NH Dems & the 10-Year Income Tax Itch

This column originally ran in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Friday, September 24:
New Hampshire Democrats have an itch they have to scratch every 10 years, and they’re due. With Gov. John Lynch’s retirement, here’s betting at least one Democratic candidate for governor next year will support a state income tax.
One of the first decisions any potential candidate for governor has to make is whether to take “The Pledge” against an income or sales tax. It’s a choice that pits liberal Democratic primary voters who believe an income tax is the fairest tax against the party’s pragmatists, who think an income tax is a political albatross even if they think it’s good policy.

The pledge was born in 1952, when Republican Hugh Gregg created it during his successful campaign for governor. Since then, just four Democrats have been elected governor. All four took The Pledge.

But every so many years, some Democrats become convinced New Hampshire voters have evolved, become enlightened, and will support an income tax sold as lowering property taxes. All we need to do is explain it better this time, these Democrats tell each other.

The first Democrat to take The Pledge and win was John King, who served three terms in the 1960s. In 1978, Hugh Gallen became the second when he defeated “Ax the Tax” Republican Gov. Meldrim Thomson, himself first elected in 1972 after defeating Gov. Walter Peterson in a primary after Peterson declined to take The Pledge. Gallen renewed his pledge in 1980 and was reelected. He dropped The Pledge in 1982 and was defeated. See the pattern?

Two years later, Portsmouth Democrat Paul McEachern ran for governor supporting a 3 percent income tax. He lost his primary to anti-income tax Chris Spirou. When McEachern ran again in 1986, a seacoast operative named Jeanne Shaheen agreed to be his campaign manager on the condition that McEachern flip-flop and oppose an income tax. McEachern did so, but it was too late: Once an income taxer, always an income taxer. McEachern lost in 1986 and again in 1988.

There was little education in that second kick of the mule. In 1990, 1992, and 1994, respective Democratic nominees Joe Grandmaison, Arnie “The Tax Lady” Arnesen, and Wayne King all refused to take The Pledge. All lost, two in blowouts.

By 1996, after seven straight gubernatorial defeats, sensible Democrats who wanted to win had seen enough. Always politically expedient, Shaheen took The Pledge and got elected to the first of three terms. In 2000, Shaheen earned a primary challenge from her left from pro-income tax Mark Fernald, who took an impressive 39 percent. Shaheen declined to renew her pledge and, newly vulnerable on taxes, won reelection but received less than 49 percent of the vote. Shaheen remains the only candidate of either party to be elected governor without taking The Pledge in the past 60 years.

Democrats promptly forgot all Shaheen taught them about winning elections. The 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary featured not one but two income taxers, Fernald and Beverly Hollingworth. Fernald won, then lost the general election. Badly.

No wonder John Lynch quickly took The Pledge in 2004 (easily defeating the resilient McEachern, back supporting an income tax again, in a primary) and maintained that position in each of his three re-election campaigns.

The lesson for Democrats should be this: Take The Pledge like John King, Gallen, Shaheen, and Lynch did and you might get elected governor. Don’t, and you won’t.

Where do potential 2012 Democratic candidates stand? Former state Sens. Maggie Hassan of Exeter and Jackie Cilley of Barrington didn’t return calls asking about their pledge plans. Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, also considering a bid, didn’t want to talk about it. They won’t get away with ducking the question long.

Should Republicans prefer to have the issue as a campaign club, or to have the policy victory that results when Democrats have to adopt the conservative tax position to get elected? Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey of Concord understands that anti-taxers win either way.

“Thank goodness John Lynch was around when the Democrats were in the majority,” Duprey told New Hampshire Public Radio last week. “Without him we probably would have an income tax, a sales tax, or both. So even Republicans owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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