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June 20. 2013 11:07PM

Fergus Cullen: Did Hassan learn nothing from Lynch?

The state legislative session is in its death spasms, and while the final details of a budget deal are emerging, this much we know: Gov. Maggie Hassan is not having nearly as good a freshman year as Gov. John Lynch had.

By this point in Lynch’s first term, June 2005, his transformation from a barely elected, potentially one-term governor into an undefeatable political force was well underway. Hassan isn’t looking anything as formidable.

Candidate Hassan ran as though she’d been Lynch’s lieutenant governor, doing everything to link herself to her popular predecessor except print signs saying, “Re-elect Lynch, Vote Hassan.” Her struggle is surprising because, unlike Lynch, she came to the corner office as a Concord insider. She watched Lynch consolidate support from a front-row seat as a freshman state senator from Exeter.

The similarities between the two pledge-taking Democrats’ situations as they began their administrations are strong. While Lynch faced Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature, the House, then led by consensus Speaker Doug Scamman, did not adopt an adversarial stance toward the new governor and showed him good will. Hassan also faces a friendly House, this time with a Democratic majority, and a Republican Senate. Politically, it amounts to about the same thing.

How the two governors approached those Legislatures has differed. Lynch accepted the political reality that divided government required compromise, on everything, from the get-go. Hassan has taken the House for granted while acting as though she didn’t notice the majority-making 13th member of the Republican Senate caucus. Perhaps she expected she’d be able to pick some of them off — she used to be a state senator, after all; these are her former colleagues, her friends! — and gain effective control of that body that way.

Her starting point on most issues has been to expect to get her way. While Lynch always invited compromise, Hassan begins her negotiations with, “How about you go back and re-read my original proposal?”

Instead of bending to her will or splintering, the GOP caucus in the Senate has stayed remarkably cohesive all session, a testament to its personalities and also to the leadership style of Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford. Historically, the GOP caucus was beset by factionalism, something Lynch nurtured and exploited, before Bragdon got the gavel. Bragdon’s steadfast opposition to a fiscally disastrous Medicaid expansion has been nothing short of heroic.

Seeking compromise, freshman Lynch consistently won partial victories. Two major issues that year were Medicaid and a cigarette tax increase (sound familiar?), and Lynch got most, though not all, of what he wanted from the Republican Legislature on both. The other big issue was state funding for education, where Lynch and the GOP came together to eliminate donor towns and target state aid to communities.

It’s hard to identify legislative successes for the Hassan administration thus far, but one big defeat stands out. Her casino gambling plan (something Lynch would have opposed) failed, and failed in a bipartisan manner. Lynch’s successes were almost always bipartisan successes.

Lynch was criticized for keeping his opinion about major legislation to himself and for leading from behind on issues. What became characteristic of his leadership style was visible that first spring, but over the years Lynch’s policy of being selective about what issues he engaged in served him well politically. The Hassan administration has offered an opinion on most issues, great or small, which can be distracting and limit effectiveness.

Republican Bruce Keough, who should have been elected governor in 2002, spent the spring of 2005 thinking about running again. Preparing for what everyone expected would be a competitive re-election fight, Lynch held the first major fundraiser for his re-election campaign in May, fewer than five months after taking office.

About the time invitations to that fundraiser were being printed, an April University of New Hampshire Granite State Poll measured Lynch’s job approval/disapproval rating at 53/8. After six months on the job, it rose to 61/12, and 49/21 among Republicans. Keough retreated, and Lynch cruised to re-election the next year with 74 percent of the vote.

After struggling through her first legislative session as governor, Hassan isn’t intimidating anyone.

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Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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