Report From Concord

By Ken Wells

In 2020 we have come to know a level of disquiet and disruption to which few of us can find comparisons in our lifetime. In my own life, having ridden through personal rough spots and through rough spots in the life of my community from time to time, I can suggest what we need in order to get through, if we have the wisdom and grace to seek it. First we need, in our own ways, to find that place of inner calm that allows clear thinking and problem-solving. Then we must cultivate the wisdom and grace to accept what is, and that which we don’t have the power to change. We must be humble enough to seek the help of others when we must, and generous enough to offer the help we can, even to strangers who can never repay us. If we can do those things, especially the last thing on this list, we will all prevail together.

For only the second time in 201 years the New Hampshire House was forced to find a new place to meet, as the novel coronavirus toll in the United States topped 120,000 dead in a few months. Unemployment in New Hampshire rose from 2.6% – among the lowest in the nation – to over 16% within those same months. Elsewhere, federal forces have been called up against American citizens exercising their First Amendment right to protest police murders of unarmed black Americans, while small numbers of heavily armed protesters storm legislatures, seeking to intimidate the people’s elected officials during deliberations. These are all unsettling events, and seem to be coming at us from all sides.

I’ve been thinking about a time, years ago, I stood on a treeless hill of no great height in Pennsylvania, not as prodigious as the mighty hills hereabouts, not even so tall as the Proctor Academy ski hill. From that treeless rise I could look down into an antique Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish town with about 450 buildings. One hundred and fifty-six years ago, the battle of Gettysburg raged for three days on that hillside, ending on July 4. When the smoke cleared, eight thousand corpses lay strewn upon the hillside, wearing a jumble of U.S. Army or Confederate States of America uniforms, with three thousand dead horses scattered among them. The citizens of that little town buried them all.

Before the grass had grown deep over their graves, Abraham Lincoln gave a very succinct speech dedicating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, in which he concluded, “ It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln realized that the democratic ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is the source of American freedom. He also says democratic freedom is not simply an American birthright, but an ongoing “great task” for us to nurture and sustain. In order for democracy to provide “liberty and justice for all”, we must agree that the will of the majority shall prevail, but with tolerance and forbearance toward the minority. In the ideal American democracy, any minority group has a right, not just to continued existence, but to equal protections and opportunities under the law. When any minority group obstructs the implementation of the will of the majority, or the majority uses its power to punish and oppress minorities for “being different”, we are failing our “great task”. American slavery, the systemic white supremacy and racism that has persisted ever since the Civil War, and the current obstructionism blocking the will of the majority in the New Hampshire legislature are all glaring evidence that our “great task” of maintaining our democratic freedom is far from over.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, as the hate of the Civil War raged on and General Sherman was burning his way vindictively across the South, the New Hampshire House of Representatives was unable to meet in our State House, and instead found another location – an important precedent that allowed the House to legally conduct the People’s business this June outside of its usual Hall. Your democracy has been threatened because your elected Representatives have been locked out of the State House by the Governor’s declared State of Emergency, and your democratically elected representatives whose constitutional responsibility it is to write laws that articulate public policy and to control the state’s “pursestrings”, was prevented from meeting for several months due to the conditions of those executive orders. Realize that there is an empowered minority who are directly benefiting politically and financially from this shut-down.

On June 11, 2020, the House convened for the first time since the 19-hour marathon session in March. Although the location was new – the huge and spectacular Whittemore hockey arena at UNH – representatives were pleased to see familiar old faces of their friends and colleagues of both parties. Jokes were made about throwing fish onto the ice after the first bill passed, and about the Speaker exiling members to the penalty box for misbehavior, but the mood quickly turned very serious. The average age of members of the House is 64 years old, with many of the two dozen House committees being chaired by very experienced representatives nearly 80 years of age. To minimize the possibility of contagion and to meet every requirement of the emergency orders, members on the floor wore surgical masks and/or clear face shields and maintained more than six feet of separation to the next member. Chairs were set on the rink surface at an appropriately wide spacing. Members who refused or were unable to wear masks were seated in the stands, behind the rink glass.

The formalities of opening a House session always include a roll call of those whose absences have been excused. It was sobering to realize that among the roughly 380 legislators that had been a part of the previous 19-hour marathon session back in March, two had died and five had resigned due to ill health. Many more representatives who were present indicated that after the final full House session for this legislative year on June 30, they will retire and not seek re-election.

I have heard the calls from constituents across New Hampshire for the Legislature to “do your job!” I had hopes that this historic session would accomplish much, but the proceedings were vastly complicated by ideological turf wars. There were fifteen bills to be voted that had strong bipartisan recommendations from their committees coming in; nine were even unanimously recommended for passage. I won’t list all of them, but two examples stand out as no-brainer “ought to pass” bills: SB295 – “relative to creating the office of child advocate” within the New Hampshire Division of Children Youth and Families, to represent children who otherwise have no legal voice, and HB1603 -”establishing the PFAS remediation and mitigation revolving loan and grant program and fund”, which would essentially create the bank account for receiving and loaning Superfund dollars to address the “forever chemicals” in New Hampshire drinking water that have been linked to clusters of rare cancers across the state.

Frankly, little was accomplished legislatively, because the House could not agree to extend the deadlines for legislation, which had expired during the COVID-19 State House lockout. To suspend the House Rules and change the deadlines for all bills would have required a two-thirds majority, and it failed to carry on a strictly partisan vote. Then, the House went through each of about 30 bills, one at a time, to vote on whether the deadline could be extended for just that one bill. Again, every bill failed to get a two-thirds majority, except a bill that now allows restaurants and breweries to refill half-gallon “growlers” with beer, regardless of whether the establishment’s name is printed on the outside of the growler. Not an encouraging outcome, that only showed that most people seem to agree that “helping beer is good”, even when they disagree on whether “helping business is good” or “helping people is good”. Infuriating.

An interesting schism appeared in the Republican ranks, somewhat highlighted by the seating arrangement that placed those of a libertarian stripe who refused to don a mask in their own seating section. One member of the libertarian caucus seated in the stands had proposed a bill to end the Governor’s State of Emergency order (which is within the power of the House to do) because, he said, the stay-at-home home order violates rights guaranteed in the United States Bill of Rights. The floor-seated Republicans were not willing to end the Governor’s ability to assign federal and New Hampshire taxpayer dollars on no-bid contracts (as reported in the Concord Monitor), and to use non-democratic, and unconstitutional means (see my previous article about GOFERR and the Joint Fiscal Committee) to circumvent the House’s constitutional control of the “pursestrings”. Most Democrats did not support ending the Emergency either, because federal unemployment benefits to New Hampshire families will end if the State of Emergency ends, even as reopening cautiously happens before the end of the Emergency is declared. When so many are unemployed and collecting these benefits, ending them would reduce their spending power among New Hampshire businesses trying to reopen, deepening and extending the economic downturn in our state.

As the session neared the end, Minority Leader Dick Hinch addressed the House, saying that his party had blocked these bills, and would continue to obstruct all bills, because the majority “had wasted so much time” (was it only one afternoon?) pursuing reprimands of those House members of his party who refused for a whole year to attend sexual harassment training required by their employer. The party that Hinch leads failed to “do their job”, because they put ideology before their responsibility to the people of New Hampshire. This kind of cynical political maneuvering puts our democracy in peril.

Both party’s ideological “purity” hyperbole must end if our nation will again aspire to true greatness by embracing its core principles of democracy, forbearance and compromise. New Hampshire, birthplace of Daniel Webster, should understand and revere the pragmatic value of forging a compromise even if that is, as one wag put it, “an agreement between all parties that none are happy with”.

One hundred and two years ago, the world was in the grip of the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which 195,000 Americans died in the single month of October during the second wave of that virus. Eighty-nine years ago, environmental damage transformed America’s “breadbasket” into a “dust bowl” and triggered the employment and economic collapse known as the Great Depression. Fifty-five years ago, riots erupted in Los Angeles and spread to D. C. in protest over the repeal of fair housing policies, unequal employment and housing opportunities for black America. Our country has seen these troubles before, but not all simultaneously as we do today. We must learn from our own history, and strive to do better and become our best selves.

Above all, I am a moderate who believes in democracy, and the principle that every native and naturalized American may participate in our democracy by voting (and voting only once!)  Beware that small factions at every extreme are working hard to amplify and take advantage of the chaos of recent days. I dare you to become well-informed by subscribing to the views and news feeds of those who oppose your views, as well as those who reinforce them. There is only one verifiable truth, even though there is usually an element of truth in every point of view. Think with your head, not your “gut”. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, and see if your “truth” looks valid from that point of view. Could it really be truth if it changes relative to your viewpoint? Is all this really about “us” versus “them”? I think it must be about “we”!

This pandemic is not over by a long shot, nor will the equality issues that have bubbled up again from one hundred and fifty five years ago be solved overnight. We in Andover are disappointed that our Fourth of July celebration has been put on hold. But remember that the battle at Gettysburg also ended on July 4, and it was a somber turning point towards a new and better future. We should think of this date as a point when we turned our expectations anew toward becoming a great nation “with liberty and justice for all”, as Lincoln envisioned. Lincoln’s call reaches out not just to the divided nation of his day, but to us across the future as well, that we are charged to do our part for true Freedom for all of us by supporting democracy, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Be strong, but don’t be afraid to call for help if you need it. If you’d like to talk to me about anything that concerns you, or if you’d like to be part of the solution, you can reach me at 735-5756 or at