Governing and political campaigns should social distance

More than two thousand demonstrators rally on the plaza and lawn in front of New Hampshire's Statehouse Thursday, March 31, 2011 to protest proposed spending cuts and a provision that would strip public employees of their union protection when their contracts expire, in Concord, N.H.

Once upon a time in America, there was a wide red line between political campaigns and governing.

The political free-for-all — name-calling, spin, misrepresentations and outright lies — ended after the first Tuesday in November after the first Monday, and the people’s work began.

Members of the two parties would have their disagreements, but while the important issues were not easy, all agreed something had to be accomplished.

When the sausage-making was done, no side was happy, but everyone had something from the hard work that laid a legislative foundation with longevity.

When Public Service went bankrupt under the weight of its Seabrook nuclear debt, some Republicans objected to the settlement, while some Democrats supported it. It is not a partisan issue when the state’s economy is in danger of imploding with supercharged electric rates.

Sure there was partisan bickering, but in the end, a compromise was reached and neither party would spend years blaming the other for what happened.

Compromise was not a dirty word in Washington, once upon a time as well, as Democrats and Republicans worked together to clean up the nation’s rivers and its air and provided seniors with health insurance when they could no longer afford private premiums.

Slowly but surely that once bright red line began to fade.

In New Hampshire, many old-timers lament the loss of the New Hampshire Highway Hotel where now stands the LL Bean and Petco complex, Hannafords and the Panera Bread and Verizon Wireless building.

After a grueling day at the State House lawmakers would gather in the hotel’s bar and socialize, have a few drinks and some claim work out the deal they would agree to the next day.

Lawmakers were friends although they belonged to different parties and could disagree without being disagreeable. Some of that is true today, but there is no single gathering place to let their hair down and get to know each other.

The hotel’s demise is but an anecdote, while what drove the change to the constant political campaign is much larger and beyond New Hampshire.

The change has a lot to do with money, not surprisingly, and the expense of running for office these days from state senate to president.

It is not just money, but dark money that comes without accountability and seeks to move the process in a direction that serves those giving the dollars and not the citizens.

Thirty years ago, a highly contested state senate race cost $20,000 to $30,000 but now state senate candidates routinely raise over $100,000 for their campaigns.

The money has to come from somewhere and unless you are independently wealthy, a candidate will have to satisfy a lot of interests.

Instead of doing what’s right for their constituents, they have to serve the special interests that paid to put them in office.

Governor’s races crossed the million dollar mark a long time ago, and have only gotten more expensive from year to year.

What has this got to do with the separation between governing and political campaigns?

Because of the expense, candidates for most offices have to raise money from the time they win to the next election.

The full-time campaign also creates another problem of candidates using taxpayer money — when they can — to fund what should be political events paid for with campaign money.

Presidents have for some time, scheduled official events coupled with separate political events so taxpayers will pay a portion of the costs of a trip. Those costs are substantial with Air Force One and all the other planes, vehicles and personnel needed to fly a president from Washington to San Francisco or Miami.

But what you didn’t hear was a president turning an official event into a political event, which has been common with the current President Donald Trump.

Saturday he announced three executive orders to continue relief programs due to the coronavirus pandemic, but in the middle of his press conference blasted the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden about taxes.

And President Trump finally helped members of his party find the wide red line when he suggested giving his nomination speech for his second term from the White House.

The White House does not belong to either party nor does the governor’s office nor the State House.

Blurring the line between governing and politics has been more and more prevalent in New Hampshire as well.

In olden times, actually not that long ago, when the political season began some members of a governor’s staff — like the press secretary or chief of staff — would take a leave of absence from working for the governor and instead go onto the campaign’s payroll.

The idea is that all the people of the state pay the governor’s salary and the salaries of his staff and his commissioners etc. They work for all the people of the state, not just the state’s Republicans or just the Democrats.

So if you are the member of the party not holding the corner office, you should not have to pay for partisan attacks against your party.

Lately the movement from staff to campaign has gone later and later into the political season so taxpayers pay more of the salaries although there is more and more political activity.

None of this brings everybody together once the campaigns officially end and the governing should begin.

The essence of the problem is that governing is less and less the goal, power is.

Where did the change begin? Well some see the election of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in 1994 with his Contract with America, as the beginning of accumulating power over governing.

Gingrich was followed by the Tea Party movement which also had little use for government and was fueled by Koch brothers’ money attempting to turn government into a fee-for-services operation instead of funding the greater good for everyone.

The revolt against the Tea Party brought a Democratic wave of President Barack Obama and control of both houses of Congress and the passage of the Affordable Care Act without any Republican support. The pendulum always swings both ways.

New Hampshire is not exempt from the battle.

It is no longer about governing, but what is best for one political party or the other.

Not that long ago, Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate came together to expand Medicaid to the state’s working poor who could not afford health insurance. The program continues to exist today, with some tweaks, because it had bipartisan support.

Finding something as significant that was approved in the last few sessions is nearly impossible, as the parties often failed to agree on important issues like responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The best example of power over governing was Gov. Chris Sununu’s less than definitive legal claim allowing him to bypass the legislature in doling out the $1.25 billion in CARES Act money.

A look to Vermont or Maine show more inclusive ways of deciding where the money should go to help those state’s people and businesses.

House Republicans will say the biggest power grab was by the Democratic Leadership who butted them aside in determining which bills should move forward in the truncated session. But the GOP showed little interest in compromise since the session began and instead attempted to end the session without acting on any more bills.

Politicians have lost sight of the public interest and instead focus on ways to weaponize the political system.

Yes, even in New Hampshire it’s not about governing, it’s about power, and until that changes, our country teeters on the edge of a precipice.

Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com

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