Politics of Mean




With so few carrots, why not use the stick?

In late March the state's House Republicans were on the verge of passing their version of the state's two-year budget. With a three-to-one advantage they had all the votes they needed, but a few members of their own party thought the plan cut government spending too much. House Speaker Bill O'Brien (R-Mont Vernon) wanted everyone kept in line, so he singled out Sue Emerson (R-Rindge) for some verbal scolding over public disagreement. He brought her to a less-public area and let her have it. When it was over, Emerson, wearing her signature loud hat, was reduced to tears.

The incident grew into a near legend. Female legislators were outraged. Democrats were baffled given Republicans had the votes anyway. The press lapped it up as it fed into a story line that O'Brien was heavy-handed and just downright mean. Then O'Brien pulled State Rep. Lee Quandt (R-Exeter) off of a committee over a disagreement and Quandt has called him Speaker "Bully" O'Brien ever since.

New Hampshire politics is described as many things. It is open and transparent and it is the state's unofficial sport, but the state's political culture is rarely described as mean.

It should be noted that O'Brien learned politics through the prism of rougher Massachusetts tactics - his mentor and former law partner was former Massachusetts Speaker Thomas Finneran. When politics is played like hardball there's a certain pleasure in cracking a few skulls, as long as it gets results.

Those new to politics will find, just like raising children, that incentives are built around carrots and sticks. With so little money involved in Statehouse politics the carrots dangled out are almost laughable as incentives to those on the outside. No one can raise big money for or against you if you vote the right or wrong way. No, for carrots all we really have are better parking spots to hand out and aisle seats in the House chamber that mean you can get to the bathroom quicker.

All New Hampshire politicians really have are sticks, but they are rarely used. O'Brien isn't the first to use the tactic. Former Governors Craig Benson, John H. Sununu and Mel Thomson all practiced "the politics of mean" when it suited them. Behind the likable Democratic Gov. John Lynch is his chief of staff Rich Sigel, aka the enforcer. All of the above may be less popular for being mean, but they were effective.

So it's less interesting to me why people can be "mean" given the nature of politics. The more interesting question is why are people here such wimps? Think about it for a minute. You are a state Representative making a $100 a year. You believe what you believe and then someone disagrees and yells at you. This person isn't your boss. This person is some elected leader of a party. You don't serve them, you serve the people of your district. They can't fire you and they really don't have many ways to punish you. You don't even have an office; most state Representatives have a locker like high school. And unlike most states, a House Speaker or Senate President cannot pull your bills off of the agenda. Every bill has to be voted on here.

The fact that we so rarely have push back against the "bully" may be proof we aren't mean enough. NH

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