The unpredictability of the N.H. House primaries

My final column on the upcoming primary races is about the New Hampshire House, which — unlike the Senate, governorship, or Executive Council — is largely unpredictable because of its 400-member size. 

Why is the New Hampshire House so big? Wanting to have representation from each community and unit of population, the drafters of the Constitution came up with a system that awarded one house member per community and one per 1,000 voters (then male Protestants!). As the state grew, so did the House. The New Hampshire Legislature moved to the present State House in Concord, and when the room was full at approximately 420 representatives, a constitutional amendment was passed to change the system to the present 400-member House.

The result of such a large body is that each voter theoretically is close to his or her representative and many districts have more than one representative for whom to vote.

This presents two issues. First, how many voters vote for a candidate because they know the candidate but not the candidate’s position on issues? Second, and conversely, how many people do not have a clue who they are voting for and therefore elect people with an ideology foreign to them?

In recent House elections, unknown Democrats were elected in the Democratic sweeps of 2006 and 2008 and unknown Republicans in the Republican sweep of 2010, with unpredictable results.

Concerned about the very partisan nature of the House, a group of moderates have sought to recruit candidates of both parties who believe in moderate government and cooperation. Led by notable New Hampshire political veterans, the group — Granite State Sense — has recruited 90 or so candidates running for election and hopes to change the balance of the House after the November election.

Candidates of both parties well known to voters have filed again for re-election. Among the Republicans who have filed for re-election are former Speaker Gene Chandler of Bartlett, Commerce Committee Chairman John Hunt of Rindge, conservative Paul Mirski of Enfield, veteran Neal Kurk of Weare, husband-and-wife team Keith Murphy and Kelleigh Domaingue Murphy of Bedford, Will Infantine of Manchester, Bob Rowe and Stephen Stepanek of Amherst, both current or former committee chairs, Tony Soltani of Epsom and David Hess of Hooksett, a member of the management team under various speakers. Frank Sapareto of Derry is running, John Sytek of Salem, husband of former the Speaker Donna Sytek and veteran legislator, conservative Daniel Itse of Fremont, Committee Chairman David Welch of Kingston and Ken Weyler of Kingston along with Norm Major of Plaistow, Beverly Rodeschin of Newport, the sole Republican elected from Sullivan County in the Democratic landslide a number of years ago. The most notable Republican filing for election, of course, is Speaker William O’Brien of Mont Vernon who is challenged by Bob Mead and John Quinlan in the primary. A primary election defeat of an incumbent Speaker would indeed be memorable. 

Model of moderation

On the Democratic side, former speaker and Democratic Leader Terie Norelli seeks re-election along with notables David Huot of Laconia, a former judge, former gubernatorial candidates Sid Lovett of Holderness, prominent member Sharon Nordgren of Hanover and former Committee Chair Susan Almy of Lebanon, David Woodbury of New Boston, Peter Ramsey, Director of the Palace Theatre in Manchester of Manchester, Attorney Bob Backus of Manchester, a former State Senate candidate, former Representative Jane Beaulieu, Manchester activist, Attorney Howard Moffett of Canterbury, Attorney Gary Richardson of Hopkinton, Mary Jane Wallner, Jim MacKay and Mary Stuart Gile, prominent Democrats from Concord and scores of other candidates. 

In one of the more interesting races in the state, incumbent Democrat Robert “Randy” Foose of New London has decided to retire. Foose, like Republican Rep. David Kidder of New London, has been elected from the same district for several terms. This bipartisan team of moderate representatives has served their town well. Running to succeed Foose as the Democratic member of the team is Karen Ebel of New London. A long-time member of the local planning board and conservation commission, Ebel is a civic activist who has served as a trustee of the Nature Conservancy, member of the NHPR Community Advisory Board, and graduate of Leadership New Hampshire.

Well-qualified candidates like Ebel deserve careful consideration from their constituents. With two Republicans and two Democrats running in the primary from that district, there is no assurance that Kidder and Ebel will be elected, but this model of moderation, cooperation and bipartisanship is one New Hampshire should study and the nation should emulate.

All voters should be sure that when they vote in the primary on Sept. 11, they know who the candidates are for the New Hampshire House. Otherwise, accidents could happen that affect us all.


Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

Categories: Cook on Concord