Rep. Dick Hinch, who was elected Speaker of the New Hampshire House just one week ago, died from COVID-19.
(Editor's note: This is a developing story and is being updated as new information emerges. It was last revised at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday.)
Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced the cause of death Thursday afternoon with the consent of Hinch’s family, following an autopsy by New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner Jennie Duval. At a press conference shortly after that announcement was made, Gov. Chris Sununu said the late Speaker's death is a stark reminder of the ongoing risks posed by COVID-19.
“You know, Dick’s passing is a real — as tragic as it is, as heartbroken as we all are — it really is a warning sign that we are far from over this," Sununu said Thursday afternoon. "And just because you're not in a long term care facility, just 'cause you're not elderly and infirm, does not mean you are not just by any means immune from COVID, but it can have very, very severe repercussions, very, very quickly.”
A 71-year-old Republican from Merrimack, Hinch was poised to lead his party in the House of Representatives. His death was first publicly announced Wednesday evening in a statement from his office.
Hinch's death came amid reports of COVID-19 reaching the highest ranks of the state's political leadership. Hinch was formally elected House speaker Dec. 2, at an outdoor ceremony held on an athletic field at the University of New Hampshire due to coronavirus concerns. Earlier that same week, several Republican House members were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting.
Since then, a member of staff and an employee of the House Speaker’s office have also tested positive, according to announcements from each office. At the time the legislative staffer's diagnosis was announced, the House Speaker's office said "no legislators were identified as close contacts."
"All staff identified as possible close contacts have been notified and asked to quarantine out of an abundance of caution," the office said in a statement at the time.
After state officials confirmed COVID-19 caused Hinch's death, Acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse said they plan to consult with state health officials and other authorities about "any additional, specific steps we should take, beyond our on-going COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing, to ensure the continued protection of our legislators and staff."
“As legislative leaders, we are committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord,” Packard and Morse said in a joint statement. “It is our responsibility to ensure COVID-19 incident notification and transparency. These are responsibilities that we take extremely seriously.”
Before becoming House Speaker, Hinch previously served as House majority leader, from 2015 to 2018. He also served on Merrimack’s Board of Selectmen.
In his speech to fellow lawmakers upon being named speaker, he invoked a bipartisan tone.
“I ask each of you to not look at each other as Republicans and Democrats, but as friends and colleagues, working towards the same goal,” Hinch said. “Our methods to get there, and what we envision as a better New Hampshire, may be different, but at the end of the day please remember that we have a responsibility to respect each other and understand each other. That we are all here to make a positive difference in our communities and our state.”
Packard, who was appointed Hinch's deputy, will serve as acting speaker until the full House can vote to name Hinch’s successor. The House is not scheduled to meet again until Jan. 6. Packard has not indicated whether he's interested in filling the post for the remainder of the two-year legislative session.
Rep. Ken Weyler, a veteran Republican legislator who had recently been named chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee by Hinch, said Packard would be the logical choice to succeed Hinch.
“Sherm is a likable guy, and he gets along with just about everybody, I think,” Weyler said.
Other Republicans are already positioning for a run for speaker. That includes Rep. Al Baldasaro, serving his 8th term in the House, who said he "more than likely" would run for the job.
"But right now I’m really focused on seeing what’s happening with Dick," Baldasaro. "A wake, a funeral, what’s going to happen.”