Organization Day is traditionally one of the most highly attended sessions of the New Hampshire Legislature, where 424 of the 430 elected state officials are sworn into office.
But 2020 is anything but normal. And it’s possible the Legislature will see record-low attendance for the inaugural session of the upcoming biennium.
For the first time, the House and Senate will meet outdoors and off-site, taking up residence on the field hockey grounds at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. It will be a chilly day in the low 40s, but not what’s keeping the once and future legislators away.
Instead, a small outbreak of COVID-19 among GOP legislators has many Democrats announcing boycotts of the session, instead opting to be sworn-in via teleconference on Thursday.
Renny Cushing, the newly elected Democrat leader, plans a press conference for Wednesday morning prior to the Organization Day gathering, at which time he will decry the “dangerous actions” of the incoming House Republican Majority.
“Republican leadership did not inform any Democratic members that multiple members of their caucus have tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an in-person reception less than two weeks ago,” House Democrats said in a statement. “With the number of cases rising rapidly in New Hampshire, hiding information is negligent and dangerous to communities across the state. Members of the House Democratic Caucus will be weighing their risk in attending Organization Day at UNH knowing that there will be members of the House GOP who were likely exposed and will be there unmasked.”
Voters elected 213 Republican members in November and 187 Democrats, originally presenting the GOP with the tall-task of keeping their caucus together and ensuring they all show up.
If Democrats literally take themselves off the field, the GOP will have a much easier time passing key priority initiatives, beginning with electing Rep. Dick Hinch (R-Merrimack) as speaker of the House. Assuming, of course, the House is able to reach the constitutionally required quorum of 200 members present.
Republicans will then tackle the question of the body’s rules — which govern the behaviors of the members in the House.
Common practice for the House is to adopt, temporarily, the rules of the previous biennium. This year’s Republican majority will attempt to revert to the House Rules from the 2017-2018 biennium, tossing former House Speaker Steve Shurtleff’s rules completely aside.
Shurtleff’s majority banned firearms from House chambers, mandated sexual harassment training for all House members, and started off the 2019-2020 biennium on a deeply partisan footing — stoking a divide from day one in the chamber.
As the Concord Monitor‘s legislative reporter Ethan DeWitt observed Tuesday: “Underlying all of this is a profound breakdown in trust and communication between the two parties, dating back to at least February. Cannot overstate how much relations have deteriorated.”
And what happened in February? Speaker Shurtleff took the unusual — some say unprecedented — action of sanctioning GOP House members who refused to participate in sexual harassment training.
As one of the sanctioned Republicans, Rep. Betsy McKinney of Londonderry, quipped at the time: “If somebody wants to sexually harass me, I would be extremely flattered,” McKinney said, drawing laughs and applause from one pocket of the room, “but I’d advise them to get glasses.”
In a joint session of the House and the Senate, members present will vote for a secretary of state. Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s long-standing election chief, is not opposed for the position.
In 2018, tensions ran high during the secretary of state’s election — with former Sen. Dan Feltes even challenging the ruling of the chair, his own party’s newly elected Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff. Gardner eventually won on a second ballot over Colin Van Ostern, by just one vote.
This year’s election should be much smoother for Gardner.