Maggie Hassan was known as partisan lawmaker
Editor’s Note: With just two days until the election, the Globe is focusing on the formative moments in the public lives of the two women vying for the US Senate in New Hampshire. The estimated $100 million contest will reverberate well beyond the Granite State, with the winner possibly determining control of the Senate. For our profile of Kelly Ayotte, click here.
As a candidate for the US Senate, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan emphasizes the word “bipartisan” as often as she can — in campaign advertisements, stump speeches, and on the trail.
But when Hassan served as a legislator, those who worked with her recall her as one of the most bold and partisan lawmakers they have ever known.
Hassan, a Democrat, was dogged about whipping party members into line; she didn’t shy away from big fights; and she won as much as she lost. While Hassan has been criticized for being too cautious as governor, just a few years ago her colleagues viewed her as being as aggressive and ambitious as they come.
“Time and again she would try to upend the process and block out the other party. She relished the partisan fight,” said New Hampshire state Senator Jeb Bradley, a Republican, who served with Hassan. “She will love Washington and Chuck Schumer if she gets there.”
Hassan, who was elected to the state Senate in 2004, first became a statewide figure in 2009, when she served as the state Senate majority leader, the number two position in the smallest Senate in the nation.
During her tenure the state became among the first to pass a same-sex marriage law without pressure from a court. Hassan also oversaw a budget process that raised controversial taxes to balance the budget during the recent recession, and helped pass a bill that reduced the state prison population.
She also proposed two pieces of legislation so unpopular that they never came up for a vote — an attempt to curb the impact of third-party campaign spending and a massive restructuring of health care costs that was eventually dubbed “MaggieCare.”
At the end of those two years, in 2010, Hassan lost reelection and Democrats lost control of the state Senate.
“The overarching lesson I took away from that time is how important it is to include everyone in the process and hear them out to solve problems,” said Hassan in a recent interview.
But Republicans argue that if she ever learned this lesson, it was well after she left the Senate.
“The New Hampshire Senate is an intimate place, and you learn that to get big things done, it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion,” said Bradley, who has served as Senate majority leader for the six years since Hassan left. “But that wasn’t Maggie’s style.”
But in many ways, Hassan was doing the job she was given. Unlike on Capitol Hill, the Senate caucus does not vote for its majority leader in New Hampshire. He or she is appointed by the state Senate president, who during Hassan’s time there was Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat.
Larsen said she chose Hassan over those with more seniority because she wanted a fighter in the role. Put another way: Larsen wanted a bad cop as majority leader, so she could serve as good cop. Larsen said the idea was for Hassan to work to get all the Democrats on the same page while she would do Republican outreach.
“She was a powerhouse,” said Larsen, who is now retired from elected office. “I just remember how she would work the phone during her commute in from Exeter, and then with meetings in Concord and then on the ride home spend time having more open philosophical discussions with members of the caucus when there was more time.”
While in the Legislature, Hassan’s most prominent success was passing the same-sex marriage law.
During 2009, when Democrats had control of the state House and Senate as well as the governor’s office, a small movement emerged to become the first state to affirmatively pass a law, rather than being forced into it by court order.
The bill failed on its first two votes in the Senate in a matter of months, because some Democratic lawmakers suggested the move was politically too far ahead of where voters were. Hassan disagreed, eventually presenting three different versions of the bill to the Legislature over six months, all while trying to craft a budget in the middle of a recession. The same-sex marriage bill ultimately prevailed on a close vote in both chambers.
“Once she was committed to an idea, she was all in on how to find a way to make it happen,” said Rich Sigel, who served as chief of staff under Democratic governors Jeanne Shaheen and John Lynch during the years when Hassan was in the Senate. “Unlike some legislators, I always found her devoted to the concept of public service.”
Asked if gay marriage was her biggest accomplishment while she served as majority leader, Hassan said no bill was more important than others, but that the same-sex law would be an “important statement we made about each other and our state.”
What ultimately led to her undoing, along with a number of other Democrats who lost re-election, were a number of taxes and fees that were raised as part of the two-year budget. Among the most controversial was a tax on limited liability corporations, or LLCs, that Hassan found weren’t paying the same level of taxes as other businesses in the state. While Hassan could point to plenty of profitable law and accounting firms that had registered as LLCs, it was also the primary tax vehicle for many small businesses. And these businesses complained bitterly about both the paperwork and the tax hit.
Even more galling for its opponents: The tax was inserted into the bill at midnight at the legislative deadline without a public hearing.
Hassan said then — and she maintains to this day — that the bill was aimed at installing fairness in the tax code, as well as finding ways to plug holes in a state budget that was losing out on revenue.
But that act also served as a rallying cry for her opponents. A local small businessman, Andy Sanborn, started a website called StopTheLLCIncomeTax.com and successfully ran for the state Senate himself, where he still serves.
“Everything about how Hassan did that tax stunk, including the tax,” Sanborn said.
Hassan says now that the episode showed she took action when she needed to, but that she also listened afterward and began leading the way to its repeal the following year, while she was still majority leader.
“It is really important that when you get feedback on the things that aren’t working the way you had hoped, that you change it,” Hassan said.
After being sworn in as governor in 2013, Hassan carefully crafted a public image of bipartisanship and fiscal conservatism.
During her first term, she essentially let Republicans take the lead on crafting the state budget, which won unanimous approval from the Republican-controlled Senate.
And while she was unable to push through an expanded gambling measure to increase state revenue, she stuck to her campaign promise to oppose an income tax or sales tax.
In terms of what voters can expect from Hassan should she became the state’s next US senator, Steve Norton, director of the nonpartisan New Hampshire Center of Public Policy, said it is clear.
“During her time as majority leader she was not shy about taking very challenging, politically divisive issues,” said Norton.
“From a pure public policy perspective, she was willing and able to have big policy fights, when usually people in that job keep a fairly low profile.”