By Angeljean Chiaramida
A woman well known to Seabrook and South Hampton residents may soon toss her hat into New Hampshire's political ring to run for governor.
Margaret "Maggie" Wood Hassan, a lawyer and former state senator representing both Seabrook and South Hampton, said she is considering a run for the state's highest office.
The 53-year-old Democrat who lives in Exeter formerly represented the 10 communities of New Hampshire's Senate District 23 for three terms. She was unseated last year by Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, when Republicans were swept into office by voters.
But soon after popular four-term Democratic Gov. John Lynch announced late this summer that he would not seek a fifth term, Hassan's name rose to the top of the list compiled by the state's political pundits, who consider her one of the strongest Democratic contenders in the race for the corner office, should she choose to run in 2012.
"I've been traveling around the state discussing the political situation and getting feedback from New Hampshire citizens as I consider possibly running for governor," Hassan said in a recent interview. "I'm trying to think through what it would take to run for governor. I think it's still a bit early to decide, and my response when asked has been that I'll be making a decision in the near future."
Without an incumbent in the race, there will be no shortage of candidates from both major parties vying to replace Lynch.
Manchester Republican Ovide Lamontagne has already announced that he's in the race. An attorney, Lamontagne has made unsuccessful bids for both governor and U.S. senator in the past.
Since losing her Senate seat in November, Hassan said she's had more free time and has spent it involved "informally" in politics and with her family. She is married to Thomas Hassan, the principal of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the mother of a son and daughter, ages 23 and 18.
As she travels around the state listening to residents' concerns, she said she's getting a picture of their priorities.
"What I'm hearing out there is jobs, jobs, jobs," Hassan said. "What I'm hearing is people are very worried about the state and the dismantling of the things that New Hampshire does well that provide opportunities for the middle class."
Hassan said people have expressed their worries about the current atmosphere in the Legislature. She's heard concern about the direction New Hampshire is taking, steered by what she calls "far right" ideology, and the effect it's having on the state's programs, people and image.
During her tenure as senator from 2004 to 2010, Hassan rose to the position of majority leader at a time when Democrats controlled that house.
As chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Hassan, along with Lynch and then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, mounted the legal charge after officials from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue tried to force New Hampshire retailers to collect sales tax from Bay State residents who shopped in the tax-free Granite State. New Hampshire won that battle, which was of particular importance to border communities like Seabrook, Nashua and Salem that have large retail sectors.
In addition, Hassan was responsible for getting Seabrook state funds for the pending widening of the Route 107 bridge that spans Interstate 95. Selectman Bob Moore said Hassan was the one who convinced state legislators and transportation officials to add the project to the state's 10-year Transportation Plan and resolve what has long been a bottleneck area.
"Maggie was always good to Seabrook," Moore said. "I'm a Republican, but Maggie got it done for us; without her, we never would have gotten the $2 million from the state for the bridge.
"Certainly, it would be good to have someone familiar with Seabrook as governor. She was always there for us, came to any meeting we asked her to and worked hard for Seabrook. She lives right in Exeter; she knows the Seacoast and our problems, like the traffic problem."
During the weeks and months ahead, Hassan plans to gather more feedback in her travels across the state before reflecting on what she's learned and making a final decision with her family, she said.
Although she was unwilling to sound too much like an official New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate by swearing to veto any broad-based tax that might come to the governor's desk, Hassan did stress the importance of what many call "the New Hampshire advantage."
"I think it would be a big mistake to bring a sales or income tax to New Hampshire," she said.
And as hearings on expanding gambling in the Granite State have taken over the Statehouse, Hassan said she's heard a lot of chatter, both pro and con, concerning New Hampshire trying to outflank Massachusetts.
"I'm hearing that since Massachusetts is expanding gambling that New Hampshire should beat it to the punch," Hassan said. "I'm hearing that we're smaller and more agile than Massachusetts and we could do it pretty fast and keep New Hampshire (gambling) dollars in New Hampshire and not let them go to Massachusetts. But I'm also hearing that since Massachusetts is going to expand gambling, there'll be less revenue for New Hampshire if it enters the fray and that it's not worth the trade-off."
Hassan said she's been willing to vote for expanded gambling in the past based on specific bills and how the gambling revenue would be used to help residents. She said looking at the significant cuts inflicted on state programs recently and the problems they have, in turn, caused state residents, she said she'd examine any expanded gambling bills to see if they could provide revenue sources to make up for what's been lost to cutbacks.