Living In Interesting Times

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Nancy West photo

Garry Rayno is's State House Bureau Chief. He is pictured in the press room at the State House in Concord.


The phrase “May you live in interesting times” describes the political climate in the state these days.

The phrase is also indicative of these times in another way. 

It is often referred to as a Chinese curse, although there is no evidence it was ever uttered by any Chinese sage.

Instead, it is traced to a statement by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain who said, “I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.”

Interestingly, Chamberlain was originally a liberal, but later an imperialist who sided with the conservatives. He was also the father of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

New Hampshire has certainly had some interesting times of late, full of history and anxiety.

The state likes to tout its first-in-the-nation status for the Presidential Primary and at one time led the country by decentralizing mental health and developmentally disabled services from “warehouses” to community treatment.

Many politicians are fond of saying “we like to do things the New Hampshire way.”
Doing things the New Hampshire way last week by a 4-1, party line vote, the Executive Council made New Hampshire the first and only state in the union to turn down federal money to boost its COVID-19 vaccination programs.

New Hampshire lags the rest of New England in vaccinating its citizens, not by a little, but by a lot.

The state has barely reached 60 percent for fully vaccinated individuals, while the other New England states are in the 70 percent range for fully vaccinated citizens.

State health officials said turning down the money will make it more difficult to fight the pandemic, making it linger longer.

But that is not the whole story.

Two of the Republican Executive Councilors, David Wheeler and Joe Kenney, suggested the state should prohibit private companies from requiring employees to be vaccinated much like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who championed the federal money for the vaccine programs, said after the vote, the councilors were listening to “conspiracy theories.” The governor’s statement opened the door for all to see the significant split in the Republican Party over government response to COVID-19.

Republicans have always touted a free-market philosophy of little to no government interference in a private company’s business.

To say the government should block a private company from requiring all its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is hardly a hands off approach.

Last week’s vote was Sununu’s second attempt to have the council accept the $27 million in federal money, something most thought would be a no-brainer.

But vaccine mandate protesters appeared at the last two council meetings to stop approval of the federal funds and were successful at the meeting two weeks ago shutting it down, and again last week when the council voted it down, although seven protesters were arrested.

Along with opposition to vaccine mandates, the protesters raised concerns the money had strings attached that would require the state to enforce President Biden’s vaccine mandates.

Sununu and the attorney general insisted the state could take the money without being an enforcement arm for the federal government and the governor noted the boilerplate language in question was in many contracts the council had already approved.

But like many things these days, it was not to be and reason does not have to prevail.

State government is not the only target of a passionate, but small minority who do not reflect the will of the majority. But the small minority has managed to have an outsized influence on state policies and has attempted to extend its influence at the local level.

School boards have become battle grounds over COVID-19 public health restrictions.

School mask mandates are the lightening rod, with parents and activists — including the Proud Boys and Neo-Nazis — disrupting meetings and threatening board members.

These sorts of actions do not happen spontaneously, someone or some group is coordinating these activities.

But in the name of local control, these local boards have had to fend for themselves without direct action from the state. A statewide mask mandate would end the protests at the local level but is not likely to occur.

Instead, the state has explicitly left the decisions to local school boards, and as the virus surged the last few months, schools have been told remote learning is a last resort.

To do so requires a special dispensation from Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

Local control would allow local districts to make the determination what is best for their students, not the state education department.

School districts were given that authority last year when schools opened, but in the spring Sununu ordered schools to do in-person instruction.

The genesis for much of the passionate anger over mask and vaccine mandates is a simple state law passed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C.

It was intended to allow a governor to act quickly during an emergency to protect the health and safety of citizens.

Instead the law was used for one of the biggest power and money grabs in state history with Sununu investing the executive branch with powers reserved for the legislative and judicial systems.

The restrictions, regulations and money dispensing that followed upset many people and some of that anger remains against all governments, not just the governor.

Democrats sued the governor and lost in superior court, while the right-wing of the Republican Party decided to target both Sununu and others who disagree with their notion of personal freedom.

A press conference last month to blast Biden’s vaccine mandates, was taken over by the free-state/libertarian wing of the GOP shouting down the Republican legislative leadership. The protesters claimed Republican leaders and Sununu were not doing enough to protect them from federal intervention.

Similar events and the state’s overall political climate have garnered national attention.

John Oliver, speaking about voter suppression efforts around the country, noted New Hampshire was the only state in the greater Northeast quarter of the country this year to pass legislation making it more difficult to vote.

He called New Hampshire “Florida with foliage.”

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen called the state “the Texas of New England.”

The Executive Council meetings appeared on several national news programs, while The Globe did two stories last week on the intimidation shenanigans going on at the state and local level here.

Publicity like this is not what you want if you seek to attract businesses and tourists to your state.

A decade ago, Republicans had a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate, and some members took advantage of the lopsided numbers and introduced bills like one that would have made Transportation Security Administration agents sex offenders for doing their jobs.

Word spread quickly and one legislative officer returned from a national convention appalled, saying the state had become a laughing stock. That appears to be happening again.

Like the old Chinese curse, some of what is contended may not be based on reality, and instead fantasies may be fueling the state’s political divide.

It all makes for interesting times.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for 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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