Former New Hampshire governors recall Statehouse memories
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Several former governors gathered Monday to recall their time in the New Hampshire Statehouse, some marveling at the building’s iconic golden dome and others at the many portraits that hang from its walls. Some were struck by the state’s transparent legislative process.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu on Monday was joined by his father, John H. Sununu, a former state governor. Other former governors in attendance were Stephen Merrill, Craig Benson, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
The event was part of this week’s celebration of the building’s bicentennial. The granite structure is now the oldest state capitol in which both houses of the Legislature meet in their original chambers and one of just five Statehouses to reach its bicentennial year.
John Sununu said one of his most vivid memories as governor was watching President Ronald Reagan give a speech in 1985 to what he estimated was 10,000 people in front of the Statehouse.
“Ronald Reagan was trying to push through his tax cut and his tax reform packages and decided that he needed a forum for the country to see how important keeping taxes low really was,” Sununu said. “So, he chose to come here to the Statehouse in New Hampshire.”
Hassan, now a Democratic U.S. senator along with Shaheen, remembered the process that led to former Gov. John Lynch signing a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. She was a state senator at the time.
She recalled the stream of people — some lobbyists, others members of the public visiting the building for the first time— who would approach lawmakers because they had someone in their lives “who would be helped by this bill.”
“All of it came together to deliver legislation that John Lynch signed 10 years ago that has changed the lives of so many people in our wonderful state,” she said.
For Shaheen, one of her strongest memories was seeing school children touring the Statehouse, often waving to lawmakers and popping their heads into hearings.
“Having the kids come in and really have a chance to participate in our democracy is, to me, what governing is all about,” she said.
Several governors highlighted the executive council, an advisory body to the governor, as emblematic of the state’s decision-making process. It is a place where competing forces gather in one room and the workings of government are on display for the public to see. Most significant contracts are presented to the council and government appointments debated by the body.
Before he became governor, Chris Sununu served on the council and remembers a vote on a Planned Parenthood contract. Groups on both sides of the abortion debate crowded around the council members, but the atmosphere remained respectful.
“It would not happen anywhere else in this country. It just doesn’t happen. But it happened here in that moment,” Sununu said. “It goes to the accessibility of government as a whole, the transparency of what we do, the open public sessions and the civility which we do it by.”
There were also plenty of lighter moments, especially when the governors were asked to name their favorite portraits.
Benson said he liked Shaheen’s portrait because she was the state’s first elected female governor. Chris Sununu also praised several portraits but said Merrill’s stood out.
It features a stern Merrill, with his hands on a desk while staring out at a visitor.
“Gov. Merrill is the nicest, funnest, happiest, jolliest governor you could imagine. Always has a joke, always has a nice quip ... He is just the best governor,” Sununu said. “But that portrait is so serious. All the kids go, who is that?”
Merrill said that he was “actually afraid of the portrait myself,” prompting the crowd in the gallery to break out in laughter.
On Tuesday, the schedule will feature the state Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in Representative’s Hall and an event highlighting the history of the Statehouse press corps.
Wednesday is devoted to the state’s cultural heritage and arts, while Thursday will be Homecoming Day for former lawmakers. A “New Hampshire Made” street market will be held Friday, with closing ceremonies Saturday.
This story has been corrected to show that former Gov. John Lynch was not at the roundtable.