New Hampshire House Speaker Sherm Packard (R-Londonderry) has ordered an investigation into tactics being used by House Democrats to pressure members over Thursday’s vote on parental rights legislation. Some of those tactics, including offering to pay for a member’s plane ticket for a flight from Florida, appear to violate House rules and, possibly, state law.
“We are looking into the matter, and we are concerned about the appearance of impropriety. Should there be evidence of a statutory or ethical violation, it will be referred to the appropriate enforcement authority,” Packard’s office said in a statement.
At the center of the controversy is SB272, also known as the Parents Bill of Rights, which would force some public schools to end their current policy of refusing to answer parents’ questions about their children’s behavior regarding sex and gender.
“It says that schools and school employees cannot lie to parents,” said state Sen. Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton) when the bill passed the upper chamber in a 14-10 vote.
Now the bill is coming to the House, setting off a round of fear and loathing in Concord with Democrats offering carrots (in the form of a free plane ticket) and sticks: threatening a primary challenge if a House member supports the parents’ rights bill or fails to show up for the vote.
When Rep. Robin Vogt (D-Portsmouth) took to Twitter to say he was on a long-planned family vacation and won’t be in Concord to vote against SB272, Granite State progressives responded angrily.
“There is no one who supports a work/life balance more than me — but real allies show up,” tweeted Monica Venzke, until recently a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party. “Session ends in June. When you were elected, you knew that. These are the responsibilities you take on as a legislator; clearly, you cannot handle them.”
And progressive activist Linds Jakows told Vogt he had no excuse to miss Thursday’s session, as money is available to fly him back to New Hampshire in time to vote.
“No. It is a luxury to actively choose to be in Florida for nearly a week now when there are funds to fly you to New Hampshire and back,” Jakows wrote to Vogt in a now-deleted tweet.
Jakows is head of 603Equality, an LGBTQ nonprofit which is not registered as a lobbyist with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office, and it appears she’s offering something of value to a lawmaker to encourage him to vote. Not surprisingly, 603Equality’s behavior sparked concerns.
“I am outraged that an unregistered Democrat lobbying organization would offer to fund travel expenses for a legislator in order to influence the outcome of a vote,” said House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn). “The ease at which this was offered leads us to believe that offers like Jakows’ seem to be the norm on the other side of the aisle.
“This is an example of Washington-style politics at its worst and does not represent Granite State values,” Osborne added.
It could also be a crime. Legal sources pointed NHJournal to New Hampshire’s criminal codes 640:2 “Bribery in Official and Political Matters;” and 640:5 “Gifts to Public Servants.”
Jakows declined to respond to questions from NHJournal regarding the source of these “funds” to pay for legislators’ travel or whether other lawmakers are getting funding as well. In a follow-up tweet, Jakows claimed a group of concerned community members was crowdfunding the money, though Jakows would not say who those people were.
“How many members of the New Hampshire House Democrats will be there tomorrow to vote against parental rights because a lobbying group paid for them to be there?” asked Rep. Ross Berry (R-Manchester). “Probably worth finding out.”
Thus far, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is staying out of the drama, saying Wednesday it is currently a matter of the Speaker’s Office.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are also being threatened by a representative of one of the state’s largest teacher’s unions, who warned not showing up or voting the wrong way could result in a primary challenge.
“ANY @NHSenateDems and @NHHouseDems who do not make a point to show up to vote NO on #SB272 and stand UP for young #queer lives on the line do not deserve our support,” tweeted Ryan Richman, vice president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Especially if they primaried out @NHDems that showed up to protect Granite Staters from evil.”
Vogt pushed out long-time Democratic Rep. Jacqueline Cali-Pitts in last year’s Democratic primary and won favor with the AFT. The union endorsed him in the general election.
Vogt now faces the prospect of being pushed to take dark money plane tickets, which may or may not be legal, and could be made an example of by his union benefactors and see his political career cut short.
What is unique about Vogt’s drama is the public display of the pressure brought to bear on one representative, leaving voters to guess how many other representatives were being threatened and offered financial benefits behind closed doors. Or at least off Twitter.
Vogt, still vacationing, did not respond to a request for comment.