“It’s ludicrous. This is distracting from the job we need to do. We need to stop it.”
Those were the words of Speaker of the N.H. House Sherman Packard back in 2015, when Bill O’Brien, the Mont Vernon Republican, responded to losing his bid for the speakership by announcing he’d form his own “majority” leadership and set up shop in an office across the street from the Statehouse.
Packard had spent years as his party’s House leader before the 2010 tea-party revolution swept O’Brien to the speaker’s role. O’Brien named Packard chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Five years later, when Republicans regained the House majority, O’Brien felt entitled to reclaim the gavel. But not all of his Republican peers agreed. A number of them instead backed Shawn Jasper, throwing in with their Democratic counterparts. One big reason for O’Brien’s failure was the vindictive, petty and demeaning way he’d wielded his authority as speaker during his previous stint. Turning the speaker's seat into a literal bully pulpit, O’Brien punished those who disagreed with him, stripping Democrats and even Republicans of committee assignments and forcing disabled lawmakers to hard-to-reach seats in the middle of the House chambers. His downfall in 2015 came after he insisted the vote for speaker, traditionally held via secret ballot, be a roll call vote, so he’d know exactly who didn’t vote for him and, thus, who to punish when the time came.
We bring up O’Brien’s tyrannical rule and ignominious fall as a cautionary tale for Packard. The Londonderry lawmaker became speaker last month after the elected speaker, Dick Hinch, died of COVID-19 on the heels of hosting a no-masks-required caucus meeting of fellow Republicans. His first action as speaker was to deny Hinch died of COVID. His biggest claim to fame thus far was to insist the entire 400-member House meet, in their cars, at a parking lot at UNH this month, despite the winter weather.
And now, he’s made the news for his less-than-leaderlike treatment of a lawmaker: stripping Democrat Rosemarie Rung of Merrimack of her assignment on the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee. The reason? She had tweeted that Troy Police Chief David Ellis should resign after participating in the Trump rally Jan. 6 that preceded the rioting at the U.S. Capitol.
Packard, without evidence, indicated Rung's tweet may have played a part in threats against Troy officials that caused them to close town hall, except by appointment. In announcing the move, he called for “a bipartisan solution to this problem.”
That note, adding insult to injury, is particularly galling given the free pass Packard has thus far issued to the six members of his caucus who’ve demanded the state government be dismantled, largely because Donald Trump didn’t win the November election. Those six have called Gov. Sununu a tyrant, and argued his “unconstitutional” emergency orders made the election invalid. Wonder of wonders, not one of them has offered to give up the seat they won in the “illegitimate” election. Nor has Packard asked for their resignations or otherwise sought to punish them.
Worse, Packard has raised not a finger to even reprimand, much less strip of committee duties, Republican Rep. Jim Spillane of Deerfield for tweeting a derogatory image of Jewish men, or Rep. Dawn Johnson of Laconia, who last month shared a post from a notorious neo-Nazi website that included an anti-Semitic caricature. Both instances have been called out by Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene.
It would seem, then, that Packard needs some educating on the meaning of bipartisan, along with lessons in fairness and leadership. He may have the power to have his way now, but he’d do well to remember O’Brien’s antics helped cost Republicans the House majority in 2012, and O’Brien the respect of his peers in 2015.
Moreover, it’s not doing Granite Staters any service to belittle and alienate House members at a time when it’s especially important to find commonality and unity rather than being combative.
To put it another way, one might say, of Packard's early mimicking of Bill O'Brien as speaker: “It’s ludicrous. This is distracting from the job we need to do. We need to stop it.”