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Frustrated NH Dems Ask: Where Is ‘Leader’ David Cote?

Everyone knows there are three topics you are not supposed to bring up at a dinner party: Sex, politics, and religion.

If you are having dinner with a New Hampshire House Democrat, add a fourth: The whereabouts of state Rep. David Cote (D-Nashua).

In theory, Cote is the Acting Minority Leader of the House Democratic Caucus. In reality, he has been a no-show since the Trump administration. He has not cast a vote on legislation since March 11, 2020 — two years ago, according to House records. During that period he was the nominal Deputy Democratic leader to Rep. Renny Cushing, who was struggling with stage four cancer the entire time.

Cushing passed away on March 7, and Cote has been — on paper, at least — the caucus leader since.

Cote, 61, represents Ward 4 in Nashua. He has served in the House since 1983. According to court documents filed in an attempt to force the House to allow remote attendance, Cote disclosed he “has had cerebral palsy from birth, so wears leg braces for stability and uses crutches to walk.” He also had a heart attack in 2018.

He claims those health challenges are the reason he has refused to attend a single House session– whether they were held in a parking lot, a sports arena, or the State House.

By contrast, House records indicate Cushing was present at all but a few votes during the 2020 and 2021 House sessions, despite his cancer diagnosis and treatments.

So, where is Cote? And is his absence costing Democrats legislative victories? How do Democrats feel about his no-show leadership style?

The short answer: Don’t ask.

When NHJournal contacted state Rep. Michael Pedersen (D-Nashua) who heads the city’s Democratic Committee, for example, he hung up on the reporter.

When asked if Cote is currently doing his job and representing his constituents, Nashua Ward 4 City Alderman Tom Lopez offered praise for state Rep. Manny Espitia (D-Nashua)  – the other Ward 4 state representative.

“We are lucky to have representatives like Manny Espitia who will stand up to bigotry, bad governance, and moral corruption,” Lopez said. “We need more leaders like Manny.”

Cote declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Arnie Arnesen, a liberal talk radio host and N.H. Democratic nominee for governor in 1992, said Cote’s absence is no reason he cannot be an effective leader.

“I haven’t been to my studio in two years. I am still doing six shows a week and providing content commentary and the fact is that leadership does not require a desk and an office. How old school of you?” she said.

When told Cote has not voted in more than two years, Arnesen blamed Republicans for not accommodating requests for remote voting, unfairly keeping Democrats from voting.

“The GOP leadership has exercised voter suppression. Maybe you are writing the wrong story,” she said.

Some members of the House caucus do not agree, though they are unwilling to say so on paper. Asked how Cote was able to lead without being present, one caucus member said simply, “He can’t. He hasn’t. And he won’t.

While the members who spoke to NHJournal have sympathy for Cote’s health conditions, they also say the caucus needs leadership. If Cote can’t do it, a change needs to be made.

“It is irresponsible and unfair to the caucus and the people of New Hampshire,” the source said.

“Irreplaceable” Democratic Leader Renny Cushing Loses Cancer Battle

Democratic House Minority Leader Robert Renny Cushing is dead, less than a week after announcing he was stepping away from politics due to cancer.

Monday afternoon’s announcement that Cushing died, after months of being treated for stage four prostate cancer, hit New Hampshire politics hard.

“I will never have the right words to summarize Renny’s life of service,” said Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester). “His kindness, his humor, the way he would break into song when greeting you, the respect he commanded from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, his love of his family, and his unwavering belief in the place he called home. He truly was one of a kind.”

Even his political opponents praised Cushing’s public service.

“Although Rep. Renny Cushing and I were on the opposite sides of most public issues and policies, without exception I found him to be a person of remarkable courtesy and honor,” said former House Speaker Bill O’Brien. “He always accepted the integrity of those with opposing views.  Rep. Cushing has left all of us who worked with him in the legislature – and indeed, all of New Hampshire – with an enduring example of how we can disagree in politics without being disagreeable. He will be missed, but he will be remembered.”

Cushing represented Hampton and had been a part of New Hampshire politics for decades. He got his start as an activist founding the Clamshell Alliance, the environmental group opposed to the Seabrook nuclear power plant. A progressive pioneer in the Live Free or Die state, Cushing championed the environment, criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, and ending the death penalty. 

Cushing was against the death penalty before his father was murdered by a neighbor in 1988, and Cushing remained an active death penalty opponent despite that tragedy. He helped secure a major victory in 2019 when the legislature passed a death penalty repeal with a veto-proof majority.

Cushing becomes the second party leader to die since the start of the pandemic. Speaker of the House Rep. Dick Hinch, (R-Merrimack) died in the spring of 2020 after becoming infected with COVID-19. In fact, Cushing filed a lawsuit against Packard, Hinch’s successor, over the legislature’s COVID protocols. Cushing wanted more remote access for legislators like himself, who have serious health concerns.

Packard has so far prevailed in court, though a ruling in Cushing’s appeal before the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals is pending. Cushing was seeking an expedited ruling in the case ahead of the planned return of lawmakers to Representatives Hall.

As news spread of Cushing’s passing, tributes poured in.

“The House, the Democratic Caucus and the people of New Hampshire today suffered an incalculable loss with the death of House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing,” said acting Democratic House Leader David Cote, (D-Nashua.) “He cannot be replaced. He was my friend before my Leader and became family to me. I will miss him every day.”

Gov. Chris Sununu released a statement saying Cushing “made a lasting impact on the issues he cared deeply about. My thoughts are with the Cushing family during this unimaginable time.” The governor also ordered state flags in the Town of Hampton to fly at half-staff on the day of interment.

Democratic State Party Chair Raymond Buckley said Cushing spent his life “fighting the good fight.”

“His sense of justice never wavered or compromised. His epic determination and strength led to impressive victories both inside the legislature and out,” Buckley said. “All New Hampshire Democrats are feeling an immense loss and mourn the passing of Leader Cushing. Our heartfelt condolences go to his wife Kristie Conrad and his three daughters, Marie, Elizabeth and Grace.”

House Speaker Sherman Packard (R-Londonderry) said he was honored to work with Cushing.

“He was a passionate and dedicated public servant – never afraid to take on controversial issues for the sake of bettering this great state. It was an honor to serve alongside Leader Cushing, and his presence will be greatly missed by all who had the opportunity to know and work with him,” Packard said.

NH House Dems Victory Committee Chair Representative Matt Wilhelm (D-Manchester) said Cushing continued to provide leadership during the pandemic while he received cancer treatments.

“Even during his battle with cancer, Leader Cushing led our caucus with courage and conviction, all while inspiring House Democrats with his trademark charm, wit, and genuine kindness,” Wilhelm said.

Rep. Tony Labranche (I-Amherst), who quit the Democratic Party over leadership concerns, has repeatedly called Cushing an inspiration.

“He was such an inspiration to so many, including myself. He was a true leader and man of the people,” Labranche said.

Sara Persechino, Campaigns and Communications Director for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said Cushing leaves a lasting legacy on New Hampshire.

“From his efforts to make New Hampshire’s Constitution gender neutral to his modern-day work to increase the gender diversity of our state’s leaders honored in State House portraits, the Honorable Renny Cushing fought every day to advance equity in our state. Few have impacted the trajectory of the Legislature and our state as strongly as Renny; we are honored to continue the fight for equality for all in his memory – no matter what,” Persechino said.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R-Auburn) said Cushing will be remembered for his constant efforts for his constituents, and his strong advocacy for his beliefs. 

“Leader Cushing never gave up fighting for what he believed was right, even when the odds were stacked against him, and was well-respected by those who worked with him over the years. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Cushing family, his friends, and the Democratic caucus during this difficult time,” Osborne said.

More NH Parents Opt for Catholic Schools as COVID Surges

Enrollment in New Hampshire’s Catholic schools continues to climb as parents seek alternatives to public education.

Dana Kelliher wanted more for her boys, Aiden, 10, and Connor, 8. After almost two years of dealing with her sons’ educations being held back in public schools due to pandemic-related restrictions, Kelliher believed her sons could be doing more.

“We were really just looking for a more rigorous curriculum,” she said. “We wanted them to do more old-fashioned learning. I didn’t want them on a chrome book everyday.”

The Kelliher’s settled on Saint Joseph Regional Catholic School in Salem. There, her sons are in grounded programs that push them to excel, she said, especially in reading and working.

“I feel like they’re coming home with actual grades, and there’s a lot more communication with the teachers,” she said.

The Kelliher’s are far from alone in switching to parochial schools. According to the Diocese of Manchester, 214 new students enrolled in its 18 diocesan schools at the start of this current school year, for a total of 3,692 enrolled students statewide. That increase represents a 6.2 percent increase over the 3,427 students in parochial schools last year.

“This is a resurgence in an interest in Catholic education across the state,” said Alison Mueller, director of marketing, enrollment, and development for Catholic schools. “We believe that parents are the primary educators of their children, and we serve to partner with them in that education and formation. This type of message resonates with parents.”

Mueller said parents want better academics, and also better values in schools. In a recent survey distributed by the Catholic Schools Office, parents indicated they want God in the classroom, traditional academics, and family values.

“Parents want to know that when they send their child to school each day, they are in a safe and joyful place. The pandemic disrupted the educational system in 2020 and since then, I think parents have become more invested in ensuring the best outcomes and educational options for their children. More families are realizing they do, in fact, have options,” said Superintendent of Catholic Schools David Thibault

The Catholic school enrollments started going up in the summer of 2020, with a first wave of about 500 new students. The diocese responded to the pandemic by launching a Transfer Incentive Program to help families afford the tuition. They also announced a commitment to in-person learning during the coming school year.  

After parents experienced months of pandemic-related shutdowns, the parochial alternative looked good to many. The parents who tried it apparently liked it. According to Mueller, 80 percent of those students who made the switch to Catholic schools are still enrolled.

Kelliher said the small community built around the school is providing a positive and safe social setting for her children. She also feels more connected to the staff and teachers in the school than she did before.

“I feel more in the loop, knowing what they’re doing everyday,” she said.

Parochial schools aren’t the only alternate education being explored by New Hampshire parents. More than 4,100 students are homeschooling this year, according to the Department of Education. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 3,000 students homeschooled in New Hampshire, though that figure jumped in the 2020/2021 school year to more than 6,000.

Across the country, public school districts are openly discussing a return to remote learning, despite overwhelming data showing it is detrimental to educational outcomes. Prince Georges County, Md. has already announced it is ending classroom instruction until at least January 18, 2022. More schools are expected to follow.

New Hampshire offers Education Freedom Accounts for parents looking for assistance to pay for private school, or even homeschool materials and equipment. More than 1,600 students have taken advantage of the program so far. The state is also home to 30 public charter schools that provide uniquely tailored programs for students throughout the state. 

NH Hospitals Ditch Cloth Masks Over Concerns About Effectiveness

Patients and visitors arriving at Concord Hospital masked up and ready to go were caught off-guard when staff told them their cloth masks were no longer adequate and they would have to wear hospital-provided blue paper procedure masks instead.

The policy change, which went into effect earlier this month, brings Concord Hospital in line with other New Hampshire hospitals where cloth masks are being banned, in favor of disposable, medical-grade masks.

Jenn Dearborn with Concord Hospital’s public affairs department said the change reflects the fact that more personal protective equipment, like masks and gowns, are now available for use which makes it easier for hospitals to offer the masks. It’s also an acknowledgment that disposable masks offer better protection against COVID-19 than cloth masks.

“PPE supplies of masks are now at a level where we can provide all patients wearing a cloth mask a procedure mask. Procedure masks are more effective at protecting against COVID-19 when compared to cloth masks,” Dearborn said. “We are making this change because we can now safely supply patients with a procedure mask and still have an adequate supply for the hospital and practices.”

Cloth masks are currently the norm in most settings, most notably public schools where a debate over their efficacy is currently raging. On Friday, administrators at Deerfield Community School banished unmasked children to the gymnasium after the school board suddenly imposed a mask mandate with little notice. On Monday, they began turning unmasked children away.

Concord Hospital isn’t the only hospital requiring procedure masks. Lauren Collin-Cline, director of communications at Catholic Medical Center, said the Manchester hospital now requires people to wear either a paper procedure mask, or a KN-95, or N-95-type mask.

“The reason for this is consistency in filtration,” she said. “Cloth masks vary widely in materials, layers, and fit around the nose and we don’t know what level of protection they offer. In the healthcare setting, we need to be confident in the level of protection people have given the current level of transmission in the community.”

Collins-Cline said the hospital did allow for cloth masks in the summer when the virus levels were going down. But that changed as cases have gone up and the delta variant is rampant. 

“We have always had a mask requirement. Earlier in the summer, we did relax to allow cloth masks but went back to procedural and higher when the positivity rate began to climb back up,” she said.

Adam Bagni, director of communications and community relations at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, said the use of facility-provided masks has been required throughout the pandemic at their facility.

This is to ensure the quality and cleanliness of every mask in our facilities. We carefully select and assess the masks that we provide to staff, patients, and visitors, for traits like performance, layering, and breathability. We issue a new mask each day, or visit, to ensure they are both sanitary and effective,” he said.

Martha Wassell, director of infection prevention at Wentworth-Douglass, said that in order for a cloth mask to be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19, it must be double-layered, comfortable, fit snugly, and easy to breathe through.

While cloth masks are fine for general settings, like the grocery store, medical masks should be used in hospitals and health clinics, Wassell said.

“Medical-grade masks are typically prioritized for healthcare settings,” she said.

The debate over masks and mandates began almost as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic started, in part because public health officials told the general public — falsely, it turned out — that masks were unnecessary.

“There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a 60 Minutes interview on March 8, 2020. “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”

Fauci now acknowledges he wasn’t telling the truth, out of concern there wouldn’t be enough masks for health care workers.