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Friday, March 30, 2012

Hudson, Pelham lose out on own House representation under new redistricting

HUDSON – House Majority Whip Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, says the redistricting plan that became law Wednesday may not be perfect for Pelham and Litchfield, but it isn’t a disaster, either.

“It’s not an ideal situation as far as Pelham’s concerned, and I wish we could have found a way to do it, but it’s certainly better than having a three-town district,” Jasper said Thursday.

The controversial plan was vetoed by Gov. John Lynch but made law when the House and Senate both voted to override the veto Wednesday. It splits up House District 27, which included Hudson, Litchfield and Pelham.

Hudson and Pelham will remain paired, and Litchfield will stand alone, with one ward of Manchester thrown in.

Under the new plan, residents in Hudson and Pelham will elect 11 House members, even though the population would give Hudson seven of its own and Pelham would get four seats.

Lynch vetoed the bill in part because Hudson, Pelham and 60 other towns with enough residents to have their own legislators didn’t get them.

Voters in 2006 amended the state Constitution so that this representation principle should guide those writing redistricting plans.

William McDevitt, Pelham Board of Selectmen chairman, said the town had urged District 27 representatives, and the legislature at large, to revert to a plan in place more than a decade ago that gave Pelham three representatives, plus one it shared with Hudson.

“I’m disappointed with the news,” McDevitt said. “I believe one of the greatest advantages of living in New Hampshire is being close to your representatives.”

For the past decade, voters have chosen 13 House members from the election returns in Hudson, Litchfield and Pelham.

Lynch and others panned the redistricting map because dozens of towns were denied their own representatives even though their population demands it. Lynch also didn’t like that the plan splits up cities and wards.

“All of the representatives in the district wish we could have found a way to have Pelham stand alone without creating another problem, but it just didn’t seem possible,” Jasper said. “At least we have Litchfield with a guarantee of having reps who live in Litchfield.”

Also, Pelham traditionally has not had a lot of people on the ballot losing out to candidates from the larger Hudson, Jasper said. Right now, Rep. Shawn Doherty, a Republican, is the only District 27 representative from Pelham.

Doherty was not available for comment Thursday.

“We haven’t squeezed anybody out, per se, certainly not in the primary,” Jasper said. “Pelham won’t necessarily be underrepresented, but you have to have people running in the primary.”

That may be because of the long odds Pelham residents are up against when they face off against Hudson candidates. Hudson residents, who outnumber Pelham residents by about 2-1, are naturally more likely to vote for a Hudson candidate, McDevitt said.

“The truth is, we’re smaller than Hudson, and it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle to get elected from Pelham. It’s very difficult under this plan for that to happen.”

Lynch said the House plan, HB 592, in the name of mathematical purity and trying to satisfy federal courts, would ruin the character of the largest state legislative body in the country. Every 3,400 residents in the state have their own lawmaker.

“One of the unique advantages to living in New Hampshire is the ability of citizens to encounter his or her state representative in their daily activities – at the grocery store, in a house of worship or walking Main Street,” Lynch wrote in the veto message.

“HB 592 undermines that very special quality of life in New Hampshire and the critical component of representative local democracy that is expressed in a commonality of interest among a community’s citizens.

The House passed a vote to override the veto after a closed-door Republican caucus was called Wednesday over protests by Democrats.

Later, two Senate Republicans who had earlier opposed the bill – Raymond White, R-Bedford, and Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith – voted to override Lynch’s veto and deliver the needed 17-7 vote for the House measure.

Former House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, was taking part in his third redistricting, which has to occur every 10 years to comply with the federal Census.

Chandler warned that failing to override the Lynch veto would merely make other people unhappy with the alternative.

“I can assure you: If we make changes to this plan, it’s going to just make different people unhappy, in my opinion,” Chandler said. “I don’t think that is the way to go. We have had multiple hearings, multiple meetings, floor amendments, all kinds of debate. We are running out of time. That’s our biggest problem here.”

The Telegraph confirmed that Rep. Will Infantine, R-Manchester has resigned as chairman of that city’s delegation and vice chairman of the House Labor committee after opposing the Lynch veto.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican, was irate that Infantine and four others voted to override the veto after it appeared the delegation was united behind Lynch.

Gatsas supported the veto because he opposed his city losing two House seats and having some seats from southeastern wards combined with Litchfield.

During an interview, Infantine called it his “toughest vote in 10 years” and became convinced that Lynch sought with the veto to create chaos and to weaken O’Brien’s control over the House.

“It all came down to chaos. The governor was doing this to try and weaken Bill (O’Brien) and throw the House into bedlam for a few months,” Infantine said. “I didn’t coerce anybody, and nobody tried to coerce me. I resigned my positions because I felt that was the honorable thing to do.”

House Democrats charged O’Brien with a blatant “power grab” in prematurely pushing the veto to the House.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).