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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Speaker of the House William O'Brien of Mont Vernon at the State House earlier in 2012.
  • File photo by Bruce Preston. House Chief of Staff Bob Meade, left, and Bill O'Brien, Speaker of the House, confer at the House podium.

  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Speaker of the House William O'Brien of Mont Vernon at the State House recently.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Speaker O'Brien charted an unconventional course to the top of the heap

His critics paint him as an ultra-conservative bulldozer plowing New Hampshire’s legal landscape back decades.

His supporters see him as a lightning rod capable of creating decisive action in a legislative body known for its plodding devotion to a slow-moving process.

Speaker of the House William “Bill” O’Brien, the confrontational conservative at the helm of this sprawling, 400-person body, might be the new normal for legislative leadership in the Statehouse. Others say he’s an aberration, a shooting star who will burn out quietly in the political sky after voters speak again this November.

One thing is certain: this straight-talking 60-year-old Mont Vernon lawyer charted a very unconventional course to the top of the heap.

Charles Arlinghaus, executive director of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, said in his short time, O’Brien learned hard work and political timing has often been rewarded in the New Hampshire Legislature.

“He may be the first movement conservative as speaker in state history,” said Arlinghaus, who has worked with O’Brien on many issues from cutting the state budget to carving out a new tax credit to support tuition to private schools.

“The speaker is smart enough to have seen this irresistible window of opportunity presented to him and courageous enough to ignore the conventional wisdom and just go out and grab it.”

Peter Burling, a former state Senator and House Democratic leader who now serves on the Democratic National Committee, does not share such flattering remarks.

“He has done a decade of damage in two short years. What’s amazing to me is it’s come from someone who never paid his dues, never got an appreciation for the process or understood what it takes to work your way up to leadership which gives you such respect for it,” Burling said.

“My biggest regret is that with such a large class of new Republicans, they think this extreme freak show is the way things should be done.”

In an interview with The Telegraph, O’Brien chalked up his rise to power to a dogged persistence to principle and a fatalistic view toward how long this impressive run of accomplishment can possibly last.

“I am not a politician. I define a politician as this is what you do to earn a living, doing this. I am up here to do what I can while I can,” O’Brien said. “The best thing someone can do is, after they have contributed at a high level, is to go home.”

Power of the gavel

O’Brien powerfully wields his gavel after less than a decade in politics, only two at the local level and just six years in the House. He hasn’t even run a subcommittee.

Contrast that with the long, often tedious service before his five most recent predecessors took the rostrum:

Doug Scamman, R-Stratham: 1986-90, 2004-06: First served 20 years in the House, chaired two committees, his father was speaker (1957-58) before him.

Harold Burns, R-Whitefield: 1990-96: He’d first been there 22 years, chaired two committees and was deputy speaker in waiting for four years.

Donna Sytek, R-Salem: 1996-2000: She had 22 years on her belt, chaired two committees and been chairman of the Republican State Committee.

Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett: 2000-04: He was in the House for 20 years and served 27 years as a selectman, 14 as chairman and chaired a House committee for a dozen years.

Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth: 2006-10: The Democrats had not been the majority party for eight decades but Norelli was first in the House 10 years, eight as the ranking member on the House Science and Technology Committee and chaired the political action committee for the National Abortion Rights Action League of New Hampshire.

In his first year serving in Concord, O’Brien learned a willingness to volunteer and a determined reputation can speed up one’s political arc.

Then-House Majority Leader Mike Whalley tapped O’Brien in mid-2005 to be the lead negotiator in crafting an executive branch ethics code under new Democratic Gov. John Lynch.

“It confirmed to me that any one individual can come forward and quickly have an impact. If you have the desire and you have the intelligence to come forward, then people are going to listen,” O’Brien said. “It was remarkable to me that in 2005, I had gone from being on the school board in 2002 to talking with the governor about what would be a well-structured ethics bill.”

“We truly are the peoples’ voice in New Hampshire,” O’Brien said. “I remember having that feeling, this is really a great state.”

History will prove O’Brien’s feat to become House leader was a combustible mixture of one part skill, one part sweat and one part serendipity.

The ambitious agenda of the new Democratic leadership in Concord, the crushing recession and fatigue during the mid-term of Barack Obama’s presidency assured that the political pendulum would swing back toward the GOP in the 2010 election.

O’Brien was one of only 17 Republican pickups in 2008, rebounding after losing his own seat two years prior.

As a co-chair of the House Republican Alliance, O’Brien spent much of that time huddling with like-minded social and fiscal conservatives and helping colleagues with their legislation.

On the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Gary Richardson, D-Hopkinton, saw firsthand a new, well-armed adversary.

“He was confrontational with witnesses with whom he didn’t agree whether the issue was abortion, assisted suicide or tort reform,” Richardson recalled. “You could see then this is someone who, whatever the job calls for, was prepared for battle.”

‘Making the right choice’

While O’Brien had no legislative leadership training, in 2009, he gladly took on the high-profile role of chairing the Republican State Committee, crafting the new platform for the group. The job took him around the state and expanded his grass-roots network.

In announcing he would run for speaker in August 2010, O’Brien knew he would face a most seasoned opponent: Chandler, who, at 64, was nearly fully recovered from a campaign finance and ethics scandal that forced him to voluntarily step aside as House leader in 2004.

O’Brien’s message became one that victory would only last if the new GOP majority learns from the past and doesn’t repeat it.

“In one direction lies the choice to return to the policies, practices and leadership that failed us and has led to the political wilderness of the past four years,” O’Brien said at the time.

“In the other direction is the choice to demonstrate that we have become the party of our promise – one that will first and foremost govern this state according to the highest standards and with fiscal prudence and respect for the rights of individuals.

“In this direction lies a need for new and dynamic leadership that will actively meet the needs of our state and not merely seek to slow the progress of an unaffordable, intrusive state government.

“I seek the position of speaker so that we will make the right choice.”

O’Brien banked on a tidal wave of GOP victories that fall and set up more than 100 one-on-one meetings with new Republican candidates.

His call to arms went viral among conservatives through video interviews with the conservative GraniteGrok website, the Republican Liberty Alliance produced by Andrew Manuse, a Derry activist who would win his own House seat.

“We spoke to voters; we spoke to the business community,” O’Brien recalled. “Our message was based pretty much on state and federal constitutions, as well as the Republican state platform. We started out with meetings of only eight to 10 Republicans, and we ended up with more than half the Republican caucus.”

By the time the votes were counted, Republicans had picked up 120 seats and the House and Senate were the biggest GOP supermajority in a century.

Lynch was back in office and Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, a low-key and effective politician, was to be the new speaker’s foil as Senate president.

A staggering new class of 160 conservative Republicans clearly was looking for a firebrand revolutionary to lead them.

Chandler knew he was way behind O’Brien and frantically tried to play catch up. O’Brien took the gavel by edging ahead of Chandler by nine votes on the second ballot in the GOP caucus.

“He got the speakership in a similar way that California Democrat Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the U.S. House; he was the most effective fundraiser and organizer and people owed him,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“That is different in New Hampshire politics. He is like the nouveau riche and there are a lot of old-time Republicans that just don’t like the way he does things in the House.”

Dutiful followers

O’Brien has turned even more heads with his achievement, passing a lean state budget, dramatically altering the financing of public retirement, placing the first legal restriction on abortion, scaling back prison recidivism reform and shepherding the first House-passed constitutional amendment on education finance.

“He has been able to marshal his forces so productively. It is really amazing to me,” said Sytek. “Any speaker can do anything he or she wants if they have a majority; that has to be comfortable. I could always get to 180 but that was never enough. The rest was brutally hard work.

“He doesn’t have that problem; he does have a lot of dutiful followers.”

Even Pam Walsh, senior adviser to the New Hampshire Democratic Party, has been impressed.

“He is clearly setting the agenda for the Republican Party of New Hampshire, all of it,” Walsh said. “I believe he is out of touch with the mainstream of New Hampshire, but he’s been truly transformative in that he is not the fringe of the Republican Party – he’s defining it.”

O’Brien has done it with a risk-filled leadership style that often starts battles with adversaries.

“I spend political capital as soon as it comes to me,” O’Brien said.

Former Senate Majority Leader Robert Clegg of Hudson said O’Brien’s edgy ways only add to his appeal among the back-benchers where O’Brien sat for six years.

“He is very calculated. You can tell he has experience in the courtroom. The guy speaks to the jury; you know he can make his case,” Clegg said. “Believe me, if you were on his side, you would be slapping him on the back all day long. This speaker is a hands-on guy; it is how he gets his agenda accomplished.”

Now, many veteran observers have concluded O’Brien’s days as speaker are numbered. They predict the House GOP caucus will inevitably shrink this fall and a smaller GOP majority that remains will turn to someone else.

“Republicans will not win as many seats as they did last time and I can pretty much bet if you held that vote now he would not hold onto his speakership,” Smith said. “Democrats are going to be really motivated and they could vote him out.”

O’Brien’s approval rating with voters was underwater in a WMUR-UNH poll released earlier this month and the Legislature was picked as the second biggest problem facing the state.

Yet former Republican State Chairman Fergus Cullen said O’Brien knows a focused message could allow him to remain in charge.

“Democrats are overestimating the success and potential of their strategy to demonize Speaker O’Brien,” Cullen said. “They were elected to stop the spending and they have done that. Sure the message has become muddled, but if I was a conservative Republican who has to run on my record this time, I would feel pretty good about it.”

O’Brien agrees the GOP will get smaller but he does not believe it will be by enough to threaten his staying on as speaker.

What will be harder, O’Brien concluded, is winning back home, and the memory of his losing in 2006 remains pretty fresh.

Through redistricting, O’Brien shed the most Democratic-leaning towns, Temple, Wilton and Lyndeborough, from the district along with the most popular Democrat, Jennifer Daler, of Temple, who easily won a special election in O’Brien’s backyard to replace Robert Mead, the speaker’s former chief of staff.

“I know in my towns, I am going to face a tough re-election,” O’Brien said. “Democrats know they aren’t going to take me out in the caucus; that’s not going to happen. It’s to get him back home and we are prepared for that.

“If I am not articulate enough, not a leader or at variance with my constituents, they will get different representation.”

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