'Nearly all men can stand adversity," Abraham Lincoln wisely said, "but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." The person elected to serve as speaker of the New Hampshire House wields more power in state government than anyone save for the governor. For at least a generation, most holders of that office passed the test. By and large they led fairly and showed respect for political opponents. The current speaker of the House, Bill O'Brien, has failed the test, failed miserably and continuously.
O'Brien's portrait as speaker is a self-drawn caricature of vindictiveness and power run amuck. On Tuesday, Monitor State House reporter Matthew Spolar outlined the grievances that may soon lead to the speaker becoming the target of a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Two of O'Brien's fellow Republican representatives, Tony Soltani of Epsom and Tim Copeland of Strafford, have disabilities that make it exceedingly difficult for them to crabwalk across the long rows of seats in Representatives Hall. But O'Brien has denied both men seats on the aisle.
Soltani requested an aisle seat because of his disabilities. But assigning seats is one of the powers accorded the House speaker, and O'Brien and Soltani rarely see eye-to-eye. O'Brien assigned him a seat in the middle of a row, a location that guaranteed that the outspoken Soltani would face the maximum possible struggle when coming to the front of the hall to discuss legislation. Representatives from both parties - 11 according to Soltani - offered to switch seats with him, but O'Brien won't permit it.
Copeland, a former law-enforcement officer injured in the line of duty, was assigned an aisle seat. He kept it until he disagreed with O'Brien on several key votes, among them the adoption a state Right-to-Work law. He was assigned a seat in the center of an aisle by O'Brien.
O'Brien's merciless treatment of those who dare to disagree with him is emblematic of his tenure as speaker. He faces another possible lawsuit for holding a vote to overturn Gov. John Lynch's veto of a flawed redistricting plan. O'Brien called the vote before Lynch's veto message was printed, as required by the Constitution, where it could be read by lawmakers and members of the public alike before the vote.
The speaker routinely replaces absent committee members with allies before key committee votes. In his haste to push through his agenda, an agenda provided in part by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, O'Brien has limited debate on legislation to 10 minutes on each side.
O'Brien has been accused of loudly berating lawmakers who disagree with him and stripping those who offend him of committee assignments and leadership positions. He has given prominent positions, including that of House counsel and chairman of the redistricting committee, to officers of the New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation, a conservative group that O'Brien presides over that's headquartered in his house.
O'Brien has run New Hampshire's House of Representatives in a notoriously autocratic way and made, to the extent he could, the agenda of a small group that of the state. He has succeeded because too many in his party have bleatingly gone along. It's long past time for them to speak out. A man with a leadership style similar to O'Brien's, former governor Craig Benson, was ousted after one term. That deserves to be O'Brien's fate as well.