Connecting state and local government leaders
The five members of this unique state body often wield more power than the governor. And that can sometimes cause headaches in America’s most democratic system of government.
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CONCORD, N.H. — On my way north from Boston late in June, I took a detour to this historic New Hampshire city, where the State House is the seat of the most democratic system of government in the country.
New Hampshire boasts not only a larger legislature than any other state but also a unique check on gubernatorial power—in the form of a five-member Executive Council empowered to approve or disapprove of actions proposed by the executive branch.
The State House is a stopping off point for virtually every person with ambitions to become president of the United States. Their campaign paraphernalia is on display in the State House Visitor Center just off to the right in the huge lobby of the building. Part history display, part book and souvenir store—the center was commanded when I arrived by Deborah I. Rivers, the state’s public information administrator. She posed for me in front of her politics wall, which featured one of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, autographed by the candidate.
Full of knowledge about the building and the state, Rivers directed me to key venues in the old State House, seat of the General Court of New Hampshire, including the sprawling chamber of the House of Representatives, which has 400 elected members, and the much more intimate Senate, with just 24. Representatives and Senators are paid the lofty sum of $200 per two-year term, with no per diem.
My tour somehow missed the small chambers of the Executive Council, whose five members are better compensated—about $15,000 a year plus a modest travel allowance. That was an oversight. The council later piqued my interest for its unusual role and power to influence state policies on nationwide controversies. And I met Dan Weeks, who is running to unseat a Republican incumbent and return the council to a 3-2 Democratic majority; he struck me as a young man with a bright future, whose political views will resonate with society’s left-behind, the kinds of people who supported Bernie Sanders and perhaps also Donald Trump.
The council was created in the late 17th century by King Charles II. Until the American Revolution some 100 years later, its chief political responsibility was to report to the King on the activities of the royally-appointed governor of New Hampshire. During the Revolution, local leaders abolished the position of Governor, and the Executive Council became the upper branch of the legislature.
The post of Governor was reestablished in the 1790s, but it was, and it remains, among the least powerful such posts in the nation. Wary of the kind of excess power the monarchy had exercised, New Hampshire leaders gave the Executive Council the power to disapprove any contract issued by the executive branch and also to approve or disapprove of all appointments made by the Governor—some 300 today to positions ranging from Cabinet Secretaries to part-time members of various commissions. The council’s website says this “sharing of executive authority” acts as “a curb on autocracy.” It adds: “New Hampshire’s Governor and Council, all elected by the people, has become the most democratic form of executive government in the nation, or elsewhere in the world. All state business, as ordered and ordained by the Legislature, is voted in public, and no other state enjoys such open accountability between its Executive Department and its citizens.”
Dan Weeks and the Council Today
Dan Weeks is seeking to become one of the council’s five members, each of whom represents one fifth of the state’s population.
If he joins the commission, he will be empowered to vote on every state contract worth more than $10,000. The council meets twice a month to review proposed contracts, and is furnished some 2,000 pages of documentation before each meeting. Cabinet members come to the council chambers to answer questions members may have.
Weeks has the making of a life-long public servant. I met him at a Washington dinner organized by longtime Democratic thinker and activist Frank A. Weil, whose purpose was to celebrate young leaders, in particular U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, an Iraq war veteran who had narrowly beaten a longtime incumbent in 2014 and is looking at another tough race.
Weeks descends from a New Hampshire family steeped in public service. His grandfather, Sinclair Weeks, served in President Eisenhower’s Cabinet, and was credited by Ike for getting the Interstate Highway System up and running. A generation earlier, John W. Weeks served in the U.S. House and Senate before his appointment as Secretary of War in 1921.
The earlier Weeks were Republicans. Dan Weeks is a Democrat, who has devoted much energy to campaign finance reform, and to understanding poverty in America.
On the first issue, he was inspired by the example of Doris Haddock, a New Hampshire activist who set out on a two-year walk across America at the age of 88 to build support for enactment of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law in 2002. As a student at Yale, Weeks organized a campaign, ultimately successful, to reform Connecticut campaign finance laws. Later he helped start and run Issue One and Open Democracy, both devoted to the issue.
At age 18, Weeks signed up with AmeriCorps, then attended Yale and Oxford on scholarships. At Oxford, he met his South African wife, Sindiso, a human rights lawyer and professor. In South Africa, he said, he was exposed to extreme poverty, “people lacking basic needs,” some of them in his wife’s extended family.
Weeks then resolved to learn more about poverty in America and spent more than a year doing so with the help of a 2012-14 fellowship from Harvard ‘s Safra Center for Ethics. He traveled 10,000 miles through 30 states by Greyhound bus, on a poverty-line budget of $16 per day, interviewing people living in poverty. A series he wrote about the experience focused on disenfranchisement of the poor. Titled “Poor (in) Democracy,” it was published by The Atlantic as a series and by Harvard as an ebook.
Weeks, now the father of twins, is now campaigning across the fifth executive council district in southern New Hampshire as he tries to unseat the incumbent council member, David K. Wheeler. The fifth district encompasses the cities and towns of Amherst, Antrim, Bennington, Brookline, Deering, Dunbarton, Fitzwilliam, Francestown, Greenfield, Greenville, Hillsborough, Hollis, Hudson, Jaffrey, Litchfield, Lyndeborough, Mason, Merrimack, Milford, Mont Vernon, New Boston, New Ipswich, Peterborough, Richmond, Rindge, Sharon, Swanzey, Temple, Troy, Weare, Wilton, and Windsor, and the city of Nashua.
The council, says Weeks, “is not supposed to be a policy-making body but rather more of a good-government watchdog.”
But with its power over contracts, the council can wade into controversial issues. And it began to do so after New Hampshire’s redistricting in 2010 helped produce a Republican 3-2 majority on the council. Adopting what what Weeks described as “quite a far-right ideological approach, the Republican majority has “effectively vetoed” legislation passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, he said.
The 3-2 majority exerted its power in 2012 by vetoing a plan to accept $4 million in federal funds to help plan an extension of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Boston-to-Lowell commuter rail line to Nashua, Manchester Airport and downtown Manchester. About half of New Hampshire’s population lives in the area that would be served. The issue has remained controversial, as the legislature this year narrowly voted to reject the funds.
In the 2012 elections, the council returned to 3-2 Democratic majority. Then, in 2014, Republicans regained their edge.
The council has waded into the debate about government subsidies for renewable energy projects. By 3-2 votes, the Republican majority has vetoed proposals made by several New Hampshire cities and towns for modest state grants from the NH Renewable Energy Fund to fund solar projects.
A signal controversy, boiling on the national stage, came before the council last August: funding of Planned Parenthood. By a 3-2 partisan majority, the council vetoed a $549,000 contract the Governor had approved to fund services by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. That decision was actually reversed in late June, when council member Chris Sununu, who is now running for Governor, changed his position. As WMUR reported: “The Executive Council chambers was jammed with activists on both sides of the abortion issue. Planned Parenthood supporters were clad in pink T-shirts, while pro-life activists wore yellow stickers, stating simply, ‘Life.’’’ Governor Maggie Hassan showed up to testify in favor of the contract.
This fall’s election is important, Weeks says, in part because the Executive Council could play a key role in deciding whether New Hampshire will continue its Medicaid expansion. Called the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, the expansion now serves more than 50,000 people in the state. Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion has been controversial in New Hampshire, as in other states, and the Senate rejected it several times before approving a revised plan in 2014. The council, then with a Democratic majority, voted 3-2 to approve a $292 million contract allowing the program to start up on Sept. 1, 2014. But now the Council has its Republican majority, and if the GOP maintains control in the 2016 elections, extension of the Medicaid contracts in early 2017 could be at stake.
If elected, Dan Weeks plans vigorous pursuit of the council’s role as a good-government watchdog. In an email he said:
I will secure qualified intern/volunteer assistance to help me play the kind of robust watchdog role I believe is called for (e.g. working closely with state agencies on the most important state contracts, making key contracts available for public scrutiny and soliciting public comment), as well as serving as a bridge between citizens and state government through constituent services.
And, of course, the council could serve as a springboard to higher office, as council member Sununu is hoping to demonstrate this year.
Timothy B. Clark is Editor-at-Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is fellow and former board member with the National Academy of Public Administration.