When it comes to both of New Hampshire’s major political parties, the press and opposing political forces almost always seem gleeful when one party appears to be in turmoil, particularly when it’s the Republicans.
Turmoil within one of the major parties may be fun and easy fodder, but it creates an imbalance in the entire system. Political operatives and indolent reporters who make their living exploiting the chaos within a political party, real, imaginary or exaggerated, will do whatever they can to fester the conflict. Hence, the soap opera within the New Hampshire House between current Speaker Shawn Jasper and former Speaker Bill O’Brien.
The first realization we must acknowledge is that it is a waste of time to rehash what has occurred, and that taking one side over the other, fueled by public bickering, is counterproductive. Nor should we ignore that there are good people supporting Jasper and O’Brien, and that even the most subtle statement can be taken out of context and alienate both of these camps even further. Political conflict may make for great headlines, but it also can lead to dysfunctional governing.
In 2003-04, Republicans held a super-majority in the Legislature and had a Republican governor. However, they lost sight of their legislative focus because they spent the entire term fighting amongst themselves. Today’s House dilemma is experiencing the same sort of angst, for the same reason. There lacks a presence that can help build consensus, even in the midst of conflict. The Republicans of 2003 never overcame this deficit, but Republicans in today’s House have an example they can follow to help with their current impasse.
During the 2011-12 term, we did not see the type of national headlines we are currently seeing regarding the predicament in today’s House. That’s not to say the 2011-12 House was without controversy, but it was almost entirely focused on policy differences, and not overwhelmingly about personalities. Many forget O’Brien and Jasper held leadership roles, and disagreements within the caucus did occur during the 2011-12 session, but it did not come at the expense of legislative priorities.
Some may disagree with the policy initiatives of the 2011-12 session, but the accomplishments included a budget with the largest spending reduction since World War II (which left a large surplus), pension reform, school choice, parental notification, reduced burdens for forming LLCs, business deregulation, expansion of self-defense rights and tax and fee cuts. No term in the recent history of the Legislature accomplished so much. All of this happened with a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat in the governor’s office.
How did the infighting that destroyed previous legislatures not happen during the 2011-12 term? As an outside observer and someone who happens to know many of the people involved, the key difference was the Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt. Many know the 2011-12 term was successful because there was a strong leadership team of competent, intelligent and accomplished legislators. One was Bettencourt, who managed to keep the caucus together, which has often been described as herding feral cats. Many observed how he helped chart a course for the House Republican caucus, which included strong personalities like Jasper and O’Brien. Bettencourt managed to do this because he had credibility with conservatives and establishment Republicans.
Bettencourt’s leadership was successful because he understood a fundamental premise missing today: Jasper and O’Brien are both good people, as are their supporters. Bettencourt, along with Pam Tucker of Greenland and Gene Chandler, were able to overcome serious challenges, the most important being to correct a nearly billion dollar budget deficit. Differences among individuals and factions were recognized, and at times difficult to manage. Getting them to work together would produce the best possible outcome for New Hampshire. For those observing from the outside, it was clear Bettencourt had to serve as a mediator, and at times, an interpreter, between O’Brien and Jasper (as well as others). What is needed today is someone to fill the role Bettencourt played in 2011-12, to help all the actors involved acknowledge their differences to produce a successful legislative term.
Bettencourt’s tenure was not without controversy, and he voluntarily left his position as majority leader because of a non-legislative mistake. His departure with a few weeks left in the term may have adversely affected how some view his performance as majority leader. The fact he was honest and transparent about his mistake is a rare quality not only for a politician, but for any individual. His sincere handling of his error is another demonstration of the strength that made him a positive influence as majority leader.
Many people did not have access to the behind the scenes leadership conflicts of the 2011-12 session. Jasper, who served as Bettencourt’s deputy majority leader, and Speaker O’Brien came from different backgrounds, had different approaches and different strategies. Bettencourt bridged the divide and successfully acted as an intermediary between the two to keep the caucus unified. This type of presence is currently absent, but it is imperative that someone emerge. Maybe someone like a Rep. Laurie Sanborn, or another well respected legislator, will step forward and lead in the same fashion as Bettencourt. Members of the House would be wise to look at him as a role model, and find someone from within their ranks to fill the leadership void.