The 400-member New Hampshire House returned to its chamber Thursday, ending two years of off-site sessions that allowed for social distancing but led to some anti-social behavior.
New Hampshire’s Statehouse is the oldest in the nation in which the Legislature still occupies its original chamber, but the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 forced lawmakers out for the first time since the Civil War. And civility often was lacking when members instead gathered inside and outside the University of New Hampshire ice arena, voted from their cars in a parking lot and held sessions in both a Bedford sports complex and a hotel expo center in Manchester.
“The decorum in Bedford and Manchester was probably close to despicable by our members,” House Speaker Sherm Packard said last week during a refresher course on House etiquette.
Packard, R-Londonderry, made frequent use of his gavel away from the Statehouse, often halting business when side conversations drowned out speakers. During one chaotic session in Bedford, he angrily locked the doors on Democrats protesting what they viewed as partisan manipulation of the calendar. At UNH in 2020, some members drank beer inside the arena and defied a local mask mandate outside, behaving, as one university trustee put it, like “juvenile delinquents.”
Acting like adults once again, members sat shoulder-to-shoulder Thursday, with a handful of plexiglass panels set up to separate those wearing masks from their maskless colleagues.
“We’re excited to be back in the people’s house and doing the people’s business,” said Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston.
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The session opened with a moment of silence for the people of Ukraine and tributes to Rep. Renny Cushing, the House Democratic leader, who died Monday of cancer.
Serving his eighth non-consecutive session, Cushing was a champion of progressive causes who led the effort to repeal the state’s death penalty for two decades before succeeding in 2019.
"Renny’s advocacy was always centered around inclusion and compassion," said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord. "Renny led with love and loyalty to this sacred institution and all mankind."
Packard acknowledged that he and Cushing disagreed on most issues but called him a friend.
"He was a true gentleman and he was a pleasure to work with," he said.
The two were on opposite sides of a legal battle that has yet to be settled, however.
Cushing and other lawmakers with serious medical conditions sued Packard in February 2021, arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option during the coronavirus pandemic violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions. In a motion filed days before Cushing’s death, they said the health conditions of several plaintiffs have worsened, making remote participation even more critical.