The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Bill O’Brien. Courtesy NHPR/Allegra Boverman.

Who’s really in charge?
Republican faction gets used to working outside the Statehouse

By Ryan Lessard

For the past three weeks Republican Rep. Bill O’Brien of Mont Vernon has been operating in a Republican Majority Leadership office in Concord — despite the fact that he is not the majority leader. The office, just a short walk away from the Statehouse, is not in the Legislative Office Building. It’s between a jewelry store and Edible Arrangements. 

For the power or the people?
O’Brien said he represents the true majority leadership even though he was not appointed to the position by Speaker Shawn Jasper. 
“When I didn’t get the speakership, rather than doing what would be personally comfortable and taking this as a part-time position, I responded to folks who said, ‘You can’t walk away,’” O’Brien said.
Jasper, meanwhile, said the real majority leader is Representative Jack Flanagan of Brookline, the man Jasper appointed. 
“It’s like if I started walking around calling myself governor,” Jasper said. “It’s not helpful to the Republican party. He is calling it the Republican Majority Office yet clearly that’s not what it is. The Republican Majority Office is located in the Statehouse, so I really don’t know what to make of that.”
But this odd arrangement of a rogue Republican majority office, O’Brien stressed, is not to shore up power for himself. 
“I’m probably not even going to run again,” O’Brien said. “I don’t do this for bargaining chips. What it does is it gives the people of New Hampshire a bargaining chip.”
The other office
O’Brien said the office space (which costs about $2,000 each month including utilities according to his treasurer, Rep. Stephen Stepanek) is necessary because Jasper will not let him and his team meet on any state property. 
“It gives us a place to plan debates before session, it gives us a place to meet with constituents, it gives us a place to communicate,” O’Brien said.
A grand opening of the office in March was held to raise funds to pay the rent. While Stepanek declined to say how much was raised, he did say it was enough to cover the rent going forward.
A history of a House divided 
According to Jasper, a divided Republican party is nothing particularly new in the New Hampshire Statehouse.
“If you look at the history there, there’s been a certain amount of divide in the House for several sessions now. There tend to be factions within the Republican caucus in the House that have more of a libertarian bent and there are those who you might consider to be a traditional New Hampshire Republican,” said Jasper. 
His definition of a traditional New Hampshire Republican is someone who believes government serves a useful function. 
But, Jasper said, “There are others who say they believe very little government is needed.”
That includes O’Brien, who has cut a dominant figure in New Hampshire politics since his role as House speaker from 2010 to 2012. The Mont Vernon Republican grew in notoriety when his supermajority in the House, elected during the Tea Party wave, passed of a number of deep budget cuts and conservative bills like Right-to-Work and allowing guns in the Statehouse. He set some new precedents, like cutting the Concord Monitor out of press conferences. And some lawmakers accused him of using bullying and intimidation tactics in order to get legislative agenda items through committee or passed. Others praised him for being an effective lightning rod to rally the base behind important conservative initiatives.
In November 2012, he was the subject of a This American Life story by Sarah Koenig, which chronicled some bizarre moments involving O’Brien, such as when former Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester sieg heiled the then-speaker in protest on the House floor. Even when O’Brien was no longer in power and the Democrats held control in the House, Gov. Maggie Hassan would invoke his name alongside that of the billionaire Koch brothers during her campaign for reelection.
Choosing a speaker
Usually, New Hampshire residents have no idea who the Speaker of the House is. And perhaps some Republicans prefer it that way. Late last year, when Republicans retook the House, it became clear O’Brien might become speaker again. Leading up to the nominations, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and a list of local Republicans made the unusual move of writing a letter urging Republican lawmakers to vote for former speaker Gene Chandler. Last November, O’Brien was nominated by four votes but was not elected in December. 
“We made a promise to the people of New Hampshire, and the promise was we were going to go take the Republican principles of limited government and low taxes and liberty and we were going to go up to Concord, go into the legislature and work on those issues based on those principles,” said O’Brien. “And we ended up, however, with leadership that has to turn to the Democrats for 80 to 85 percent of its support.”
Republicans loyal to O’Brien quickly turned their backs on Jasper and do not see Flanagan as their guy.
“It certainly has been the tradition that the speaker appoints the majority leader because the speaker has always been the selection of the majority caucus,” said O’Brien. “That tradition just doesn’t make any sense any longer because it’s basically the Democrats telling Republicans who their majority leader would be. … If [Jasper] had turned around to the Democrats and said ... ‘I’m going to choose your leader,’ people would have screamed bloody murder, and they would have been justified.”
But this is not the first time a Republican won the speakership with help from Democratic support. In 2004, former Rep. Doug Scamman was reelected as speaker with votes from all the Democrats and one third of the Republicans. The party then changed its bylaws so Scamman, and now Jasper, don’t qualify to sit on the party’s executive committee.
The budget test
This fracturing has affected things in the Statehouse in some significant ways. Jasper wasn’t only a dark horse candidate for speaker, but, O’Brien argued, he continues to be supported by a de facto coalition of moderates and Democrats. 
“We have a solid Democratic bloc with a minority of Republicans getting, in many cases, exactly what the Democrats want,” said O’Brien.
Jasper said the budget process is going to be a real test of the party. 
“It’s a budget that is based on the principles and parameters that were set by the caucus, and we’d hope that all the members of the caucus would support the budget,” said Jasper. 
But O’Brien, who elected not to serve on any committees, is concerned that most committee chairs are too liberal. And with the appointment of Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare as chair of the House Finance Committee, O’Brien said, he was not surprised when an 8-cent increase to the gas tax to offset cuts in the transportation budget bill was proposed.
Still, for many issues in this budget, Republicans in the House will have to unite since they can’t count on Democratic votes. 
“I’m trying to pass a conservative budget, period,” said Jasper. “We recognized and knew all along a budget with any meaningful cuts from what the governor has proposed — we never believed we’d get votes from the Democratic caucus.”
But O’Brien isn’t happy with what budget writers have come up with, saying they should have spread increases across departments more evenly. He called the cuts to the Department of Transportation cynical. 
“For them to choose that department and say ‘We’re going to cut your budget’ was basically just a ploy to get a tax increase,” he said. 
The House voted down a gas tax hike, sending budgeters back to the drawing board.
As seen in the April 2, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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