Newly chastened by a loss of power, Democrats in the New Hampshire House are working to pick up the pieces and find a caucus leader.
After his party lost 43 seats and fell into the minority Nov. 3, Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff, of Penacook, announced he would not seek to reprise his role as Democratic Leader, the title given to the head of the minority party. Now the race for Shurtleff’s successor is on — and it’s surprisingly competitive.
In one corner is Doug Ley, the current House majority leader and top lieutenant to the Speaker. Shurtleff has already given Ley his blessing, adding his endorsement of the Jaffrey Democrat to his announcement that he would step down.
Besides the nod from Shurtleff, Ley comes in with built-in advantage: He’s steered House Democratic policy priorities for the last two years in his role. That’s given him experience working with lawmakers individually and with the caucus as a whole.
“I listen to new voices and my office door has always been open to anyone wishing to consult, converse and criticize,” he wrote in a letter to the caucus. “I intend to build a leadership team ready to tackle challenges of coordination and communication, a team reflective of the grand diversity of the Democratic caucus.”
Then there are the challengers.
The first to jump in the ring against Ley was Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat with extensive institutional experience. Smith chaired the powerful House Finance Committee from 2007 to 2010, just ahead of the Tea Party wave election that brought in Republican Speaker Bill O’Brien. And in the latest two-year session of Democratic control, she headed the Judiciary Committee.
Both times, Smith developed a reputation as a strict but fair enforcer of committee rules. This year is the first time in her 24-year legislative career she has made a bid for Speaker or Democratic Leader.
“We need a leader who will listen to the disparate views of the members with respect and a commitment to thread the needle — to find the best way forward to get us to yes,” she said in an announcement letter. “We need a leader who has gravitas and familiarity not only with the rules, but also the personalities of members on our side of the aisle, and across the aisle.”
On Wednesday evening, Rep. Matt Wilhelm threw his hat into the ring as well. A first-term Manchester Democrat, Wilhelm enters with much less legislative experience than his opponents but with a hope to speak to the needs of younger members of the Democratic Party.
“After hearing from many of you, I’m convinced that we need to make meaningful changes in order to transform the Democratic House Caucus and the Committee to Elect House Democrats,” Wilhelm said in his letter to the caucus announcing his run. “After the setbacks of early November, we would be remiss if we did not re-examine our strategy and tactics for how we govern, how we campaign, and how we communicate with the working families of New Hampshire and those who feel like they don’t have a voice.”
But while Republicans hold a clear — if slim — 214-187 majority, the path to House Speaker for current Republican Leader Dick Hinch, of Merrimack, is not as clear as it could be.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, Londonderry Republican and frequent candidate for the speakership post, has also announced his candidacy for the post.
As both parties in the House prepared for what is often a messy intra-party leadership contests next month, Senate Democrats had an easier time.
The newly-out-of-power Senate Democrats chose outgoing Senate President Donna Soucy to lead their caucus shortly after the election. And Republicans moved quickly to vote as a caucus in support of Salem Sen. Chuck Morse for Senate President, who has served the role before.
The leadership tussles in the House come as the state Democratic party embarks on a broader journey to assess the damage from the Nov. 3 election, which saw the party lose the House, Senate and Executive Council and fail to win the governor’s office by the biggest margin in years. New Hampshire was one of the only legislatures in the country to flip from blue to red this month, even as President-elect Joe Biden won the Granite State comfortably.
On Tuesday, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley announced a new 12-member task force dedicated to reviewing the old strategies and holding listening sessions about how to move forward. That task force will feature current and former representatives and senators and chaired by Terrie Norelli, the former Democratic House Speaker.