may agree on some things, there are definitely places where GOP members are deeply divided.
So, depending on who becomes Speaker, what are some of the issues where there might be divisions?
Medicaid expansion is a big one. That’s something that is definitely splitting Republicans, and it’s up for renewal. Many Republicans feel like it’s working and needs to be retooled, but there are others, including more Libertarian minded members, who feel it needs to go. There are other issues like right to work that fell apart earlier this year because of a split within the Republican caucus. And of course, lawmakers will often mention the opioid crisis as a big priority but there are varying ideas on how to solve that problem.
So who is running for this job? Let’s start with the Republican side.
Well just as there are a variety of kinds of Republicans in the House, we have a variety of candidates running for Speaker. There are some familiar names like the current Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler. He’s been around the statehouse a long time, he understands the process better than anyone and he’s been speaker before. He told me he’s running this time to fill the seat as an interim role as he feels like he can just keep the wheels in motion until the next house speaker election.
Then we have one of the more firey, controversial members, Rep. Al Baldasaro. Listeners may remember he said Hilary Clinton should be shot for treason. There’s also Rep. Laurie Sanborn who narrowly lost the caucus vote last house speaker election and has a big following along more hard line conservatives.
Other names that I’ve heard: Rep. John Burt, a member of the Freedom Caucus; Rep. Steven Smith, chairman of the transportation committee, Rep. Barbara Griffin of Goffstown and Rep. Jim McConnell of Swanzey.
And as we mentioned, there is one Democrat?
Yes, Rep. Steve Shurtleff who is the House Minority Leader. As far as I know, he’s the only Democrat running. The Democrats are in the minority and 99 percent of the time, the minority party won’t have someone from their caucus as Speaker of the House. But that doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t involved. They still vote and can have some influence. In 2014, listeners might recall that Jasper was elected by essentially pulling off the unexpected. He wasn’t the chosen candidate by Republicans, but he got some Republicans and all the Democrats to vote for him.
It’s not often that you see crazy situations like that, but it does give you some insight into how unpredictable things can be in the New Hampshire house.
Where does the campaign go from here?
I really liked learning about the variety of campaign strategies. John Burt was telling me how he is making a lot of phone calls. He knows there are about 50 Republicans who won’t vote for him, so he’s focused on everyone else in his caucus. Steve Shurtleff said he had a few campaign buttons. But then Jim McConnell said he wouldn't be making any calls or any deals. We are expecting to hear from these candidates at a forum in Concord on Thursday.
If Jasper is confirmed as Commissioner of Agriculture, both parties will hold a caucus meeting at the end of the month and choose a candidate. And from there, everyone in the House will get to cast their vote.