State House Dome: Dems' hope to take over House just got harder

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Oct. 8—LAST WEEK DIDN'T do much to boost House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm's hopes of becoming speaker in 2024.

With Democrats four-for-four so far in 2023 in special elections, it was a real possibility that Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, might have a hard time holding onto the majority with three upcoming elections.

Then we had these two developments:

—The Executive Council last week approved a schedule to fill the seats left vacant by the resignations of State Reps. Bill Hatch, D-Gorham, and Troy Merner, R-Lancaster.

The bad news for Democrats is that if either party needs a primary on Dec. 5, those seats will be determined next Jan. 23.

That's the leading contender among possible dates for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

That couldn't be worse for Dems.

The presidential contest is sure to draw a big turnout on the GOP side, where former President Donald Trump leads more than a half dozen other hopefuls.

Thanks to President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee's hardball tactics, there will be no Democratic presidential race worth paying attention to.

Biden won't be on the ballot because the DNC refused to let New Hampshire go first.

On Monday, environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. will announce in Philadelphia that the game is so rigged on that side that he is ending his Democratic bid for president and will run as a third-party candidate.

The light Democrat turnout is bound to give a huge advantage to the GOP candidate for state rep, especially in Merner's district, which is decidedly Republican, by party registration.

—Rep. Maria Perez bailed on her party: The Milford liberal has had her issues with the party establishment, especially on immigration. By becoming an independent, Perez makes it that much harder for Democrats to turn the tide.

Rep. Peter Pretigno, D-Milford, could not hide his disappointment at the move.

"My fellow Milford Rep. Maria Perez has left the Democratic Party. While I'm disappointed, she has often put her personal issues ahead of the greater good and fails to see the big picture. Personally I like her very much; politically she has often infuriated me. I wish her well," Petrigno posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Perez defended her decision.

"With all my respect, I've been doing a lot for Milford and for many people in our state. I been traveling around the state and supporting the homeless, LBGTQ community... Please tell me how I only care about my personal issues."

Veto day revisited

New Hampshire House Speaker Packard has had a change of heart about waiting until January to take up the four House and two Senate bills that Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed from the session.

The House and Senate both will return Oct. 26 at 10 a.m. to take them up.

"I had heard from a number of House members about their interest in finishing our business prior to January, including bills whose outcomes may be time-sensitive," Packard said.

"As a result of conversations with House members and in consultation with Republican and Democratic leadership, I've decided taking up these vetoes prior to January is the right thing to do."

Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, informed his members at the end of last week to prepare to meet the same day.

House Democratic Leader Wilhelm was one of those who had been urging Packard not to wait.

The most time-sensitive issue in this small batch of vetoed bills is legislation (HB 142) to continue to provide subsidies to keep open the Burgess Power Plant in Berlin.

North Country supporters of this project from both political parties have warned that if the legislation does not go forward, the project could meet financial ruin early next year.

Despite that, all signs point to Sununu winning this veto fight.

State budget afloat in cash

Legislative Budget Assistant Michael Kane informed House and Senate budget writers that state budget accounts are more flush than they expected when they closed out the two-year state budget in the spring.

The state's Rainy Day Fund balance is $288.7 million — $66 million more than the previous $222.7 million estimate.

The Education Trust Fund had $161.6 million, which is well above the $129.1 million that had been expected.

There was even more money in both the state's highway fund ($16 million more) and fish and game fund ($1.8 million) than forecast.

Iowa Dems blink

The Iowa Democratic Party decided not to test Secretary of State David Scanlan's willingness to jump the first-caucus state if it got too cute with its process.

Scanlan had been clear that if the Iowa Democrats had a caucus but allowed for votes to come in via mail weeks before that event, he would view that as a primary and move New Hampshire ahead of the Hawkeye state.

On Friday, Iowa Democratic leaders informed the Democratic National Committee that they have decided not to release any results from those caucuses until March 5, 2024, which is Super Tuesday.

This would come six weeks after the presumed date for New Hampshire's primary in late January.

Scanlan said he still needs to see how the DNC reacts to this before deciding on a date.

"I view what the Iowa Democrats are proposing as a real positive event in terms of retaining the traditional schedule of the New Hampshire primary following the Iowa caucus," Scanlan said.

While visiting New Hampshire guard troops deployed in Kuwait, Sununu took a victory lap.

"New Hampshire didn't back down and we prevailed. Working hand-in-hand with @NHSecretary Scanlan, bringing this to the forefront of the conversation, we made clear that New Hampshire would hold the first primary," Sununu said in a statement.

Raymond Buckley, New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman, did not act surprised at the development.

"New Hampshire will hold the First in the Nation Primary in January," Buckley said. "The NHDP is focused on winning races next November."

Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager also welcomed the move.

"We are confident that this development maintains the long-standing tradition of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire First In The Nation Primary for the Republican Party," Ager said.

"We will support the Secretary of State's decision and are hopeful for a spirited Primary on January 23, 2024."

Dems try to revive bills

Wilhelm and other Democratic activists have not hidden their disgust that it took Attorney General John Formella's office months to inform Rep. Merner that he was not legally living in his district and had to resign.

"We need a fair debate and a fair vote," said Wilhelm, who vowed to try to bring back bills that died because Merner took part in the votes.

Wilhelm wrote Formella last week that legislation may be necessary to ensure state prosecutors take prompt action on these matters.

"A 20-week gap between admission of wrongful domicile + communication to the House is unacceptable. Credible info regarding member qualifications must be promptly and confidentially communicated to the Legislative Ethics Committee to ensure the NH Constitution is upheld," Wilhelm posted on X.

Ex-GOP rep steps up

Former State Rep. Pat Abrami, R-Stratham, confirmed last week he will run for the District 24 State Senate seat in 2024.

Abrami was a leader on the House Ways and Means Committee and served for more than a decade in the House. Winning that Senate seat will not be easy.

Stratham Democratic Sen. Debra Altschiller won the seat in 2022 by more than 3,500 votes over Republican Lou Gargiulo of Hampton Falls, who spent nearly a quarter million dollars trying to win it. Thanks to redistricting, this seat has become even more Democratic than in the past.

Keene mayor race heats up

On Nov. 7, Keene voters will pick from two candidates to replace Republican George Hansel, who is not seeking a third term.

The choice is between former State Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, and Bradford Hutchinson, who called himself a "Tulsi Gabbard Democrat" in announcing his candidacy in the local media.

"You do want to help me save Keene from the "Wrath of Kahn," don't you?" Hutchinson wrote.

Hutchinson said Kahn's candidacy moved him to run.

"Jay Kahn wants to be the mayor of West Keene, the country club, and Wall Street, in that order," Hutchinson said.

"I'm a Save the Square kind of guy. I want to be the mayor of Main St., for ALL the good people of Keene, and not only the hoity-toits. Face it, Jay is a 'Rich Man North of Richmond,' and I'm a native American Yankee. The choice is clear."

Kahn's answer was that in last week's primary election he got about 90% of the vote.

Debate likely over conflict

A recent profile of transgender legislators in The Nation will probably lead to more debate during the 2024 session over the Legislature's weak conflict of interest rules.

In the story featuring state Rep. Alissandra Murray, D-Manchester, Josie Pinto with the New Hampshire Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire said she hired Murray as an organizer so someone in the movement would have a vote at the table.

"Together, we sort of developed this theory of change, which was like, 'If we want to see the state we want, we have to get our people to run,'" Pinto said.

Murray serves as the organization's deputy director.

There's nothing illegal or unethical about Murray having this advocacy role while serving in the Legislature.

What is questionable is that Murray did not disclose that relationship when she voted on numerous abortion rights bills during the 2023 session.

Currently, any legislator with such a relationship can vote but must under ethics rules declare that conflict on a disclosure form.

In the past, some lawmakers have tried to put some teeth behind the conflict laws.

Many states do not allow someone with a financial interest to vote on bills that benefit an employer or family member.

Stevens does her homework

All the members of the Executive Council pore over the hundreds of business items very carefully, but Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, took it to another level last week.

The issue at hand was granting an easement at no-cost to a private landowner in Belmont along Lake Winnisquam over state-owned property.

The benefit property owner was JCB Realty Trust.

Unlike state officials, Stevens pierced the corporate veil to uncover that company's principal was Steven Bouchard, who in 2007 was sentenced to up to 13 years on state and federal charges of money laundering and acting as a drug kingpin.

Bouchard was accused of conspiring to distribute thousands of pounds of marijuana and a large amount of cocaine in a scheme that reached from Arizona to New Hampshire.

Prosecutors said Bouchard funneled drug money through a Manchester restaurant, landscaping business, car dealership and real estate.

Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, said Bouchard served his time in prison and should be treated the same as anyone seeking an easement. Transportation Commissioner Bill Cass said the agency has never done background checks into those seeking easements.

Stevens was the only council member to oppose the request.

Weaver picks a No. 2

Under state law, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Weaver gets to recommend to the council who should serve as her deputy.

Weaver had been deputy under former Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

Last week, Weaver urged the council to approve Morissa Henn of Concord, one of the agency's three assistant commissioners.


Kevin Landrigan is State House Bureau Chief for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Contact him at