Motorcycle Week director talks about his first seven months in the State Legislature
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — After seven months as a state representative, Charlie St. Clair, who is more comfortable riding his Harley-Davidson than sitting through a lengthy formal meeting, is still adjusting to the facts of life at the State House in Concord.
St. Clair, 67, a Democrat, won a special election in September to replace two-term State Rep. Robert Fisher, a Republican, who resigned under criticism for his role in a misogynistic website.
St. Clair is the executive director of the Motorcycle Week Association and rides a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic.
Born and raised in Laconia, where his parents ran a clothing business, St. Clair has a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in education from the University of Colorado. He taught in Colorado and Boston, where he was also a cab driver. He owns the Laconia Antique Center, sits on the city’s Planning Board and lives in the home where he grew up.
St. Clair, who wears baggy jeans and a sweatshirt when he’s not in the coat and tie required at the Legislature, recently sat down for an interview to discuss some of the things that have surprised him about being one of New Hampshire’s 400 state representatives.
St. Clair said one of the first things a new legislator finds out is there is an expectation to follow the party leadership.
“A lot of people in Concord, and this is on both sides of the aisle, they figure if you are an elected Democrat, or an elected Republican, they expect you to toe the party line, and the party line would be what comes down from leadership.
“If leadership says they support something or doesn’t support something, then often times you will be expected to do the same.” he said.
During the campaign, St. Clair said his main allegiance would be to local voters, not to party ideology.
“I’ve upset Democrats and Republicans with the way I have voted on different issues, but I just point to what I’ve gotten back from my constituents in District 9 in Belmont and Laconia,” he said.
“I don’t think we should be down there for any other reason than to represent our constituents in what we feel is best for the state.”
One instance in which he bucked his own party was his opposition to House Bill 1259, a mandatory seatbelt law. New Hampshire is the only state without a law requiring adults to wear a seatbelt.
The bill was sponsored by six Democratic representatives and one Democratic senator. Safe Kids New Hampshire, the state Nurses Association and Hospital Association, the Department of Health and Human Services, Concord Hospital, the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were among those in favor of the legislation.
The House Transportation Committee, of which St. Clair is a member, recommended against the bill, deciding, 10-9, that it was inexpedient to legislate. The bill was tabled in the House on March 15.
“I wear a seatbelt,” St. Clair said. “I don’t want somebody to think that St. Clair is reckless or wonder why I would be against a seatbelt law.
“What I’m against is involving the police in a situation where, with a primary seatbelt law, they are able to pull you over on the suspicion that you are not wearing a seatbelt, so that is a slippery slope.
“The Democrats on my committee favored it and I was not a very popular guy that day. I knew they favored it, but I also knew that the constituents that I had reached out to, which at that point was over 300 people, were not against wearing a seatbelt, but were against involving police activity to ensure you are wearing a seatbelt.”
St. Clair said he is surprised by some of the legislation that is introduced and by some of the behavior of legislators.
In November, for example, the House elected a new speaker, Gene Chandler, but the way it was done was strange.
It took two rounds of voting, with a dozen votes cast in the first round for former Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, who died in March 2017.
“There was obviously a contingent of people in there who thought it was pretty funny to vote for a person who was deceased,” he said.
The tactic, apparently meant to express dissatisfaction with the legitimate candidates, caused major delays.
“To me, that showed a total lack of respect for everybody’s time, and there has to be a cost involved in staffing and keeping the lights on for longer. I was steamed. It was a waste of everybody’s time. To me, the hours during the day are precious.”
As unusual as that incident was, St. Clair was even more surprised by a bill under consideration that would allow a loaded rifle to be carried on a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle.
“That just blew me away because that is a common sense safety issue. When I asked different members why they were supporting it, they said, ‘It’s about gun rights,’ and I’m saying, ‘I’m so confused.’
“You still got your rifle, you still have your shotgun. It’s probably not the safest thing to be on a bouncing vehicle that can perhaps tip over like an ATV or snowmobile with a loaded shotgun or a long rifle. To me that’s just common sense.”
One of the representatives argued that a constituent favored the bill so that he could legally take care of a porcupine problem on his land.
“And I’m thinking porcupines move like slugs,” St. Clair said. “I don’t think they run fast. I’ve never seen it. And it takes two seconds to pop your shells into the gun and use it.
“That logic is like, ‘I got a loaded shotgun, I’m going to mount iT on the roof of my van because I can and off I go and if it goes off, it is an act of God, wasn’t anything I did, wasn’t the gun’s fault.”
He was also shocked that some people voted against a bill to put the state on record against hate crimes.
“Where was the harm in voting against hate?” he asked. “I get it, it was a feel-good thing, but why would you vote against that?”
He encourages people to participate in the legislative process, contact their representatives and testify about bills that could affect them.
“I do not believe that the constituent concerns are always addressed in committees down there,” he said.
“I’m not saying my colleagues are not doing their job, but the reality is that when we have these hearings, at least in the Transportation Committee, the majority of people in the room testifying, if they are not department heads from Concord, they are paid lobbyists, and these lobbyists do a really good job. But people need to realize it is a job they are doing. Are they representing special interests or are they representing the constituents as a whole? I would dare say they are representing their special interests.”
St. Clair said he has not introduced any legislation yet, but has ideas he would like to pursue.
“I would like to see New Hampshire become a referendum state, where you get a certain amount of signatures and something is put on the ballot,” he said. “I would personally love to see that here in New Hampshire. There are so many issues that should go right to the voters. But when I bring that up in Concord, the response I get is, ‘That’s why we’re here.’”
He encourages constituents to reach out to him with their views.
“I love phone calls and I love visits in person,” he said. “I also respond to emails and try to let people know what I think.”
Charlie St. Clair is packed up and on the road during a trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally last year. His Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail is signed by friends from all over the country. He says it’s like a yearbook on wheels. (Courtesy photo)