By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
New Hampshire is a battle ground for the culture wars over COVID-19 and abortion rights and last week may have been one of those key moments that influence the future.
The week’s events in many ways were defining moments for the two major political parties in the state.
The events foreshadow the 2022 state elections and the battle for the hearts and minds of New Hampshire voters.
The old adage is “elections have consequences” and that has been clear for the past three years.
The 2018 election put Democrats in charge of state government with one exception, the governor, who stymied what they sought to accomplish with record-setting vetoes.
The 2020 election put Republicans in charge of state government with no exceptions and they accomplished many long-held goals that had eluded them for years.
The spoils go to the victor.
But just how popular some of those accomplishments are is what the next election will be about.
The events of note stretch back to the Sept. 7 special election to fill Bedford’s vacant seat with the death of Rep. David Danielson.
The hotly contested race in Bedford where Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats, was won by Democrat Catherine Rombeau, who beat Republican Linda Rea Camarota by 37 votes, and whose win was reaffirmed in a recount.
At the end of that week, President Biden announced a vaccine mandate or frequent testing for all federal employees, companies doing business with the federal government and any business with more than 100 employees, of which there are a number in New Hampshire.
The reaction from House and Senate Republican leadership was swift and opposed and they announced a press conference Tuesday to attack the president’s executive order on the mandate.
On Monday a group of progressive organizations held a rally in the Millyard in Manchester touting the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and House Resolution 1, to limit money in politics, ending gerrymandering and various other initiatives. The press conference did not draw a big crowd, and there were not any confrontations.
On Tuesday, the House Republican press conference on the vaccine mandate was taken over by a good-sized crowd opposed to vaccination and mask mandates, and shouted down House Speaker Sherman Packard, who has filed a bill to prohibit local and state enforcement of the mandate, and others saying the Republicans were not doing enough to protect them from both Biden’s and Gov. Chris Sununu’s mandates. “Where’s Sununu?” was one of the chants heard as the crowd soon took over the podium with their own speakers firing up the crowd.
The press conference was the last straw for Rep. William Marsh of Brookfield, who is also a physician, and he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat on Tuesday.
Marsh was vice chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, but removed from that position after he led the successful fight to defeat an amendment to a bill that would have made it difficult for state health officials to control the spread of COVID-19 in New Hampshire.
“I have come to realize a majority of Republicans, both locally and in the New Hampshire House, hold values which no longer reflect traditional Republican values,” Marsh said in a statement he released on his change of party. “And so I am recognizing the reality that today’s Republican party is no longer the party I first joined when campaigning for President Reagan many years ago.
“Further, I feel the local Carroll County Republicans and Winnipesaukee Republicans have been taken over by extremists who see no place for moderates like me in the Republican party.”
He said he intended to quietly finish his term and then retire from the House, but the events of the day made him change his mind.
“I cannot stand idly by while extremists reject the reasonable precautions of vaccinations and masks which made that happen,” Marsh wrote.
Wednesday the Republican-dominated Executive Council voted down family planning contracts with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and two other organizations that also provide abortion services citing the recently passed budget provision requiring an audit to determine if the organizations separated funding for abortions from their family planning services.
The vote came over the objection of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette who said not approving the contracts would mean health care disruptions for largely poor women in rural areas. She told the council her agency determined the organizations were not using the money in any way to support abortion services, but the four Republicans councilors rejected her argument.
Democrats quickly pounced on the action saying the GOP council members were playing politics with women’s essential health care.
Sununu, who in the past voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and then reversed himself when he was on the council, said he was disappointed with the council’s action, but admitted he did not seek to convince any of the four Republicans to vote for the contracts saying it would not have made a difference.
Also the council on a 3-2 vote, turned down $27 million in federal stimulus money to hire additional staff and award provider contracts to expand the state immunization program for COVID-19 vaccinations, as the state lags the rest of the Northeast and many other states in the percentage of fully vaccinated citizens.
Republicans on the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee also tabled the request Friday, questioning the effectiveness of the vaccine, while citing privacy rights and the overreach of the federal government.
Shibinette and committee chair Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, exchanged words over the item with the commissioner saying Weyler was spreading misleading information that makes people more reluctant to be vaccinated.
The action of the council and fiscal committee caused Deputy Senate Minority Leader Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, to accuse Republicans of playing politics with a serious public health issue.
“There was no reason to reject this federal funding beyond political showmanship,” she said. “Particularly following (the) reckless anti-vaccination rally hosted by Speaker Packard, it is clearer than ever that New Hampshire Republicans are not interested in protecting Granite Staters, only in protecting dangerous right-wing extremism,” Rosenwald said.
And also last week, all 14 Republican state Senators sent a letter to the four members of the all-Democratic Congressional delegation, asking them to block efforts by the Biden administration to impose mandates.
They said the mandate is an attempt to draw attention away from the Biden Administration’s crisis at the southern border and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“As New Hampshire’s representatives in Washington, we urge you to stand up for the Granite State and oppose this massive mandate on businesses and employees across New Hampshire,” the senators wrote. “Use the authority of Congress to demand oversight and accountability from an administration that is out of control and abusing its power.”
That brought a response from several Democratic state Senators including physician Tom Sherman of Rye.
“New Hampshire prides itself on our sense of individual responsibility. We take responsibility for our actions, as well as the safety and well-being of our families, our neighbors, communities, and our state — that has always been the New Hampshire way,” Sherman said. “This extreme Republican effort to shirk individual responsibility by discouraging taking the vaccine, our single most potent weapon against COVID, is dangerous, disheartening, irresponsible, and certainly not the New Hampshire way.”
Sununu also said he intends to fight the federal mandate with other Republican governors.
The stage is set and the lines are clearly drawn in the sand.
The Republican party believes it has the issues to drive its base to the polls by attacking abortion and emphasizing individual rights, while Democrats believe having abortion rights and ultimately women’s health care restricted, as well as the GOP’s reluctance to make public health versus individual decisions a priority, they have what they need to drive their voters to the poll.
This week solidified the different philosophies in dealing with two major issues facing the country and the state.
In essence, both parties are trying to make this a national election at the local level.
However, New Hampshire residents are the pawns in this political game and it could be deadly for many of them before the next election 14 months away.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. 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.