Friday, May 3, 2019

Episode 8 When Merit Guides Governance - Ralph Hough Radical Centrist

When Merit Guides Governance

An Interview with Former New Hampshire Senate President Ralph Hough

For those who long for more civil times when Republicans and Democrats saw one another as the loyal opposition. State Senate President Ralph Hough gave New Hampshire a Senate to remember in 1992.

Named as a Defendant in the nationally renowned Claremont v NH lawsuit over educational funding because of the constitutional office he held, Hough was a profile in courage when, he filed a brief on behalf of the Plaintiff School Districts and testified before the NH Supreme Court, asking them to side with the Schools. That year the Supreme Court Ruled on behalf of the Schools and the Children, though the struggle continues, this decision will set the precedent for a new lawsuit recently filed once again.

To my mind Ralph Hough is a hero and a living example of a Radical Centrist. Seeking to build consensus, to create both common ground and to build new ground upon which people of good-will could stand to find solutions to challenging problems.

Dance of a Woodland Elder
There is a lot of talk lately about how the 2018 election was the start of a shift in the fortunes of Republicans and Democrats . . . maybe so. But there is some early evidence that the shift may be nothing more than an exchange of one group of ideologues for another. If this is the case we will be no farther along on our new American journey than we are today and the divisions that plague our country will be just as stark.

However, there is a third way and the model for it can be found in the 1992 New Hampshire Senate. It affords an example for every legislature that is closely divided or where people of good will in both parties are willing to challenge the established dogmas to create meritocracies where what you know is more important than who you know . . . where allegiance is to country and state, not to political party.

In 1992 the NH Senate elections left the body divided 13 to 11 with the Republicans holding a slight advantage. In the typical spoils system that has afflicted us all too often, this would usually have resulted in the election of a Senate President and the Senate leadership from the majority party. Likewise all committee chairs would also be of the majority party, no matter how little they knew of their assigned committee’s responsibilities.

The Shadows We Cast Haiku

Just after the election then State Senator, and now US Senator Jeanne Shaheen and I, two Democrats, along with Concord’s beloved Senator Susan McLane and Ralph Hough of Lebanon, two Republicans, met quietly in Madbury to craft a bold plan: To create a Senate where party took a second seat to merit and where Democrats and Republicans worked together for the good of the state.

I honestly don’t remember who contacted whom with the idea and it doesn’t matter. Senator Hough had a reputation as a moderate to progressive Republican whose political hero was Teddy Roosevelt, Susan McLane was a progressive Republican, undeterred by the slings and arrows from the far right within her own party. Both represented the great historic tradition of pragmatic Republicans in the mold of Warren Rudman, Perkins Bass, Sherman Adams and Charlie Bass.

Senator Hough we surmised would not have won an election among Republican partisans, but if the 11 Democrats held together, along with at least 2 Republicans he could win.

Ultimately, that is just what happened; but on that day in Madbury we asked ourselves the more fundamental questions. How would we create a legislative body where people worked together; where Chairs and Vice Chairs were chosen for their expertise and their leadership ability; where fairness, transparency and achievement were the rule and not the exception?

At first we toyed with the idea of dividing everything equally between Republicans and Democrats, but that just seemed to be the same old wine in a different bottle.

We decided that parity would be considered a value but not the be-all-and-end-all. We obviously needed to have a Senate President as a presiding officer but what required us to have vice presidents, or other titles that established some kind of formal or informal pecking order within the Senate? So in our brainstorming – and later after Senator Hough had won, we did away with all these titles.

Since the goal was to create an atmosphere where Republicans and Democrats worked together for the common good developing consensus where possible and respecting differences where matters of personal principle made consensus impossible, we considered completely eliminating the separate pre-session caucuses, an age old tradition that generally has been a partisan planning session.

Senator Hough felt that he did not want to issue an edict preventing either party from gathering together when they felt it was important. Instead he announced that the entire Senate would be invited to lunch together before the session, in effect creating a bi-partisan caucus where we would have a final opportunity to develop consensus on contentious issues and if consensus were not possible to civilly alert one another that we were going to have a “floor fight.”

It was at these lunches that I developed a real and abiding respect for many of the Senators whom I had previously seen in a very adversarial way. Suddenly Senators, whom I had viewed only as adversaries, were no longer political enemies but colleagues with whom I often disagreed but who were human beings with whom I could break bread, talk, and, from time to time, compromise.

Senator Hough began the Senate term with a team building retreat for the entire Senate challenging us all to move beyond the constraints of party and to take risks for the good of our state. The retreat included not only Senators but staff members as well.

That year, as the country struggled to get its economy moving again the New Hampshire Senate – with a full sponsorship of both Republicans and Democrats passed five omnibus economic development bills creating an Office of International Trade; supported the creation of The Center for Earth, Oceans and Space at UNH - one of the first institutions in the Country to initiate studies of Climate Change - , expanded the Port of New Hampshire, strengthened the Business Finance Authority, took the first steps toward development of a Community College system throughout NH among other things, all while balancing the State’s budget

By the end of the two-year term I considered many of my former adversaries among the finest, most principled people with whom I had ever served. They had not changed. The dynamic had.

In years past, legislators had opportunities to experience one another as human beings, whether it was because they would gather together at the Highway Hotel for dinner or because they carpooled to legislative sessions. Today it is harder to find such opportunities but with some effort this small group of Senators upended years of partisan tradition to create what I believe was the most collegiate and cooperative group of Senators that I had seen in all my 12 years in the NH House and Senate.

I will never forget what Ralph Hough said at the end of one of our early meetings. “They will probably throw us all out for this, but it will be worth the ride.”

I won’t represent that we changed the face of politics in New Hampshire – we didn’t.

In the next election, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America election, Republicans dominated the election and the Senate returned to business as usual, more partisan than ever. It may have been the same if Democrats had dominated. But for one brief, shining moment, we glimpsed how things might be if change were built from the center out.

I hope that Ralph Hough still thinks it was worth the ride. I know I do.

Alton Washday Revisited

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