A retiring NH rep reflects on life in Concord

Lenette Peterson on being a state rep: "the experience was phenomenal."
Lenette Peterson on being a state rep: “the experience was phenomenal.”

Lenette Peterson was elected in 2010 to represent Merrimack in the New Hampshire legislature. She served two terms, and then retired. She’s a friend and neighbor and hiking buddy, firmly pro-life. We sat down for coffee just before Christmas so I could ask her to look back on her time in office.

Why she’s leaving 

She’s been a sponsor of some important pro-life bills. As constituent, I supported her in two elections. I had to know: why is she leaving office?

“I two-termed myself.” Along with her husband, she prayed and thought about running back in 2010. “I asked [husband Erik] if he’d give me two terms. First term would be a learning experience. Second term is when I’d actually hopefully be doing something good.” She laughed as she added, “And I said only two terms, because we now have two children in college. State rep salary really doesn’t help pay for even a lunch card.”

That salary is $100 a year, plus mileage. New Hampshire in effect has a volunteer legislature. That hundred dollars a year is fixed. It doesn’t vary if session days run long or if a representative’s committee assignments are especially time-consuming. I hate seeing good, conscientious representatives choose not to run for re-election, but I can understand it – even if we’re losing a solid rep from my own town.


 

Why she ran 

Is the life issue one reason why she ran? “Yes.” No apologies for the social issues here.

She recounted a story from her early days in office in 2011. “I remember my freshman year, before we met for the first session. The majority leader at the time was meeting with groups of freshman [legislators]. Someone mentioned social issues, and the majority leader said ‘You guys can put all your social issues aside. We’re not going to deal with anything social this year.’ When he got to me, I said ‘first and foremost, I ran on social issues. That was on every piece of literature I passed out. Parental notification came up. Repeal of same-sex marriage came up. I ran on social issues so don’t tell me they don’t matter. I got elected by talking about social issues and Second Amendment issues. Social issues will be dealt with.'”

She hadn’t intended to run before 2010 – but she was asked, or more-or-less drafted, by a conservative legislator who had her eye out for likely candidates.

“If you had told me in April [2010] that I was going to put my name on the ballot, I would have told you you were nuts. That May, my oldest daughter and I were in Kohls. Lo & behold, we run into the Honorable Nancy Elliott.” At that time, Nancy was a Merrimack state representative in her third term, and Lenette had worked on her campaigns. “I said ‘I’m ready for your next campaign’ and she said ‘I’m not running again.'” At that point, Lenette walked right into trouble by asking, “So if you’re not running, who is?” Nancy Elliott was ready for that question: “Well, I’m praying about you running.”

Lenette shook her head as she recalled hearing that. “I said ‘are you nuts?’ My daughter said, ‘Mom, it’d be great!’ Nancy said to me ‘At least pray about it.'” L

enette was teaching at the time, at Milford Christian Academy. Being a legislator would put a crimp in that. Her husband realized what a commitment she’d be making if she went to Concord. It took a lot of prayer and thought. When filing period came in June, Lenette took the plunge and ran. She was elected that fall. She won again easily in 2012, a year that saw a lot of other Republicans lose.

What got done, and what didn’t – and why

What is she happiest about, in terms of legislation from the last two terms? “We kept [expanded] gambling out. That was huge. Parental notification [for abortion] was huge.”

And what’s been left undone? “Oh, my word – so many life bills. The life things, for sure. Statistics from abortion clinics: facts are facts, and it makes no sense that we don’t collect these. Why should [abortion facilities] get to stay in the dark? We didn’t get a 24-hour notice [waiting period before abortion]. Also, right to work needs to be passed here in New Hampshire. Those three in particular. And we’ve got to get rid of the Unaffordable Care Act. Medicaid expansion is going to bankrupt the country; we failed in getting rid of that.”

She credits Bill O’Brien, Speaker of the House in the 2011-12 session, for helping to get parental notification passed, over Governor Lynch’s veto. “I don’t think it would have happened without Bill.” Noting that the House elected in 2010 had the largest number of freshman legislators in recent memory, she compared the group to “a huge litter of Labrador puppies. I thought [O’Brien] did a phenomenal job.”

One disappointment was the failure of a bill to repeal same-sex marriage. “I said from day one, put it on the ballot. Let New Hampshire voters decide.” Instead a repeal bill was introduced. “Repeal of same-sex marriage was killed by Republicans, or people who ran as Republicans.” She said it was “unfortunate” that the leading Republican advocate in the House for restoration of traditional marriage tried to go it alone. “He wanted no help. He had it under control, he had it organized. And they ate him alive. So ignorance and ego killed that one.”


On being Republican

“I’m a Republican,” says Lenette. “Take away the social issues and a Republican is nothing but a Democrat.”

She’s a Republican. I’m an independent, or as I think of it, a recovering Republican. She is not going to follow me onto the Undeclared column. “I am definitely staying Republican, first and foremost because sometimes when you say ‘I’m an independent,’ no offense to the blogger, but are you that wishy-washy? You can’t decide?”

Lenette is an inveterate bestower of nicknames. (I am “Mother Hubbard,” a hiking reference whose origins I will save for my Granite State Walker blog.) Among her more stinging references: “Demo-rat,” instead of Democrat. Harsh, is it not?

“Sometimes I say Demo-rat and hear ‘that’s offensive.’ I say not really, and I explain why I use the word Demo-rat. What do rats do? They’re in back alleys eating out of dumpsters. They don’t do anything for themselves. They take what everyone else has. At least the rats take the leftovers. I say, what do you people [Democrats] do? You raid people’s pockets, you add tax after tax and fee after fee and call it revenue, but you’re just raiding someone’s wallet. You’re nothing better than a rat. Most Republicans agree with me. Dems just kind of look at me and shake their heads.” She hastens to add, “I give nicknames to Republicans, too.”

The recent vote for Speaker of the House

A recent power play in Concord saw the Democratic House caucus join with a minority of Republicans to elect Rep. Shawn Jasper as Speaker of the House, after O’Brien on the first ballot fell four votes short of regaining the Speakership. I asked Lenette for her comments.

The recent Speaker vote was “a total embarrassment. Jasper let his ego take over the House. There was a [Republican] majority choice for Speaker already.”  Lenette was in the gallery that day and witnessed the goings-on. On the second ballot, Rep. David Bates – an O’Brien supporter – made a motion to make subsequent votes for Speaker public, as opposed to the secret ballot normally used. Lenette said, “As soon as he went up there, I knew nothing good was going to come of this.”

She knows about the anger of O’Brien supporters who have vowed not to support a Speaker who has effectively been chosen by the minority party. Some of those supporters have also indicated reluctance to work with committee chairs appointed by Jasper. “It’s tough. There are some good reps who are pulling back. They’re frustrated, they’re furious. And I can see their point to a certain degree.” She said the situation will be very challenging for members of the House Republican Alliance, an informal conservative caucus that has been influential in policy discussions in Concord. “Whose allegiance are those HRA members [going to be with]? They’re going to disagree with leadership on more than [a few] things.” Lenette believes the Speaker vote will lead to bitterness at the polls. “This is not good, and it’s really going to hurt us in 2016.”

She wrapped up the subject with a blunt observation. “Jasper sold his soul to the devil, meaning Ray Buckley [chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party], and Ray Buckley is going to collect. Anyone who sells his soul to Ray Buckley is just deplorable.”

How to testify

Lenette served on the Judiciary Committee – a plum assignment for a first-term rep who’s not a lawyer. Judiciary has a heavy workload, including most of the life-issue bills. I asked her how a citizen coming to testify before the committee could get a point across.

“Keep it short, and keep it to the facts of the bill. Tears and sob stories are wasting time, in my book. Stick to the facts, and keep it short. That made more of a difference with me than anything else.”

And what would she tell her replacement on the committee? “No matter where they stand, pro-choice or pro-life, I’d advise them to go in and just listen. Facts are facts.”

She counsels brevity to House members as well as citizens coming to Concord to testify. “If you can’t make your point in three to five minutes, forget it. You’ve noticed that when certain representatives walk to the well [to make a speech about a bill], the place clears.”

“I’d encourage anyone to run …the experience was phenomenal.”

So a hundred bucks year, intraparty bickering, and six months a year of hearings and votes. Would Lenette recommend this to anyone else?

Certainly.

“I’d encourage anyone to run. If you have the time, and don’t need the money, run for office. The experience was phenomenal. The opportunities are just phenomenal. And with New Hampshire being First in the Nation, you get a chance to meet every candidate running for office. I was on a first name basis with some of them.”

As a Merrimack voter, I’m certain that had Lenette run for state rep again, she’d have won. In fact, she did win an election this year as a delegate to the state GOP convention, which she proudly attended with her daughter Sheila who was elected delegate along with her. Any second thoughts about that state rep seat?

“I could have run for a third term, not put as much time into things, maybe asked for a less crazy committee, but I would hate it. If I couldn’t do it 110%, I didn’t want to do it.”