ICYMI: Speaker May Be Most Controversial in N.H. History
By almost any measure, Republican House Speaker William O'Brien has had one of the most controversial terms as a legislative leader in New Hampshire history. Since he was elected speaker in December 2010, he has been called a "bully" and had a fellow Republican file an anti-bullying bill aimed at him to set a code for proper lawmaker conduct.
A bipartisan group of critics has accused O'Brien of imposing his own set of rules on running the House and ignoring constitutional procedures. Most recently he was called a liar by one of his own caucus members following a controversial procedural maneuver that led to a veto override vote on a House redistricting proposal.
In an e-mail message to all members of the House, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, not only called O'Brien a "tyrant" but he castigated fellow Republicans for putting up with it. "We have a liar and a tyrant in the speaker's chair only because Republicans (who know better) allow it," Vaillancourt said in e-mail sent to all lawmakers on March 30.
For his part, O'Brien told Seacoast Sunday the "personal attacks" on House leadership and him have less to do with policy and procedure than to undermine his desire to "break the political mold." This covers a range of issues from providing fiscal discipline on the state budget, creating a more pro-business environment, to reducing the role of government so residents will have more liberty in their lives.
"You see what happens to leaders who break the mold like Michele Bachmann (Republican congresswoman from Minnesota) and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas," O'Brien said. "I read the other day that Democrats are calling Congressman Allan West (R-Florida) 'insane.' When you break the mold or don't act like African-Americans are supposed to, you can expect a lot of pushback, and personal attacks are a part of that because they (critics) have no alternative vision."
O'Brien, 60, is serving his third term in the House from the small town of Mont Vernon. In less than a decade he has risen from near obscurity and a contributor to Democratic candidate campaigns to a conservative speaker. A lawyer who worked predominantly in Massachusetts, O'Brien could provide one part of a unique trivia question - he shared a practice with rising Democratic star Tom Finneran, who would become speaker of the Massachusetts House in 1996.
Following a lengthy federal investigation in the Massachusetts redistricting process in 2001-02, Finneran pleaded guilty in 2007 to an obstruction-of-justice charge for lying to investigators.
"I was fairly apolitical, which isn't surprising since I was up at 5 a.m. to get a run in before going to work," O'Brien said. "We talked a little politics but mostly not too much because we didn't want the practice to be known for being politically connected."
He said the campaign donations he made for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., were less about political ideology than doing a favor for a friend. "Tommy (Finneran) would come into the office and ask for some money for the campaign," he said.
According to Federal Election Commission records, O'Brien also donated to the presidential campaign of Al Gore in 2000 and the campaign of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2002.
"I'm still trying to understand where he's coming from," freshman Rep. Tim Copeland, R-Stratham, said of O'Brien. "He was a lifelong Democrat before he came to New Hampshire and now he's carrying the flag for the Republican Party in the state. It's a little troubling and it's clear to me and many others he wants to run the House like a dictatorship."
Copeland, who considers himself a moderate, plans to seek re-election in the fall. He said it's not his job to either be a loyal Republican or to abide by O'Brien's agenda. "I'm here to represent all the people of my district and I love doing that," he said.
A well-publicized confrontation with O'Brien in March 2011 still bothers Copeland, in part because O'Brien publicly denied it happened. Copeland was opposed to anti-collective-bargaining measures in the overall budget bill and that drew O'Brien's ire. Copeland stands by his story that O'Brien loudly threatened not to support any of Copeland's legislative priorities and would not support him for re-election.
Copeland said just before his meeting with O'Brien, he stood outside a meeting room and heard O'Brien loudly berate another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Susan Emerson of Rindge, who had proposed an amendment to restore some funding to the Health and Human Services budget. Emerson left the room in tears and later filed the anti-bullying bill for lawmakers, a measure that was eventually defeated.
"It was embarrassing. There was a group of school children a few feet away waiting to sing the national anthem and you could hear him shouting at her. The children could hear it and the teacher with them could hear it," Copeland said. "The teacher asked me, 'Is this the way you do things?' and I said 'It shouldn't be this way.'"
"It's pure fiction," O'Brien said of Copeland's version. "I would never ever say to a member of my caucus that I would arrange opposition against them."
He said his only personal meeting with Copeland was to welcome him to the Legislature and he believes Copeland is "alienated" because he's a "union-orientated Republican" who doesn't fit in with the majority in the House.
"I think those Republicans who don't support our platform or issues like traditional marriage, they need to go back to the voters who put them into office and tell them why they aren't," O' Brien said.
Copeland said he supported O'Brien once but won't do it again, but he doesn't believe it will come to that. "I'd be very surprised if he wins election in Mont Vernon," he said.
O'Brien said there was no dramatic conversion to his conservative views. He and his family first moved to New Hampshire in 1985 and then to Mont Vernon. O'Brien said he was elected to a three-year term to the Mont Vernon School Board in 2002. Though a nonpartisan position, O'Brien said he enjoyed public service and began to think more about his political orientation and decided the Republican Party was the best fit because of its platform of limited government, low taxation and more liberty. "This is me and what I believe government should be," he said.
He was first elected to the House in 2004 and was tapped to be a caucus whip. He was defeated for re-election in the Democratic-wave election in 2006 but was returned to the House by voters in 2008. Working hard for the House Republican Alliance, he said, helped him develop contacts and solidify a message for the 2010 election that swept Republicans into supermajority status.
"We spoke to voters, we spoke to the business community," he said. "Our message was based pretty much on state and federal constitutions as well as the Republican state platform. We started out with meetings of only eight to 10 Republicans and we ended up with more than half the Republican caucus."
Veteran Rep. Tony Soltani, R-Epsom, supported O'Brien but said within three weeks he regretted it. "I've asked the voters to forgive me for voting for this clown," Soltani said. "I've worked for 32 years to help build up the Republican Party in this state and this johnny-come-lately Republican is tearing us apart. It's as if he's been planted to undermine the Republican brand in New Hampshire, because no one could do a better job of that than he is doing. If we only lose 40 seats in November we will be very lucky."
He said O'Brien did not keep his promise to him to treat Democrats with respect. "I don't think it's ever been more stressful than it is now in the House," Soltani said. "We can't be a real democracy without a credible opposition, without people talking to each other even if they don't agree. I rarely agreed with (former Democratic Speaker) Terie Norelli, but to her credit she listened and we could at least know each other's positions. O'Brien has continually violated House rules and (in the redistricting vote) he welched on his word in front of the whole House. But he won't admit it because he never admits he is wrong and has no humility."
Critics of O'Brien say how opponents Soltani and Copeland have been treated personally sets a vindictive example. Soltani, who uses a wheelchair and cane because of a chronic condition from a broken pelvis, has been put in a seat in the middle of a long row. Soltani said it makes it difficult and painful for him to get up and speak on the floor when the House is in session. He said 11 members have offered to switch seats to make it physically easier for him. He said O'Brien, who has the power of seating in the House, has denied every request. "He wants to make me crawl," Soltani said.
Copeland did get an aisle seat last year because of a chronic back condition, but that was changed during seat assignment reshuffling this year. "It might be a coincidence but I'm not sure," Copeland said. "It's uncomfortable for me because I can't sit for long periods, but I really feel for Tony, and everybody can see what's going on."
Soltani is considering the extraordinary step of having to sue O'Brien for violating the American with Disabilities Act.
"I really reject the notion that these are politically motivated," O'Brien said. "We have about one-third of our members who say they are disabled and ask for special accommodation." He said Copeland in particular never said a word to him and his seat was changed because of a reassignment after a veteran returned from service.
"If people have a serious problem, they should submit some medical evidence," O'Brien said. "This becomes a talking point and is stoked up by the opposition and people get to revel in victimhood."
Soltani believes for Republicans to have any chance in November, House Republicans will need to take the unprecedented step of removing O'Brien before the end of the session. He believes the support is there.
How the House is being run under O'Brien has become a subjective matter. Rep. Will Smith, R-New Castle, believes the House is being run more efficiently and no less partisan under O'Brien than under Norelli, the Portsmouth Democrat who served as speaker from 2006 to 2010. Smith said he's never personally seen or heard anything that would undermine his belief that O'Brien has the highest respect for all House members and the institution, and that he has been focused on keeping his promise on reining in government spending and passing a sound state budget.
"(O'Brien) has shown leadership and we've had a lot of successes that we can take credit for," said Smith, a leadership insider who was named by O'Brien to be one of the division chairs of the powerful Finance Committee. "He's a very strong leader and obviously that can sometimes irritate people who want to go in a different (policy) direction."
Second-term Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, sees things differently. "This is my second speaker and when it's your leader in the chair, you look at it with a different lens and you may be biased," she said. "What I see mostly (with O'Brien) is disrespect for the practice of the House and his treating too many members with disrespect."
All too often during full House sessions she's heard the parliamentary demeaning term of "point not well taken" from O'Brien. She was one of those who heard Vaillancourt make a valid parliamentary motion before the redistricting override vote only to have it ignored.
"That was just the latest example," she said. "I don't really see a coherent vision except an ideological push for less government this and less government that. You can have a higher political purpose, you can have policy and legislative goals, but procedure matters. The institution needs to be treated with respect."
O'Brien insists that is the case. He said his job as speaker is "a labor of love" that he works at six days a week. "I've learned to really appreciate this institution and honor the dedication of my fellow legislators," he said. "I've come to appreciate the strength of what is essentially a volunteer legislature."
Any controversial procedural moves taken have had legal approval. He said the overwhelming Republican support for the redistricting vote to override Gov. John Lynch's veto shows the correctness of the position.
"I think it's very critical that we keep faith with the people who had sent us here," he said. "We ran as Republicans and represent Republicans. I believe our signature achievement has been that we kept our promises. I see myself as a promise keeper and leader."
Norelli also criticized the work of her successor. "I am extremely discouraged and concerned about the tone as well as the procedural functioning of the House," said Norelli, who now serves as House minority leader. "People can and do disagree on policy matters and you can be partisan for your positions without disrespecting other members and the House. We are seeing an almost total lack of transparency with votes like we had on redistricting. This did not happen under (former Republican speakers) Donna Sytek and Doug Scamman. Speaker O'Brien is operating the House with a disturbing lack of respect for the process and members of the House, especially for anyone who has a different opinion."
Norelli said when she was speaker she regularly met with Republican minority leaders on issues such as the calendar. "I've not had one meeting with him," she said.
O'Brien confirmed it was true except for an issue about security, but didn't consider it a major issue because he believes, except on certain issues, Democrats haven't been willing to work with him or House leadership.
"Even with all the negative pushback and personal attacks on House leadership, I believe we all love this state," he said. "We believe in less government, more liberty and more self-reliance. Some say we don't care deeply about people who need help, but we do. We just have a different approach. We don't need programs that will make problems worse."
Norelli believes the problem of civility is serious. "When you dismiss the 103 Democratic members in the House, you are dismissing and disrespecting all the people who voted for them," she said. "I am concerned that the large group of freshman legislators believes this is how the House is run, but it's not. Civility and respect matter."
O'Brien said he wants to serve as speaker again and believes Republicans will retain majority in the House. He said vocal critics like Copeland, Soltani, Vaillancourt and Rep. Lee Quandt, R-Exeter, have an agenda and "become part of the narrative of opposition," but in reality it's always "only five or six disgruntled members" of the Republican caucus. He accused Quandt in particular of being too closely aligned with the public-sector unions.
"I consider Lee a friend," he said. "But I believe these unions are going to drive the state into fiscal insolvency. I think that Lee believes our attempts are not only wrong but insulting."
Quandt said House leadership has become a "cult" that doesn't understand the extent of the damage it has done. "We never attacked public-sector workers before," he said.
As a retired public-sector employee, Quandt believes he represents a longtime base of the Republican Party in New Hampshire that O'Brien and other House leaders know little about. "There's a hurricane coming and they don't even know it," Quandt said about the upcoming election.
According to Quandt, he visited a local firehouse recently and found 30 members of the 33-person force were Republicans. "Not one of them plans to vote for a Republican."
At a glance
Remarks by Rep. William O'Brien in his first address as Speaker of the House on Dec. 1, 2010.
Speaker O'Brien: Thank you and please be seated. Speaker Chandler, Speaker Norelli, Republican Leader Packard, my fellow House members and guests, I apologize for taking so long to reach the podium. The sergeant-at-arms had to travel very deep into the darkest backbenches to find me.
I do hope, however, that my predecessors noted with satisfaction that I didn't jump over the seat in Division 3. I will try as hard as they did to discourage such truly egregious behavior. I will miss sitting in those far-off seats surrounded by friends from both parties. I do hope, however, that those of us in the back of Division 3 this last session exhausted all possible humor about leadership. If not, I suspect that I will be providing some fodder of my own.
I want to state my appreciation to my colleagues from across the aisle for the speakership vote. Let me again, perhaps for the last time, but certainly with heartfelt thanks, thank you, Madam Speaker. My congratulations to all of you for having received the confidence of your constituents.
With their votes, however, has come a clear and unmistakable message. It was not a message of partisan victory and loss; it was a message for an effective, limited, respectful and responsive state government. Our constituents want a government that works for them and not against them. They want a government of public servants and not elite rulers. They want a government that stands with citizens and not over them. They want a government that has not abandoned the common fiscal sense that we bring to our own lives and that we see when we attend our town meetings and our city hall sessions. They want their government back. Any political party delivering on these needs will do.
We ignore their message at our political peril, but if we ignore this message, our state will continue to slip towards mediocrity. We have been honored by our constituents to be their public servants. They are relying on us to fix the substantial fiscal challenges facing our state, both long-term and short-term. Each of us can choose to contribute solutions or stand as an obstacle. It seems so easy these days to mischaracterize and then demonize political opponents. Voters, however, have shown they have the means and the intelligence to detect and reject such behavior. They have always deserved more. They now demand more.
They want the naysayers to become problem solvers. Contributing to solutions doesn't mean abandoning principles. It does require listening, respecting the fact that each one of us cares deeply about our state, and knowing that we are all seeking what is right, as we see it, for our neighbors and fellow citizens. So I ask you to bring your political principles to your committee hearings and to House debates, but please also bring respect for your colleagues and most certainly bring solutions and not condemnations.
The people have a right to have their agenda and not personal agendas drive our debates. Leave the rhetoric of disparagement, mistrust and indignation to the editorial pages and to the blogs. If we do this, we will do what is right for New Hampshire. If we do this, we will give our state a legislature that is as great and wonderful as our people and if we do this, we will recapture the New Hampshire Advantage. Thank You.
Source: N.H. House Journal
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