When Drew Cline of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy left the House Municipal and County Committee hearing last week after testifying against a rent stabilization bill, he thought the conversation was over.
Instead, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ellen Read (D-Newmarket), followed him into the hallway outside the hearing room and, according to multiple witnesses, began shouting at Cline, angry at the content of his testimony. Read’s shouting was so loud and animated that it was picked up by the microphone inside the meeting room and brought the hearing to a temporary halt.
Cline, who testifies frequently on proposed legislation, was reluctant to discuss the incident, giving NHJournal a short statement when asked about the post-hearing discussion.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t presented with a discussion, only shouting,” Cline said. “When it was clear the shouting wasn’t going to stop, I walked away.”
On Jan. 16, Kate Baker Demers with the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) was in the middle of her testimony before the House Education Committee when Rep. David Luneau (D-Hopkinton) stormed out of the audience and into the middle of the room. Luneau objected to Demers’ testimony, but rather than wait for an opportunity to testify, he interrupted Demers’ testimony and attempted to contradict her arguments. He ignored repeated attempts by the chair to gavel him down before finally taking his seat.
And this past Thursday, Sen. Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry) abruptly gaveled a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting into a 10-minute recess after Sen. Becky Whitley (D-Hopkinton) suggested a witness testifying on behalf of a ban on sanctuary cities was a member of a white supremacist hate group.
Asked by NHJournal what happened during those 10 minutes, Carson only replied: “We had a conversation.”
After the recess, Carson apologized to the witness, Shari Rendall, with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as the committee chair.
“I strongly believe…any citizen who wants to testify should be able to do so,” Carson said. “What happened, in my opinion, is unfortunate, and I want to thank you for being here.”
Politics ain’t beanbag, as former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill often said. But the elbows are usually thrown between politicians who signed up for the rough-and-tumble of the process. What has State House insiders concerned is Democratic legislators turning their rhetorical fire on citizens testifying before their committees.
The issue first flared up during the 2021-2022 session when then-Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight (D- Manchester) repeatedly and loudly used the “N-word” while verbally accosting a Black high school student, Jonah Wheeler, with Rights and Democracy NH. When the dust settled, Klein-Knight had received a letter of caution from the Speaker’s Advisory Group. She declined to seek reelection.
Ironically, Wheeler was elected to the House in 2022, only to find himself beset by his fellow progressive Democrats yet again — this time over his vote to ban sex-change operations on minors. The threats from House Democrats were so heated that security moved Wheeler’s seat to a different section of the House floor for his protection.
Now sources tell NHJournal House leadership is looking into the recent verbal assaults on witnesses, in particular by Luneau, who has earned a reputation for repeatedly attacking those with whom he has political differences.
While Speaker of the House Sherm Packard refused to address any specific instances, a statement from the speaker’s office confirmed a review of the Luneau and Read matters “is ongoing.”
Packard also felt the need to include a reminder in the latest edition of the House calendar that members “be mindful of how you treat and interact with each other and citizens who appear before the legislature.
“We are guided by language in our state constitution (Part II, Article 22), which demands of us an environment free from threats, disrespect, ill-treatment, and disorder,” Packard wrote. “Furthermore, we can look to our own ethics guidelines, which state, ‘Legislators shall treat each other, legislative employees, and the public with dignity and respect.'”
Read insisted to NHJournal that she did nothing wrong in confronting Cline.
“My behavior was commensurate with his behavior,” Read said. “I answer to the voters alone.”
Read also claimed Cline told her to “be quiet.”
“Do you think it’s appropriate for a man to tell a woman to be quiet?” Read asked. “I rest my case.”
But two House members who saw or heard the incident told NHJournal that Read was clearly the aggressor, and she addressed her anger at Cline’s comments about her rent-related legislation, not his tone.
Read also told NHJournal she was frustrated with how her legislation was portrayed.
“It’s not rent control because it’s not a rent cap,” Read said. “It’s ‘rent stabilization.’ It controls rental practices, but it doesn’t bring down current rent prices. And it doesn’t allow the stabilization rate to fall below five percent plus CPI per year.
“And investors are guaranteed they can get a return on their investment by allowing property owners to go to the town and show increases in cost — like repairs or an increase in property taxes — and get approval for rent to cover their costs plus a reasonable return.”
Yet, for former speakers like Donna Sytek, the specifics are beside the point. The people’s house, she told NHJournal, should be welcoming to the people.
“Emotions run high, they always have. During my day, it was about Seabrook and the Claremont decision. We even had an anti-nuclear activist [disrupt] Gov. John Sununu’s first swearing-in. These were tough issues, but you didn’t see the level of emotion we see today,” Sytek said.
She suggested social media may be contributing to the lack of civility making its way to the State House. “You meet people who are so polite in person, and then they are so snarky online.”
As for insulting or attacking citizens speaking before a committee, Sytek said her fellow members “wouldn’t have tolerated it. I was blessed with strong committee chairs when I was speaker, and they would nip it in the bud.”
Former Speaker Bill O’Brien was known for engaging in political combat and throwing a partisan punch or two. But he told NHJournal he demanded that citizens who came before committees be treated politely.
“I had to go to some committee chairs and make sure they understood my expectations. I even removed a committee chair who was disrespectful to members of the public.
“We’re not their bosses or parents,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have the right to make sure they always agree with us.”