The Anteroom

Ed Dupont recalls the 18hr standoff leading up to his election as Senate President, then guiding NH through the “Nightmare on Elm Street”

When I last left off it was 1983, and I had just been elected to the Senate in a close race against George Bald.  It was my first foray into state politics and I found out that I really liked the public policy side.  I was the 18th Republican and there were only six Democrats.

In 1986, Bill Bartlett became Senate President and I became the Senate Majority Leader.  As we used to say, Bill Bartlett enjoyed a majority of 16 Republicans and eight Democrats.

The day after the 1990 election, Republicans held a slim 13-11 majority.  It was a rude awakening, but I still had enough Republican votes to become Senate President, or so I thought.

As the Senate prepared to caucus, I did not have Senator McLane or Senator Bass as they had decided to caucus with the 11 Democrats.  Both Susan and Charlie were liberal Republicans and friends of mine, but that no longer mattered.

In my quest to become Senate President, I visited Senator McLane at her home where we enjoyed cookies and tea.  After a delightful conversation about everything except politics she said, “Eddie, I like you a lot but you’re too conservative and I cannot support you.”  The second blow was that Senator Bass was also not going to support me and might run against me.

I knew they might approach Senator Ralph Hough of Lebanon, but he was solidly with me, as was Democratic Senator Clesson Blaisdell of Keene.  The game was tied at 12-12 and nobody was budging.

Electing the next Senate President would turn into an epic battle at the New Hampshire State House.  It started at 1:00 PM on December 5th, Organization Day, when leaders of the House and Senate are elected by each body.  The first order of business was the swearing in of Senate members by Governor Gregg and the Executive Council.  They arrived in the Senate chamber, and the oath of office was administered to the Senators.

After the Governor and Council left, the first vote before the Senate was to elect someone as the temporary Presiding Officer.  Senator Blaisdell rose and nominated Senator Ralph Hough and it was seconded by Senator Leo Fraser.  Senator George Disnard offered the name of former Senator Rob Trowbridge of Dublin and his nomination was seconded by Senator St. Jean.

Nominations were closed, then Senator Hough asked to speak.  It was awkward for Senator Hough as Senator Trowbridge was a close friend, but he spoke eloquently about what the Senate meant to him and suggested the vote should be determined by having one of the sitting Senators conduct the vote as had been the Senate tradition.  The vote for Presiding Officer was held and resulted in 12 for Senator Hough and 12 for former Senator Trowbridge.  The Senate recessed and both sides caucused.

After a joint convention with the House, the Senate came back to the chamber and conducted another vote.  Senator Blaisdell moved the nomination of Senator Hough to preside, and Senator Disnard moved Rob Trowbridge.  Another vote was taken, and again it was 12 for Senator Hough and 12 for Senator Trowbridge.  We recessed and got ready for a long day.

As I remember, following a false fire alarm that emptied the State House at around 10:00 or 11:00 PM, we returned to discussions between both sides which continued well into the night.  Families and friends of Senators were long gone as it seemed this would not be decided quickly.  At around 2:00 or 3:00 AM, one of my Democratic colleagues told me she had informed her caucus that she was tired of the game and would vote for me on the next ballot.

When we came out of recess, roll was called for the temporary Presiding Officer and Senator Hough was elected on a 23 to 1 vote.  (The one vote was Senator Hough voting for his good friend Rob Trowbridge).

Senator Hough ascended to the Chair and asked for nominations.  Senator St. Jean placed my name in nomination.  Senator Delahunty seconded the motion and then spoke.  He was followed by Senator Bass and Senator Podles who both seconded the motion.  Senator Heath moved that nominations cease and one vote was cast for my nomination.  Walking up to the podium, tired from the day’s battles, all I could think was, “How am I going to make this divided body tackle the challenges ahead?”

So at four o’clock in the morning, I sat in an empty Senate President’s office thinking, “How do I pull this group back together?”  The state was going through a major recession driven by over-building and speculation in the booming 1980s real estate markets.  We faced the possibility of a number of the state’s major banks failing as loan foreclosures reached epic proportions.  During the height of the building frenzy, some banks would lend you 100% of what you needed to purchase raw land, and then lend you the money needed to prepare the land for development.  It got so crazy that properties were flipped before prospective buyers were able to close on their property.  As it always happens with boom markets, we never expect them to end.  This one was going to be a very hard landing.  For those of you who were around at that time, you will remember that it took most of the 1990s for us to recover from the early 1990 recession.  We were entering the start of the tech bust that would quickly wipe-out the mini-computer industry in New Hampshire (i.e., Digital Equipment Corporation, Prime Computer, etc.).  To top it all off, we were still reeling from the closure of the Pease Air Force Base.  And there were rumors going around about the possible closing of the Portsmouth Shipyard.  It was time for the state to get its act together and figure out how we would recover from all of this.

Banks Fail

The real estate markets took a number of banks out before it was over.  On October 10th, 1991, busses loaded with FDIC examiners rolled onto Elm Street in Manchester and by the end of the day it was over; Amoskeag Bank, BankEast, Dartmouth Bank and Numerica Bank were gone.  At the same time, examiners were closing down Bank Meridian in Hampton and Nashua Trust in Nashua.  Seven of the state’s major banks were closed, never to come came back.  Some of us kiddingly referred to the closings as the “Nightmare on Elm Street”, but the impact was huge and could be felt throughout the state.  This just further complicated the state’s recovery from recession and had a chilling effect on economic growth through the mid- to late-90s.

The scope of the bank failures was significant; the assets in those seven banks represented 25 percent of the state’s total banking assets.  And things didn’t get better.  Credit was tight, and at one point, over 50% of the state’s commercial loans were in a pool managed by the FDIC.

On the state government side, revenues were hit hard.  Business Profits Tax receipts would go from $160,000,000 in 1990 to $80,000,000 in 1991.  Things were really bleak and the New Hampshire economy floundered.

Back to Bass and McLane

While the norm would have been to punish Senators Bass and McLane for their support of the Democrats, I knew this was a Senate that had a lot of potential on both sides of the aisle and every vote would count.

So as the sun was rising after my late night election, I made the decision to bring the Senate together.  That meant looking beyond the Republican Senators to engaging all of the members.  I knew I would need to sit down with Bass and McLane, engage Democratic leadership, and pull in the Conservatives in the Senate (e.g., Roger Heath, Gordon Humphrey and Tom Colantuono), and that was going to be a challenge.  I expected the leadership’s agenda would not have their support, which meant I would need the Democrats if we had any opportunity to get our agenda through.

Roger Heath

The next task in front of me was to choose my leadership team.  Roger Heath had been a loyal supporter in my race for the Senate Presidency, as had been Joe Delahunty and David Currier.  Senator Heath wanted to be Majority Leader.  As we started discussions, I had one big question for him, “When the time comes, will you support the Senate’s budget proposal?”  In his time in the House and Senate, Roger had never cast a vote for any of the budgets that leadership proposed in either house.  I could not have my Majority Leader, whose job it is to ensure the votes necessary to support the Senate’s agenda, oppose leadership’s budget.  It was a short conversation with Roger which ended badly as he was unwilling to commit to support the Senate budget even if I made him Majority Leader.  Roger was a good friend and fellow conservative and he had been a big factor in my election to the Senate Presidency.  I had enormous respect for Roger, but knew from my own experience as Majority Leader for Bill Bartlett that you have to be on the team for the big ones and never vote against something that your Senate President really wants to get done.  I could not have my Majority Leader on the floor opposing one of the most significant issues we faced every session.  So, in one of my first meetings, I lost a friend and good supporter.  Moreover, I would pay the price every time I went to the floor.

My next meeting was with Senator McLane and Senator Bass.  I let both of them know that I was not happy with their behavior as Republicans, but the battle for the Senate Presidency was over and I was going to need their help.  The usual punishment would have been relegating them to obscure committees, the Journal Committee or Enrolled Bills (Senator St. Jean ended up as Chair of the Journal Committee); however, I would not do that because I required their knowledge and support to help the Senate work through the significant challenges we faced.  Susan McLane ended up as Chair of Ways and Means and Charlie as Chair of Public Affairs.  While I was criticized by some in the Senate, they became an important part of the team.

I then sought out Joe Delahunty who was well liked by both Democrats and Republicans, and asked him to be my Majority Leader.  Joe’s work was critical to the success the Senate achieved.  Rounding out the Republican leadership team were Eleanor Podles and Sheila Roberge, Vice President and Senate President Pro-Tem.

The final meeting was with George Disnard who had been chosen as Minority Leader by the Democratic Caucus.  George and I were friends, and he was a terrific individual.  We had a long conversation about the work ahead.  I asked for his support and told him all the really tough stuff I would be voting on the floor.

As the session started, I made it a habit to meet with George before we began to make sure that he had what he needed in front of him to support the Senate’s agenda.  During some of the particularly difficult sessions, I met with the whole Democratic Caucus before the session.

Very shortly, it became apparent that the economy was going to be Job Number One and we had not been particularly good about connecting the dots between what state government does on tax policy and its link to the economy.

After much discussion, we pulled the appropriate committees together, created the first economic development committee in the legislature’s history, and the Senate went to work.  Stay tuned for Chapter Two.

Members of the 1991-1992 Senate
Otto Oleson                     District 1
Wayne King                     District 2
Roger Heath                     District 3
Leo Fraser                        District 4
Ralph Hough                    District 5
Edward Dupont                District 6
David Currier                   District 7
George Disnard                District 8
Sheila Roberge                 District 9
Clesson Blaisdell              District 10
Charlie Bass                     District 11
Barbara Pressly                District 12
Mary Nelson                    District 13
Thomas Colantuono        District 14
Susan McLane                 District 15
Eleanor Podles                District 16
Gordon Humphrey          District 17
John King                        District 18
Richard Russman            District 19
James St. Jean                 District 20
Jeanne Shaheen               District 21
Joseph Delahunty            District 22
Beverly Hollingworth     District 23
Burton Cohen                  District 24