A Tenacious Governor Aims for Senate
Once Maggie Hassan has a goal in mind, she doesn’t seem to let up.
She lost her first bid for the New Hampshire Senate, but returned two years later and defeated the incumbent who had bested her.
As governor, she called a special legislative session to tackle Medicaid expansion for the poor. Lawmakers closed the session without a solution, but she kept discussions going until an agreement was reached.
And the Democratic leader of the Granite State remained stone-faced about her intention to run for the U.S. Senate until she finished negotiating the terms of the state’s $11.3 billion budget.
Hassan is positioned to be a formidable opponent in the 2016 race against incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte, who trails Hassan in favorability but holds single-digit leads in polls.
The quirky politics of the state with the first-in-the-nation presidential primary make the outcome nearly impossible to predict, since the presidential race is likely to impact the Senate election.
An attorney, Hassan was introduced to public service in 1999 by the woman she wants to work with in the Senate — Jeanne Shaheen. Then-Gov. Shaheen appointed Hassan to be a citizen adviser for the Adequate Education and Education Financing Commission, a group created to review the equity of the state’s education funding.
In an interview, Hassan described the moment she sent her son, who has cerebral palsy, to public preschool at age 3. The bus stopped in her driveway, he was wheeled onto a lift and taken to a school in his hometown. Had it been a generation or so earlier, she thought, she and her husband may have been pressured to put him in a care facility for people with severe disabilities.
“That really got me focused on the work that other families and advocates and elected leaders had done so that, on that day, my son wasn’t in an institution. He was going to school and he was having a chance to learn and make friends,” she said. “What that reflection taught me is that what we do in a democracy is work every generation toward including more and more people into our economic and civic life, and when we do that, it strengthens all of us.”
Impressed with her advocacy work, Democrats encouraged Hassan to run for the New Hampshire state Senate against incumbent Republican Russell Prescott. Though she lost her first election in 2002, Hassan returned in 2004 for a victory. She was elected to three two-year terms, during which she served as the assistant Democratic whip, president pro tempore, and majority leader.
As chairman of the state Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Consumer Protection, Hassan helped push legislation that requires insurance companies to provide coverage of evidence-based, medically necessary autism therapies.
Prescott returned to oust Hassan in 2010, as Republicans regained control of the Legislature. But Hassan saw another opportunity in 2011, when Democratic Gov. John Lynch announced he wouldn’t seek reelection.
Hassan beat Republican Ovide M. Lamontagne in the 2012 governor’s race with 55 percent of the vote, marking the first time a Democrat succeeded a Democrat as governor in New Hampshire since 1855. She won again in 2014, by a smaller margin.
In her first term, Hassan negotiated a budget that included a $62 million surplus and doubled the rainy day fund. She pushed lawmakers to come up with a plan to give an additional 50,000 low-income residents access to Medicaid.
After a special session, she produced no legislation. She spent the following months negotiating a compromise for a short-term program to use federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for adults earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
As governor, Hassan signed a bipartisan bill making New Hampshire the first state to prohibit paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage. She also settled a lawsuit between residents with mental illness and the state. That spurred additional funding for mental health services, “so we could stop litigating and start building a community-based system again,” Hassan said.
Hassan continues to push for funding to combat painkiller abuse and heroin addiction, which the federal Centers for Disease Control calls an epidemic. In 2014, she and four other New England governors forged an agreement to better monitor the prescription of opioid painkillers and expand access to addiction treatment.
Hassan aligns closely with Democrats on other social issues, such as gun control, abortion and same sex marriage, but had notable disagreements with the party’s position on hosting Syrian refugees. She was the first Democratic governor to support suspending the acceptance of refugees until there are assurances that the refugees are properly vetted.
— Sarah Chacko covers education and labor issues for CQ’s states team. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahheartsnews
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