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September 27. 2013 12:12AM

Fergus Cullen: Relentless Rubens sets sights on Shaheen

Jim Rubens is tenacious when he gets an idea in his head. Just ask Public Service of New Hampshire. Rubens has been a thorn in the side of the state’s largest utility for two decades.

As a freshman state senator in 1995, Rubens took on PSNH to force competition on it. Once the market was opened to other providers, Rubens fought PSNH’s efforts to get bailed out for its stranded costs. Out of office, Rubens continued working to prevent PSNH from pushing hundreds of millions in expenses for the Bow mercury scrubber onto ratepayers. Today he’s fighting PSNH on Northern Pass.

“When I take on a cause, I take it on for a long time,” Rubens says. He’s led the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling for nine years as an unpaid volunteer. “You have to take the long view on fights like this,” Rubens adds. The other side expects you to get tired and eventually quit. It is usually Rubens who outlasts his adversaries through stubborn stick-to-itiveness. Consider it the upside of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Jeanne Shaheen, take note. Last week Rubens announced he is running for the U.S. Senate seat she holds.

Forty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Rubens running for Senate one day, harder still to imagine him doing so as a Republican. Guilt-ridden about his middle-class upbringing in suburban Connecticut, Rubens dropped out of Dartmouth, gave away what savings he had, and lived in a Canaan commune. “I just decided I would start without the advantages that I’d been given in life,” Rubens says of his deliberate decision to begin at the bottom. A draft number in the 300s meant he didn’t report to Vietnam while he found himself.

The 21-year-old worked cutting steel in a Barre, Vt., scrapyard for six months. That stint was the last time Rubens had a conventional job and a steady paycheck signed by someone else.

Instead, Rubens became a serial entrepreneur, starting and selling nearly a dozen businesses, including a pair of retail furnishings stores serving Hanover’s high-end clientele. A commercial development project nearly bankrupted him in the late 1980s, but by his early forties Rubens hit enough singles in business that, combined with a frugal lifestyle, he had achieved the financial security to live off his investments and devote himself to intellectual pursuits and public service.

Rubens’ politics are unconventional and defy easily labeling, but in the 1990s he was a conservative hero. He decided to run for office in 1994 after meeting his state senator and thinking, “I can do a better job than this guy.” Ralph Hough, a Republican, had become president of the state Senate by cutting a deal — hatched at the kitchen table of then-state Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — with Democrats that made Hough persona non grata among Republicans.

Hough was still a political heavyweight, though. He had survived a primary in 1992, and in 1994 Rubens was one of two challengers creating a three-way primary, which normally would serve to split the vote and favor the incumbent. Rubens outworked both his opponents, self-financed his campaign with nearly $30,000, and won. He went on to win the general election in a Democratic-leaning district, then was re-elected in 1996 even though President Bill Clinton carried the district.

State Sen. Rubens championed conservative causes. The first bills Rubens introduced created New Hampshire’s charter school law, and he backed a series of other education-reform bills that expanded school choice, reformed tenure and allowed targeted aid in the wake of the Claremont court decisions. He was a lead backer of SB 2, the initiative tax advocates backed that brought the secret ballot to municipal spending decisions.

In these fights, Rubens usually found himself opposed by Shaheen, first as a colleague in the Senate and then during her first term as governor. Rubens tried to run against Gov. Shaheen in 1998 but narrowly lost the Republican nomination.

“Responsible public service, for me, is to dance on the thin edge between popularity and necessary change,” Rubens once told a reporter. Rubens’ intense approach to changing things he’s passionate about isn’t always popular with everyone, but it’s usually gotten Rubens results.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com and followed on Twitter @FergusCullen.


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