A full House in New Hampshire

SUN JOURNAL

Legislature: The recent election of an advocate of cop killing to the New Hampshire House of Representatives shows how candidates can run for the 400-member body without undergoing a thorough screening process.

January 10, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Last November, New Hampshire voters elected Tom Alciere, a Libertarian-turned-Republican from Nashua who applauds the killing of police officers, to the state House of Representatives.

One of Alciere's fellow legislators rebuked him at a news conference last week. "Massachusetts is making fun of our state right now, and I don't appreciate it," said Rep. Greg Salts of Manchester, referring to New Hampshire's greatest rival. "You're a disgrace."

Alciere is being shunned by other colleagues, but his election has illuminated the dark side of New Hampshire's 400-member House of Representatives: A person can ascend from candidate to lawmaker without undergoing public scrutiny.

Alciere's views are likely to be drowned out in the chorus of that giant legislative body. Four times larger than the Vienna Boys Choir, the New Hampshire House has more members than any voter, newspaper reporter or lobbyist can follow. It is the most populous chamber of any state legislature and the third-largest parliamentary body in the English-speaking world, after the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives.

A candidate for the state house can spend as little as the $2 filing fee and win. The $100-a-year salary for legislators winnows out those who need to work regular hours. "It does mean that we end up attracting crazies," says state Sen. Clifton Below, who served six years in the House.

There is one House member for roughly every 3,000 residents. If California did it that way, its Assembly would have more than 11,000 members.

New Hampshire natives like to say that if you aren't a state rep, you probably know one, were one or are about to become one. The House roster is so long that lawmakers don't always recognize each other, even at session's end. The House chamber is shaped like a theater, where lawmakers often climb over each other to get in and out of their seats. There is no room for desks, just a mounted red and green button display (sometimes mistakenly pressed) at each seat for electronic voting.

New Hampshire residents are generally proud of their system, created in 1776. The low ratio of representatives-to-constituents, says Deputy Secretary of State Bob Ambrose, reflects New Hampshire's spirited tradition of town meetings and citizens' "long history of not trusting government." Efforts to shrink the House by constitutional amendment have invariably failed.

Sen. Below sponsored a bill in 1994 that would have capped the House at 300. He also advocates increasing the 24-member Senate, the fourth-smallest in the country, to 30, arguing that each senator has too much power and is prime prey for lobbyists.

Former Rep. Jean Wallin of Concord sponsored bills in 1969 and 1999 to reduce the House to 100 members. Having 400 "covers up what's really going on," she argues. "There are probably 20 to 40 people who have any kind of power at all, and the rest are window dressing. ... They tend to act like sheep, and because they're so invisible, they get away with it. God knows how many other creepy people there are there."

Defenders say the system perpetuates an actual citizen legislature, in which farmers and hunters debate bankers and doctors. Lawmakers are true public servants; they are paid mileage plus their $100 a year. The session runs from January through June. And because elections are held every other year, legislators cannot become complacent.

"It's a very genuine cross-section of the citizenry," says Republican strategist and former state attorney general Tom Rath. "That gives people a degree of confidence in the result. It also keeps government close to the people, who feel very connected to this body."

There may be "blips" every so often, he adds, "but democracy isn't always pretty."

Certainly Alciere, 41, qualifies as a blip. He wrote letters to newspapers defending Carl Drega, who killed two New Hampshire troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor in a 1997 shooting spree.

Alciere boldly expressed his anti-police views online. In response to the slaying of a Colorado police officer in 1998, he wrote: "There's nothing wrong with wasting cops. They go around threatening innocent, random people at gun point, and they whine about it when one of us humans kills a cop."

Alciere also runs an offensively-named dating Web site for Nashua high school students.

So how did he get elected? Despite his widely publicized rants, he landed largely unnoticed on the November ballot, nestled amid the other unknowns. Thanks to people voting the straight Republican ticket, he defeated the Democratic incumbent, 806-751.

As a registered Republican, Alciere automatically received $300 in campaign funds from the party, says state GOP chairman Steve Duprey, who has called for Alciere's resignation. "It's almost impossible for a two-person Republican committee staff to recruit enough candidates for all the seats, much less engage in a screening process," he says.

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