The speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives died of COVID-19, a medical examiner ruled Thursday, a day after the Republican's unexpected death, raising concerns that other members of one of the world's largest legislative bodies might have been exposed at their swearing-in last week.
Dick Hinch, who was sworn in Dec. 2 as leader of the state’s newly Republican-led, 400-member Legislature, died Wednesday. He was 71 and had been starting his seventh two-year term in the state House.
His death was announced Wednesday night by his office, which did not give details of what it called “this unexpected tragedy.” Hinch is the first New Hampshire speaker to die during the session, according to House Clerk Paul Smith.
The swearing-in of the House and the 24-member state Senate was held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hinch was photographed wearing a mask, though it did not cover his nostrils.
More than a quarter of House members, most of them Democrats, skipped the ceremony after learning the day before that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for the virus after attending a Nov. 20 indoor GOP caucus meeting where many attendees weren’t wearing masks.
At least one Republican blamed Hinch’s death on a culture pushed by anti-mask forces.
“I believe the peer pressure exerted by those in the Republican Party who refuse to take reasonable precautions is the ultimate cause of Speaker Hinch’s passing,” Republican Rep. William Marsh, a retired doctor, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse issued a statement Thursday saying they were “committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord.”
They said they will consult with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the legislature's administrative office regarding any additional steps needed beyond the current contact tracing and COVID-19 protocols in place “to ensure the continued protection of our legislators and staff.”
Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette would not say whether Hinch had tested positive for the coronavirus before his death and couldn’t say when he began showing symptoms. The state will investigate, she said, including tracking down people whom Hinch might have exposed.
“Part of the case investigation is to investigate the date of onset of symptoms, and then we go back a couple of days from there and do all of the contact tracing,” Shibinette said.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu told reporters that Hinch’s death was a “just a stark reminder, unfortunately, that this virus doesn’t care if you’re in a long-term care facility, or if you’re an elected official."
“No one is immune. It’s spreading in our community; it doesn’t affect the elderly, it affects everyone, everywhere, and we have to stay vigilant,” he said.
Democrats called on Sununu's office to provide testing for all statehouse staffers, as well as any lawmakers who attended the swearing-in ceremony last week. A spokesperson for Sununu said the Department of Health and Human Services has told legislative leaders that the necessary resources will be made available for testing.
The House held several sessions inside an arena last spring to allow for appropriate social distancing — with about four dozen Republicans who refused to wear masks in a separate area.
Packard, who represents Londonderry and is serving his 15th term in the House, will remain the acting speaker until the full House membership meets Jan. 6.
Republicans won majorities in both chambers in November. Hinch previously served as majority leader for the 2016-17 session and as minority leader when Democrats were in control the past two years.
In an emotional speech when he was elected speaker Dec. 2, Hinch urged lawmakers to view each other as “friends and colleagues,” rather than members of opposing parties, particularly during a pandemic.
“I’ve been working with members of our caucus in good times and in bad for a number of terms. Long nights, stressful days, but charging ahead for what we believed was the proper course,” he said. “Through that time, I’ve worked to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.”