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Under Open Skies And At A Distance, Newly Elected State Lawmakers Meet For First Time

Photo of woman bundled up
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Lawmakers, including Mary Griffin of Windham, gathered in the cold on the campus of UNH during Organization Day.

Gone were the chandeliers and oil portraits, the upholstered seats and carpeted floors of Representatives Hall in Concord.

Instead, newly elected lawmakers sat in white folding chairs on green astroturf. Above, an open December sky. Many huddled under blankets, with gloves and hats pulled tight, as New Hampshire’s Legislature kicked off its new session, in a new way.

In a year unlike any other, Republicans and Democrats gathered on an athletic field on the campus of UNH in Durham for Organization Day Wednesday. The state Constitution calls for lawmakers to assemble on the first Wednesday in December, to be sworn in to office and elect a number of leadership positions. That much was the same. Most everything else was very, very different.  

“It is great to see everybody out here, and the good Lord has accommodated us with nice weather,” said Gov. Chris Sununu, perhaps not noticing the 40-degree temperature.

The cold may have kept some lawmakers away: A second, virtual swearing in will take place Thursday. But at least some Republicans weren’t in attendance after testing positive earlier this week for the coronavirus. State health officials confirmed they are conducting contact tracing following a Nov. 20 GOP reception held at a ski lodge.

The politics of the pandemic were inescapable Wednesday. Some Democrats chided the opposition party for failing to disclose the potential cluster of cases until it leaked to the press on Tuesday. Hours before the swearing in ceremony, House Minority Leader Renny Cushing announced he wouldn’t attend Organization Day, citing his own health concerns and what he termed the risky behavior of his Republican colleagues.

In total, a roll call showed just 270 of the 400 elected members of the House were in attendance.

Photo of governor swearing in lawmakers
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu swears in lawmakers.

Despite the empty seats and raw weather, lawmakers swiftly nominated and elected leadership posts. The GOP, which holds majorities in both chambers heading into 2021, tapped Sen. Chuck Morse, a Republican from Salem, to serve as Senate President. In the House, Dick Hinch of Merrimack, now in his seventh term, was selected as House Speaker. Both men are State House veterans, and Morse had held the same position from 2013 to 2018.

“Now is not the time to resort to petty political attacks, and pointless spectacles,” Hinch told his colleagues. “That is not what the voters sent us here to do.”

The joint legislature re-elected Bill Gardner to his 23rd consecutive term as Secretary of State, while Monica Mezzapelle was chosen as State Treasurer; both ran unopposed.

After the largely ceremonial functions of the morning were complete, GOP lawmakers voted to adopt a series of rules, including repealing a requirement passed in a previous session by Democrats that all members attend in-person anti-sexual harassment training.

wide shot of athletic field
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
270 of the 400 newly elected members of the New Hampshire House attended Wednesday's Organization Day.

In addition, Republicans blocked a Democratic-backed proposal to allow for remote participation in both committee hearings and floor votes in the upcoming session. Hinch has signaled his preference for in-person meetings of the Legislature, but it isn’t immediately clear where or how those meetings would take place. Lawmakers could still reverse course and opt for a virtual or hybrid model.

Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued a legal opinion clearing the way for virtual participation by the Legislature, saying it did not violate the state Constitution.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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