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  • File photo. New Hampshire House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt (left) and House Speaker Bill O'Brien.

  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    New Hampshire House Speaker, William O'Brien is met by demonstrators in front of the State House, Wednesday afternoon after a vote passing an amended bill to give employers the option to provide contraception to women. Several hundred people gathered in front of the state house to voice their opposition to the bill.
Monday, April 30, 2012

O’Brien likens Speaker’s job to herding ‘feral cats’

House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, finds it amusing when critics paint him as an all-powerful, vindictive, autocratic leader.

Those who lodge the allegation fail to understand how little control a presiding officer has over the 400-member House, the third-largest political body in the free world, O’Brien counters.

“I talk to leaders in other states and they ask, ‘How do you run your incredibly big majority?’ ” O’Brien said during an interview with The Telegraph. “The answer is, I don’t. It is just crowd control over here.

“A previous speaker likened it to herding cats. To me it is trying to herd feral cats.”

That being said, for at least the last generation, no House or Senate leader has been linked to this level of confrontation and partisan vitriol from both sides.

All of this swirls around this smart, diminutive, 60-year-old lawyer who came completely out of the political shadows after the 2010 election to become New Hampshire’s political lightning rod.

O’Brien saw it coming.

“We have pushed through a markedly different agenda that has been in place for the past four years,” O’Brien said. “I knew the line would be, ‘You are a bad guy doing this,’ that there is going to be a push back that gets very personal.

“You keep doing what you believe is the right thing, not the politically safe thing, and the worst thing that is going to happen is if the voters don’t like it, they will send you fishing.”

Controversial tactics

Lobbyist Robert Clegg of Hudson is one of the few in several decades to have served as the top Republican to both past House Speakers and Senate presidents.

“He is the first speaker who has actually punished people for not following the line,” Clegg said. “While there were plenty of threats before, it was never carried out. He’s been an in-your-face Speaker and seems perfectly comfortable with that role and image.”

Committee chairmen have been bounced or left their leadership posts before they were terminated.

Rank-and-file Republicans likewise have gotten moved when they opposed O’Brien priorities like the state budget and the right-to-work bill.

Routinely, O’Brien has replaced absent members on committees with devoted followers. O’Brien has put his name to more amendments on policy than most past Speakers and frequently showed up to lobby committees in person.

And he’s even embraced policy mutinies, to resurrect and pass bills that committees didn’t like whether it was to allow a city to place a moratorium on new refugees or to offer a lucrative tax break to a speciality care hospital if it comes to the state.

“The strength of the House was always in the committees,” said former House Speaker Donna Sytek, the Salem Republican who became the first woman to yield the gavel. “He doesn’t see the need for it. The process, the rules and respect for the way things have always been done is so tedious, but the longer you are here, the more you recognize this is your insurance against bad stuff happening.”

O’Brien attracted a state lawsuit that he won after he summarily closed the House gallery when pro-labor protests got too loud for his liking.

More than any other House or Senate leader in recent memory, O’Brien has skillfully used if not manipulated the schedule to advance his agenda.

He delayed the right-to-work veto override for six months hoping to attract enough converts to defeat Gov. John Lynch last November. It did not and became one of O’Brien’s most prominent failures in a sea of conservative accomplishments.

As local opposition mounted to a House-passed redistricting bill and Lynch vetoed it, O’Brien suddenly brought the bill up for an override vote last month.

Without warning or publication of the veto in House documents, O’Brien then furnished a lengthy, legal opinion from the House legal counsel defending this unorthodox move as constitutional.

Former GOP State Chairman Fergus Cullen privately objected that the House redistricting plan stripped more than 60 towns of their own legislators despite a 2006 constitutional amendment meant to guarantee the towns would get them.

Indeed, O’Brien had worked as a private lawyer filing a failed preemptive lawsuit in 2008 to assure individual representation for Litchfield and similarly situated towns.

O’Brien concluded the federal, “one person, one vote” principle trumps state law and constitution in redistricting plans that tweak all 400 seats to come in line with the 2010 census.

“It’s pure politics. He had the votes; he had a quick gavel. He counted noses and got it done,” Cullen said.

O’Brien said the near-historic, super-majority Republicans won in 2010 was bound to bring out more diversity, if not division, as lawmakers were more free to break from their leadership.

In 2001, former Senate President Arthur Klemm infamously said, “I love 13-11,” referring to the bare minimum control that automatically enforced party discipline when he ran the upper chamber.

“If you have a tight majority, it can somewhat be easier to manage than a huge majority,” O’Brien observed. “That’s because people can decide, I am not someone who needs to be toeing the line on every vote.”

Massachusetts understudy?

O’Brien dismisses the notion that his $125-a-year job can really intimidate any of his colleagues.

“I can’t bully anybody,” O’Brien said. “What I can do is sit down and talk about how we can be more effective and work together on an agenda. It is not as it is in Massachusetts where the speaker can say I am going to take you off as chair of the committee that has a $15,000 stipend, or if you don’t smarten up, you’ll be parking a mile or two away.

“In other states, a handful of five or six reps that say the most awful things about a speaker, they wouldn’t be heard from again. That doesn’t happen here.”

O’Brien has been charged with bullying Rep. Susan Emerson, R-Rindge and a former speaker candidate who claimed O’Brien verbally accosted her about offering changes to the House GOP budget 13 months ago.

O’Brien denied the claims and his majority leader backed up his account of the episode with Emerson inside the Senate chamber. Others within earshot such as Rep. Timothy Copeland, R-Stratham, reported hearing a very loud exchange.

Emerson authored a bill to stop bullying by legislators that the House summarily killed two months ago.

O’Brien’s reference to Massachusetts is dripping in irony.

“Didn’t this speaker learn at the feet of another?” Sytek quipped.

O’Brien was a law partner to legendary, ex-Mass. House Speaker Tommy Finneran, D-Dorchester, who had such a forceful style his critical colleagues dubbed him “King Tommy.”

To avoid jail time, Finneran pleaded guilty in 2007 to one federal charge of obstruction of justice for telling falsehoods under oath about whether he had seen a House redistricting plan before it was filed.

Critics claim Finneran used that redistricting plan to punish his political opponents.

O’Brien said the firm was one centered on litigation and not politics and every effort was made to separate Finneran’s Beacon Hill business from everything else.

“As his career moved up, we made it clear there was a Chinese wall,” O’Brien recalled.

They would talk politics with Finneran repeatedly hitting up O’Brien for campaign contributions.

This explains why Federal Election Commission records confirm the later-conservative Republican O’Brien has written checks to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the presidential campaign of Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000 and to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in 2002.

O’Brien sold his partnership in the firm in 1999 and started a legal consulting business in New Hampshire before Finneran’s trouble with federal prosecutors began two years later.

It was a given Finneran had to be careful, O’Brien stressed.

“If you are an Irish American speaker in Boston, or an Italian American speaker in Boston there is a target on your back,” O’Brien said.

Finneran’s conviction stunned O’Brien though the two have not kept in touch or spoken since the New Hampshire House Speaker took over.

“The ultimate trouble he got into, it was surprising to me because we took such care and he always took care with things,” O’Brien said. “There seemed to be nothing to it except losing his temper. Paid a heavy price.”

Finneran, now a radio talk show host, was disbarred in 2009.

Overblown furor?

Former Rep. Fran Wendelboe, a lobbyist, believes the furor over O’Brien’s ways have been overblown.

“Other speakers have tossed people off committees. This is not anything new; he has probably been a bit more obvious,” said Wendelboe, a seven-term member in the running during late 2010 to be O’Brien’s chief of staff before that was given to his fellow, Mont Vernon House colleague, Robert Mead.

“He doesn’t try to hide behind coyness of having his minions do the dirty work,” Wendelboe said.

To be sure, there aren’t large numbers of House Republicans who openly complain about O’Brien, which frustrates his detractors.

“I am certainly disappointed to see that there are a number of institutional Republicans who have sat idly by and let this happen,” said former House Speaker Terie Norelli of Portsmouth, now the Democratic leader. “In recent weeks, we have seen some Republicans step out of that mold. I look for that to continue to be the case and growing.”

Rep. Lee Quandt, R-Exeter, hasn’t attended a meeting of the House State-Federal Relations Committee since O’Brien exiled him there after the one-time House budget writer supported more spending than GOP leaders wanted.

A short time after the appointment, the third ranking Republican, Deputy Majority Leader Shawn Jasper of Hudson publicly accused Quandt’s son, fellow Rep. and Exeter Selectman Matt Quandt, of often coming back to the House drunk from lunch break.

“Why don’t more publicly speak up? I don’t know if they are afraid or just insecure,” said Quandt, who is thinking of running against O’Brien for Speaker if voters return both to the House this November.

“The only time to be afraid of someone like him is when he has something you want. To me, he’s losing support as speaker, but not on the issues.”

O’Brien is showing all signs, however, of keeping if not expanding his power base.

Last week, it was revealed the leadership of O’Brien’s re-election team as Speaker included two, potential rivals: former House Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, and Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, who has said she might run if O’Brien did not.

O’Brien said his re-election to the House will be tougher than remaining as Speaker, but he insists he’s not obsessed with either outcome.

“It was very important to me to return limited government to New Hampshire,” O’Brien said. “That was so much more important than my trying to become speaker next time or any eye toward future office. I have no eye toward future office.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or Also follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).