The State is Flat: Keeping Power Out of Politics is a NH Tradition
Illustration by Peter Noonan
In 2005 New York Times columnist Tom Friedman published a best-selling book titled “The World Is Flat,” describing how global economics had changed in the previous two decades. Now countries and business can complete on a level, “flat” playing field.
During that same time, the same could be said of New Hampshire politics as Democrats began to achieve parity with the Republicans who had dominated state politics for two centuries. Particularly with the rise in independent voters in the state, a strong Democratic candidate had as good a chance at winning an election as a strong Republican candidate.
But politics in New Hampshire is also flat in that there aren’t a lot of the traditional barriers to entry to the political game seen in other states — a pot of campaign money, established credentials, putting time into the party. And once a person steps onto to the political stage, they find out that they really aren’t all that much more powerful than where they were before.
While in some places in America candidates get on a stump, in New Hampshire politicians barely step on a two-by-four. It’s that flat.
Consider the New Hampshire House of Representatives. While some of these state representatives think of their election as a big deal, it’s not. Possibly one of the 400 state representatives is a household name — former House Speaker Bill O’Brien. The rest, including the current speaker, are anonymous citizen legislators. They represent only 3,330 people. They make $100 a year. The average campaign for state representative costs under $500. The two biggest factors of their chance of winning office are the partisan makeup of their respective districts and the political mood of the country. When they get elected, they have no offices and no staff, can get harassed on their home phone numbers at any hour and are expected to show up to everything. Eventually they get that the whole thing isn’t worth it. Most serve just six years in the House, or less.
It doesn’t get that much more prestigious anywhere else in the state. Senators also work in virtual anonymity with the same virtual “no pay.” Structurally, the governor’s office is one of the weakest in the country. Since 2004 there have been 10 Congressional elections and six different winners: Jeb Bradley, Charlie Bass, Carol Shea-Porter, Paul Hodes, Frank Guinta and Annie Kuster. None of them amassed power to do anything really significant because they weren’t around long enough.
The fact that our New Hampshire politics are “flat” like a two-by-four — easy to get on and off and not that big of a deal either way — does have a consequence. Mayoral elections this year in Manchester, Concord, Franklin and Berlin aren’t expected to be competitive. US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan may float to re-election next year. The stakes seem low and the rewards not that high.
The economic world may only recently have become flat, but this is nothing new for Granite State politics. Our founders designed a level playing field for politicians, hoping the people might be “taller” as a result.