Gay Marriage, Medical Pot Shape New Hampshire Living Free

New Hampshire is rarely the first stop on the road to change. The state exhibits an allergy to taxes along with a flinty right to be left alone.

Yet New Hampshire is also the first state to sanction same-sex marriage through legislative action alone, without a court challenge. Last week, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved with bipartisan backing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and, with the election of Governor Maggie Hassan in November, it became the only state to have an all-female chief executive and congressional delegation.

New Hampshire’s politics are changing because its demographics are altering, driven by a steady in-migration, principally from Massachusetts, leaving a population of 1.3 million that is older, wealthier, better educated and, in a modest sense, more diverse than a decade ago. In the school system in Manchester, the largest city, for instance, more than 70 languages are spoken. The Latino population, while only 3 percent, has tripled since 1990.

The consequence has been a state that backed Republican presidential candidates from 1968 to 1992 is trending more Democratic. Hassan’s victory marked the eighth Democratic victory in the last nine governor’s races. Her party also ousted two incumbents in U.S. House races, leaving U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte the only Republican among top officeholders. On top of that, Democrats have captured New Hampshire’s four electoral votes in the last three presidential elections.

Interesting Coalition

“What’s interesting about the Democratic coalition here is that it is not a labor coalition,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover. “It is teachers and environmentalists, highly educated professionals who work in the Boston 128” technology corridor “and health-care professionals.”

“People here are conservatives in the sense of being cautious rather than conservatives in the sense of being ideologues,” she said.

Hassan, 55, who is the second woman elected governor in the state, said she has seen how a changing population has created a “a more balanced political culture.”

Republicans dominated the state from 1982 until 1996 when Jeanne Shaheen, now a U.S. senator, became the first woman elected governor, inspiring another generation. Hassan calls Shaheen her political hero. House Democratic Representatives Carol Shea Porter and Ann Kuster, along with Republican Ayotte, comprise the state’s five top elected officials.

Civic Participation

Seated in her office cooled by an air conditioner window unit in a Capitol built in 1819, Hassan said the state’s traditions of civic engagement, from its town boards to its 424-person legislature, make it easier for more women to participate.

“The fact that as many women are running has a lot to do with our culture of civic engagement,” Hassan said. “Women are able to fit public service into their lives. Once they find out they like it and can do it, there is plenty of room to grow.”

Her engagement on public policy issues started much earlier, around her family dining room table in Lincoln, Massachusetts, when she and her siblings were quizzed by her father, Robert Wood, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and former undersecretary of housing in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Legal Career

After graduating from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, she went to Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, and then worked as a lawyer before entering politics. Her husband, Thomas, is the principal at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, and her daughter, Meg, is a student at Brown.

She said she entered public life because of the experience of her son, Ben, 25, who has cerebral palsy. She had to lobby for him to have a place in the public schools, and from that point, she said she saw the power of advocacy.

“You begin to realize that the genius of our country is the constant push to be more inclusive and find new ways of engaging everyone. Being Ben’s mother helped me understand how important it is for all of us to stay on that track,” she said.

The spirit of inclusion led to the legislature approving same-sex marriage, a law that took effect Jan. 1, 2010, when Hassan was a state senator. Democratic Governor John Lynch said of the law: “Today we are standing up for the liberties of same-sex couples by making clear that they will receive the same rights, responsibilities and respect under New Hampshire law.”

Medical Marijuana

During the legislative session that ended last week, lawmakers passed a budget and approved the use of medical marijuana, each with bipartisan support. The marijuana bill cruised through the state House on a 284-66 vote and Hassan has vowed to sign it into law.

Her pitch as a moderate willing to compromise was a contrast in the 2012 race to her Republican opponent, Ovide Lamontagne, who had the support of the anti-tax Tea Party. She won by 12 percentage points.

“She is not an orator,” said Tom Rath, a lawyer and Republican who has been active in politics for more than three decades. “Look at her life. Being a caregiver is really central to who she is.”

Charlie Arlinghaus, president of of the Josiah Bartlett Center of Public Policy, a Concord-based think tank that advocates limited government, said Hassan’s temperate manner masks a more calculating politician.

“Personally, I think she is very nice, very pleasant, but nonetheless very political,” he said.

Economic Transition

Hassan inherited a state economy in transition. In 1990, the largest employer was Digital Equipment Corp.; today it is Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The top 10 private-sector employers are a mix of financial services, retailers and health-care providers.

The governor said that a recruiter for one of the state’s largest employers, whom she declined to identify, told her that the state’s embrace of gay marriage is good for business.

“It matters to young people and trying to recruit them, a state that is accepting and open,” Hassan said.

The state can’t afford to lose firms that are rooted in what she called the “knowledge economy,” particularly when its population is skewing older.

New Hampshire’s economy ranked eighth from last as the majority of states grew at a faster pace from December 2012 to March 2013, according to Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States data. Home prices fell 11.74 percent during the last five years compared with a nationwide decline of 9.15 percent.

Local Economy

A bright spot for New Hampshire are gains in personal income; it ranked 10th best with an increase of 3.4 percent. The unemployment rate in New Hampshire of 5.3 percent in May is below the national average of 7.5 percent.

“This is really a white middle class state,” Fowler said. “We don’t have the real extremes between rich and poor. We don’t have Watts poverty or Silicon Valley wealth. The poverty we do have is rural white poverty. So you don’t have the same kind of polarization on economic issues.”

“People here like no income tax, no sales tax, but they also understand that government should be paying for education and certain kinds of health services,” she said.

The Democrats’ political prospects also improved, Fowler said, after Shaheen took a major issue away from Republicans by agreeing to veto any effort to impose a state income or sales tax, a move that Hassan followed.

2016 Attention

New Hampshire governors, Republican or Democrat, occupy a special place in American politics given the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and Hassan’s profile is sure to rise in the run-up to the 2016 election.

“Historically, any candidate would kill for an endorsement of the governor in the primary,” said Arlinghaus. ‘Anybody who comes into the state on the Democratic side will court her, pay her a visit, campaign for her re-election, raise money for her. It’s a great position to be in.’’

It has been for some of her predecessors. With the help of Republican Governor Sherman Adams in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower won the primary en route to two terms in the White House, and Adams became his chief of staff. The same White House job fell to former Governor John Sununu after President George H.W. Bush, another Republican, was elected in 1988.

Now it’s the Democrats’ turn as Vice President Joe Biden invited Hassan and her family to his private swearing-in ceremony in January. Former President Bill Clinton, whose wife, Hillary, won the state’s 2008 presidential primary, campaigned for Hassan.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is mentioned as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential contender, also campaigned for Hassan and called to congratulate her on her victory. More important, as the head of the Democratic Governors Association, O’Malley helped direct $8 million in advertising to her race, a record for the organization.

For her part, Hassan won’t discuss any entreaties.

“I have lots of good relationships,” she said. “I think a lot of people think it’s really early.”

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