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Fewer NH reps have civic experience than in years past. Does that matter?

The New Hampshire House of Representatives, where Republicans enjoy majority control, in session in early 2022.
Dan Tuohy
The New Hampshire House of Representatives, where Republicans enjoy majority control, in session in early 2022.

A University of New Hampshire study found fewer state representatives are engaged in their communities than in years past, like in civic organizations or advocacy groups.

All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa talked with UNH professor Dante Scala, one of the authors of the study, about why local involvement is on the decline and what it means for representation in the New Hampshire Legislature.


You examined the last two decades of New Hampshire House Representatives and their backgrounds. What exactly were you looking for?

My coauthor, Mitchell Scacchi and I, we instructed our team of undergrads to help us go through all of the legislative handbooks, which are known as Blue Books, and to basically scan the biographies for whatever kinds of local civic involvement they listed. So it could be anything from ‘I served on the local planning board’ to ‘I was in the Rotary Club’ to ‘I belong to such and such a church or a union.’ We really tried to spread a wide net to get an overall sense of whether legislators were less likely or more likely over the past couple of decades to have any kind of local involvement before joining the state legislature.

So if fewer representatives have experience in their local communities and in a civic engagement capacity, what kind of backgrounds do they have? What is more common now?

Well, it’s definitely the case that local government is still quite prominent among your new legislators, right? About half of them over the past two decades had some local government experience. What has tended to drift off somewhat is involvement in other kinds of community activity, things like the Rotary Club or charitable organizations and so forth, and advocacy groups like, say, the Sierra Club or the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance. It's those two categories that have dwindled somewhat over the past two decades. Mitchell [Scacchi] and I thought that it might be that those are being replaced by more partisan activity, given how polarized politics has become these days. But that didn't pan out. At least the new legislators weren't listing in their biographies partisan activist experience. Like, for instance, 'I was part of my town's local party committee,’ something like that. That stayed pretty flat over the last two decades.

So why does it matter if our representatives have less local experience?

We often refer to the New Hampshire presidential primary as the emblem of New Hampshire's political culture. But to us, I think it's the state House of Representatives because it represents so much about New Hampshire's unique brand of politics, which is very local. And you think about these 400 representatives, each of whom represent just a few thousand citizens apiece, the idea is that they are very locally accountable and they have close bonds to their constituents and they bring their communities with them, so to speak, to the legislature. And why do they join the legislature? Because allegedly they're well known to fellow citizens. How do they get that way? They get that way by being community leaders. That's the traditional picture. So what we're wondering is whether that's changing and whether it might be the case. We don't know this, but it might be the case that people listed on the ballots now are less known than they used to be to their fellow citizens. So maybe citizens casting ballots are casting ballots not by name recognition, like, ‘Oh, that's my neighbor,’ or ‘Oh, that's the person on the Rotary Club with me.’ But instead [they might be] casting votes by whether they have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to their name.

So what's next? What are the questions that still need to be answered?

Well, I think one question is are these new legislators becoming more ideological in their thinking? Is this part of a broader picture that we're seeing across the nation of the nationalization of our politics, that we basically take all of our cues from the top down these days, rather from the bottom up. And that that might be even affecting the most local of institutions like the New Hampshire state Legislature. Another thing we're interested in is party recruitment. It's quite a job for both of the major parties just to fill 400 ballot slots and try to field such a broad list of candidates. So how are they going about things in this new era to find these people who might be viable candidates? That's something else we're interested in finding out about.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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