Tales from the New Hampshire legislature

7 mins read

By Scott Graber

“My father was Irish-Catholic, from Boston, and when we first got to New Hampshire, John F. Kennedy came to visit,” she says.

“He came to your house?”

“In those days the number of Democrats in our town was pretty small and yes, we met in the living room of our house,” she says.

It is Sunday afternoon, overcast, dreary, but I’ve got a small fire, a box of Publix blueberry muffins, and the company of David and Anne-Marie Irwin. Anne-Marie and David are tall, well-tailored and have a straight-forward New England sensibility. They live (most of the time) at Walling Grove Plantation but sometimes flee to Peterborough, N.H., when the local temperature ‘feels like’ 120 degrees. This afternoon we’re sitting in my modest, tastefully furnished den discussing Anne-Marie’s inspiration and her time in the New Hampshire legislature. 

After working for John Kennedy and completing college, Anne-Marie volunteered for the Peace Corps, spending time training teachers in Jamaica. Then she met and married David and eventually she found herself and her family in postcard-worthy Peterborough. 

“The schools in Peterborough were quaint, but they were also falling apart,” she says. “I reluctantly ran for the school board to see if I could convince people to rebuild the schools in nine different towns. It was hard because some of the towns in our district were less affluent. But eventually we got a bond approved and that let us rebuild, improve the curriculum and do more teacher training,” she says.  

In 2002, with the help of former Gov. Walter Peterson, Anne-Marie ran for the state House of Representatives. She won that race, beating seven men, but found she had little influence in that Republican-ruled chamber. That changed in 2008 when Democrats took control and she was named chair of the committee that oversaw the administrative functions of state government.   

That year a bill was introduced that would have eliminated dog racing. Initially she thought this was a good bill but decided she would tour the race tracks and talk to the people who worked at the tracks. In the course of her tour she found that many of these tracks were the sole source of employment, and income, for small New Hampshire towns. She also found that the tracks would eventually close of their own accord; but if immediately, legislatively closed there would be economic trauma. She also found that hundreds of greyhounds would be killed in the process.   

“I knew that I was going to have to convince most of the House — 400 people — to change their mind,” she says. “And so I went to each one asking, ‘How many dogs will you take? And, by the way, if you don’t want the dogs killed you’re going to have to take four.’ ”

“But that wouldn’t have done it,” David interjects. “Anne-Marie went on the floor of the House and turned the tide with her speech.” 

Service in the legislature came with a salary — $200 per session — but there were perks. Because New Hampshire holds the first primary election in every presidential cycle, it serves as a “gatekeeper” that removes candidates who fail to win a significant percentage of the vote. This winnowing-of-the-unworthy function is also shared by Iowa and South Carolina. 

In 2004, John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards and others were competing for the Democratic Party nomination. 

“I took Howard Dean around the state,” Anne-Marie says. “Although David and I listened and talked to everyone — Democratic and Republican. 

“In 2008, when I was a committee chair in the legislature, I was everybody’s friend,” she says. “And in 2008, Hillary Clinton had been unexpectedly beaten by Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses. She came to New Hampshire knowing she would have to win or drop out of the race. I met both of them — Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.

“I met Hillary at a small gathering and liked her. She was smart, not awful. But when I met with Obama at our Legislative Office Building, I found him inspiring, ‘Kennedyesque,’ ” she says.

In the end Hillary narrowly won the New Hampshire primary (112,404 to Obama’s 104,814) and that victory kept her competitive to the end of the primary season when Obama won the nomination. 

Next year, however, all of that may change because California has moved-up its primary to March 3. Iowa and New Hampshire would still be first and second, but the gravitational pull of the California motherlode could pull candidates and the spotlight away from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

I ask Anne-Marie what legislation made her proudest.

“More than any particular bill,” she says. “I was pleased with the civility, the respect that members of my committee showed for each other. There were mischief makers, but on the whole there was a sense of fair play — an integrity in our proceedings. Our oversight was smart, not partisan.”

New Hampshire has recently become a “swing state” with control bouncing back and forth between the Democratic and Republican parties. Keeping government proceedings fair, open and civil is not easy.   

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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