Organization Day: Hope, Renewal, and the Gardner-Van Ostern Battle Royale

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Distant Dome is co-published by Manchester Ink Link and InDepthNH.org

By GARRY RAYNO, Distant Dome

Approaching the first Wednesday in December every two years is usually filled with hope, renewal, possibilities and a positive outlook.

The first Wednesday of December in even numbered years is Organization Day when the newly elected members of the House and Senate meet to choose their leaders, both within their bodies and as secretary of state and state treasurer.

New faces will patrol the corridors of power in Concord with new ideas and new goals.

Garry Rayno

“Out with the old and in with the new,” and this year that will certainly be true with Democrats taking control of the House and Senate for the first time since 2010 when a landslide election gave Republicans three-quarters of the seats in the General Court.

There will be a new Senate President and a new House Speaker and new leadership teams with Democrats running the legislature.

But the majority can also decide to change those who are House or Senate Clerk, Sargent-At-Arms and various other positions.

Sen. Donna Soucy

You know the majority staff will change. The new Senate President, Donna Soucy, will want her own chief-of-staff, Senate counsel, legislative director and public information officer to name a few likely changes.

Likewise, new House Speaker Stephen Shurtleff will want his own chief-of-staff, House counsel, legislative director and public information officer.

Legislative Budget Assistant, Legislative Services and secretarial and research staff usually remain in place, but that does not mean those leading the organizations do.

Democrats last ran the House during the 2013-2014 session and last ran the Senate during the 2009-2010 session.

Both were long enough ago that few former staffers are likely to return and both bodies will be under new leadership for the next two years.

Lobbyists and journalists will notice a difference, but people who do not inhabit the State House daily are not likely to notice the change.

Democrats have large enough majorities in the House and Senate that last minute surprises in the leadership positions for the next two years are not likely.

Usually after a vote is taken for House Speaker and Senate President down partisan lines, the minority leader rises and asks for a unanimous vote be taken for the new leader.

If that does not occur, you can look forward to a very contentious two years.

The statement released by House Republicans after the election did not have the sense of cooperation you might like to see during the early stages of the session.

Rep. Steve Shurtleff

“I congratulate Rep. Shurtleff on his nomination today and wish him well over the coming term. He will certainly have his hands full managing members of his caucus, and their out-of-touch legislative agenda. We’ve already seen some of their bill requests for next year, and it’s clear that the train is off the tracks,” said House Majority Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack.

“Elections have consequences, but so will the next two years of policy debates. Republicans won’t stand for repeals of common-sense laws we’ve enacted over our time in the majority, nor will we stand for any new taxes or fees, or irresponsible spending. Democrats have a track record of mismanaging the state’s finances, and we intend on making voters very aware of their follies. 2020 has already begun.”

And we’ll be glad to work with you on issues confronting the state, said the Democrats in response. Well no, but they didn’t respond, which is the correct response from the majority.

And the most contentious vote during Organization Day will be over what has long been a foregone conclusion, who will be Secretary of State.

Secretary of State William Gardner

Bill Gardner has been in that office for over 40 years, but this year faces a serious challenge from former executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern.

Others have challenged Gardner including former House Speaker Donna Sytek, but none have survived to take over the other second-floor, corner office.

When Gardner ran successfully the first time in 1976, it was a stealth campaign that caught the incumbent Republican Arthur Drake off guard. That is not the case this time.

Colin Van Ostern

Democrats, of which Gardner is one, have been unhappy with him for a while now mostly over bills restricting voter access and some believe he is too cozy with Republicans.

But two years ago, he really drew Democrats’ wrath when he agreed to sit on President Trump’s voter fraud commission and turn over the state’s voting rolls.

Gardner is a very traditional person, so his office suite does not have air conditioners and he has been slow to move the massive records his office keeps to an easily searchable electronic format.

But no one can realistically claim his office has a partisan bent, because it does not and has not in his long history in the position.

The challenge has created an interesting tug-of-war between Democrats and Republicans as Gardner received the unanimous support of Republicans, while a sizable majority of Democrats back Van Ostern who has the support of most of the state Democratic leadership.

During the Democrat’s caucus, 179 of the Dems backed Van Ostern while only 23 supported Gardner. However about 25 Democratic House members were absent so it is not clear how the vote will break down during Organization Day when either Gardner or Van Ostern needs to find 213 votes.

Also the 24 Senators will cast their votes and that further adds to the intrigue that will likely make for a longer than normal day for lawmakers to organize.

Executive Branch

The framers of the state Constitution split the swearing-in of the Legislature and the Executive Branch.

While lawmakers will be sworn in Dec. 5 by the current Governor and Executive Council, the six newly elected members of the executive branch will be sworn in the first Wednesday in January (Jan. 2) after the first Tuesday so it is never on Jan. 1.

The governor and executive council have a brief meeting Inauguration Day as well to do what is necessary to continue the operation of state government.

Gov. Sununu

After that Gov. Chris Sununu will be on his own dealing with a democratically controlled General Court and Executive Council.

No right-to-work, nor school vouchers, nor further voting restriction bills will travel to the governor’s desk during the next two years, and no other Frank Edelbluts are likely to be confirmed to commissioner posts either.

The next two years should be interesting.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.

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