On the Political Front: Will Phillips Exeter Abuse Case Have Impact on U.S. Senate Race?

Apr 4, 2016

Credit www.exeter.edu

"On the Political Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.

  Let’s start with a story that broke late last week that could have implications for Gov. Maggie Hassan and the U.S. Senate race. It has to do with Phillips Exeter Academy, where the Governor’s husband Thomas Hassan was until recently principal.

Yes, Thomas Hassan stepped down as principal there in 2015. This matter involves a former teacher there, Rick Schubart, who admitted to two inappropriate sexual relationships with students decades ago – we are talking the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these relationships apparently became known to school officials in 2011. At which point the school forced Schubart off campus, into retirement and reported the relationship to authorities. When a second incident involving Schubart’s was reported in 2015, Schubart was barred from the Exeter campus, and he was stripped of his emeritus faculty status, authorities were also notified.

In the scheme of how prep schools have handled these things, it’s not the worst response. But Exeter made none of this known to parents or students. It became public last week only because the Boston Globe was writing a story on it.  Current school leaders wrote a letter to the Exeter community to say the school’s action dealing with Schubert were “insufficent.” Tom Hassan himself has issued two statements. On Thursday he noted the challenge to balancing the privacy of the victim and the need to protect the community, and said Exeter basically did the best it could at the time.  On Friday, Tom Hassan said “we didn’t get that balance right” and apologized.

Now to state the obvious we are talking about the governor’s husband. What does this have to do with her?

In the end, maybe very little. But no candidate needs this sort of thing in the midst of a very high-profile and high pressure Senate race. The fact is we don’t know where this is going, if anywhere.  Exeter has said it is hiring an investigator to look at how the school has handled abuse cases so we may be learning more about Tom Hassan’s time there, Rick Schubart and who knows what else. The governor’s only direct tie to Schubart that we know of right now is via small dollar campaign donations he made, and that she listed him as a local steering committee member when she first ran for governor. Her campaign has said they will make a $1,000 donation to a sexual violence charity to offset those. On Friday, the governor told reporters she never had direct knowledge of Schubart’s situation, but sensed something was amiss when he retired and moved off campus. 

So she says her husband never said anything to her about it.

That’s what she says. And maybe, as she says, she and her husband respect the confidentiality of each other’s jobs and never spoke of this. But Republicans will – they are already -- working hard to see if there is more here. Kelly Ayotte  issued a statement saying questions about Exeter’s handling of the situation must be fully addressed. 

The governor would prefer to be taking a victory lap over Medicaid expansion, I would imagine.

True. The biggest bill of the year, and her top legislative priority, has cleared its final hurdle. Six Republicans – including Senate President Morse and Majority Leader Jeb Bradley - joined Democrats to reauthorize the program for another two years. It means some 48,000 people will keep their insurance. One conspicuous vote against it among Republicans was by Senator Jeanie Forrester who chairs the finance committee. She’s now running for governor.  She voted to expand Medicaid two years ago. But said she wanted stronger work requirements in the program, a common complaint among conservatives. This GOP primary is looking crowded and Medicaid could be a dividing line. Chris Sununu has favored it; Ted Gatsas says he’d keep the program.

All the Democrats running favor Medicaid expansion but that field has gotten a bit bigger too.

Yes, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand is running. He says he decided to run when Stefany Shaheen decided not to. He’s said combating drugs and improving public education are his goals. He’s pitching himself as a moderate, and I guess you could say technocrat, data-driven seems to be the preferred term these days.

Before you go, there could a few high-profile votes at the Executive Council table this week.

Yes. The Mount Sunapee expansion will get a vote. Signs point to its approval, but opponents have been working this hard and say public sentiment is on their side. And Jerry Little , who the governor has tapped to be bank commissioner – and who by the way represents Sunapee – could get a vote. His nomination has gotten a lot of scrutiny due to his long pre-Senate career as a bank lobbyist, but the votes should be there when the governor decides to move for the confirmation.