Does life experience mean political advantages?
Illustration By Victoria Marcelino
Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and Golda Meir were all well advanced in years when they were power players on the world political stage.
They proved age is no obstacle to formidable leadership. It certainly doesn’t determine deportment, intelligence, wisdom, judgment, character or whether you’ve got “the right stuff.”
“Your ability to function as a legislator is based upon your ability to communicate with people, your ability to get along with people, to reach across the party line and work things out,” says Lou D’Allesandro, 79, the esteemed dean of the state Senate, who puts the long in longevity when it comes to public service in New Hampshire.
“There is no magic number when old is too old to be in the Legislature,” continues D’Allesandro, who has been a Democratic state senator for 20 years and was an executive councilor for six years, a member of the House of Representatives for four years and a local school board member for 10 years.
Just ask Mary Griffin, the 11-term Republican state representative from Windham.
“I’m 91. I drive myself up to Concord to do my job, and I love everything about the Legislature. I’ve loved learning all the things I have. I love the people,” says Griffin, who is the majority whip on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and is one of the few in the 400-member House who showed up to vote on every one of the 150 bills brought forward in the current legislative session. “I think I’m the oldest person serving.”
Nobody knows for certain who qualifies as the most senior statesman or stateswoman in New Hampshire history to have held a seat in the Legislature, which first convened in 1784. But it’s no secret that when it comes to representing one’s district, life experience can make a big difference — after all, these are the people who have already weathered the storms.
“The reality is that anything you’re going to get up here you’ve probably seen in life already,” says Chuck Morse, 56, a Republican who is the president of the 24-member state Senate and is serving his fourth term in the upper chamber after two terms in the House.
“When you’re older, you’re more patient and reflective so you make better decisions,” says Democrat Jeff Woodburn, 54, the Senate Minority Leader. “People have made tough decisions in their lives and previous jobs so they’re going to be better at making compromises and are going to be far better legislators than those who have not. As you grow older, you become less strident. The art of negotiation is needed, and being married for 50 years ought to give you some skill at that.”
The people of New Hampshire are the most represented in the country, with one legislator for every 3,000 residents in a population of about 1.3 million, and each term in both the House and Senate lasts only two years. Yes, that old punchline that everybody in the state will have served in Concord before they die still draws chuckles.
But this is not a for-grins-and-giggles gig, and it’s surely not side work.
It doesn’t come with the luxury of your own support staff, and it doesn’t pay well either. For $100 in annual salary, a special-issue license plate and reimbursed mileage to the state capitol for official business, you’re tasked with tackling New Hampshire’s multifaceted and difficult issues. Then tack on the troubles and travails of those who put you in office and placed their faith in you.
“This is a full-time job, and it’s not an easy job. It requires a very serious commitment,” says D’Allesandro. “In a citizen legislature, you’ve got to invest the time. You’ve got to search out resources to support your work; you’ve got to do your research. Many people depend on the lobbyists because we can’t possibly read every bill. To do this job the right way requires desire and dedication and a lot of follow through.”
Moreover, if you’re going to be effective, then you’d better be a people person.
You work for your constituents, and they have no compunctions about calling, dropping by your home, or reaching out through email and social media 24/7. They’re not shy about chatting you up at the grocery store or gas station, and they’ll pull up a chair when you’re dining out with family and put their problems right on your plate.
“I get weary, but there are those less fortunate than we, and helping them is my job,” says Griffin, who is returned to the House as her district’s top vote-getter in every election cycle. “People have problems and don’t know where to turn, so they come to me. Where else are they going to go? I’m able to take care of them or hook them up with somebody who can. That’s extremely gratifying, and I love doing it.”
Not only do you have to be a good person to be a good legislator, you’ve got to be a stand-up guy or gal.
“First and foremost, come to Concord with your honor and respect, and then keep it. If you can do that, it will be easier to do the job,” Morse says. “Your word is everything.”
Republicans and Democrats are almost always on opposite sides of the political argument, but on this point there is no disagreement.
“A strong legislator is governed by his ability to stay true to his word. It’s very important people know they can count on you,” D’Allesandro says.
“Do you pick your battles? Do you build trust in relationships? When you give your word, do you live up to it? Those are all ways people can be effective,” says Woodburn.
Another point of consensus is that every seasoned New Hampshire citizen with the desire and ability to serve should throw a hat in the ring.
“I recommend it,” says Morse. “Because of the system we have in New Hampshire with 400 House members, the opportunity is there. We get elected every two years, so it’s something people can come try, and if they have a knack for it, they can stay at it.”
D’Allesandro thinks serving is well-suited to seniors. “I absolutely encourage people to run. It’s all about the seasoning. You make good relationships, and those are the things that make our democracy stronger.”