Gregg Brings N.H. Ways To Chairmanship

January 08, 2003 13 min read
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Judd Gregg makes a terrific tour guide for his home state.

Riding shotgun in a 1999 Chevy Impala on a recent swing through southern New Hampshire, the incoming chairman of the Senate education committee boasted about its many attractions. He talked up the wilderness areas and good places for skiing, and pointed out historic homes. He proudly noted the state’s well-educated, productive workforce. The senator has read almost every book “of quality” about New Hampshire history and probably could write one.

The “Golden Triangle” region in the south of the state is growing fast, Sen. Gregg said, noting that two corners of that geometry—Manchester and Nashua—are consistently rated among America’s top places to live. “The rest of New England,” he said, “is overtaxed and overregulated.”

That critique, as it happens, serves as a reliable signpost to the political geography of this devoted New Hampshirite who, thanks to the Republican victories in November, will take the reins of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee this month.

New Hampshire—with its famous license plates featuring the state’s flinty motto, “Live Free or Die"—is the land of no sales tax, no income tax, and no nonsense. It’s a place where local control is gospel, a state where many school districts’ budgets still are approved by a show of hands in town meetings.

“The people who designed [New Hampshire’s political system] were very distrustful of government,” Mr. Gregg said. “We have the best government ... in the country because we’ve kept it small and efficient.”

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

Age: 55
Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1969; Boston University, law degree, 1972; master’s degree in tax law, 1975.
Career: U.S. Senate, 1993-present; governor of New Hampshire, 1989- 92; U.S. House of Representatives, 1981-89; Executive Council of New Hampshire, 1979-81.
Leadership posts: Incoming chairman, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; Incoming chairman, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary; chief deputy whip, Senate Republican caucus, 1995-2002.
Personal: Born in Nashua, N.H.; married to Kathleen MacLellan Gregg; three children.

Mr. Gregg, 55, knows something about that government. He served two terms as governor, and one on New Hampshire’s executive council, a five- member elected body that must approve any state expenditure above $5,000. That’s right: $5,000.

The senator also knows a thing or two about the not- so-small federal government, with close to 20 years’ experience in the House and Senate.

And he’s no stranger to the education debate in Washington. He has served on the Senate education committee since first joining the Senate in 1993, and has been a leading conservative voice on education policy.

Not surprisingly, given his roots, one of Sen. Gregg’s guiding tenets is that states and school districts should have wider latitude in spending federal education aid. In addition, he’s a big advocate for expanding educational options for families, including private school vouchers.

But while Mr. Gregg is aggressive in pursuing his agenda, he’s also demonstrated a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism. He likes to get things done, and in a narrowly divided Congress, that means compromise.

He took the lead for Senate Republicans in negotiations on the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the overhaul of federal K-12 education law that was one of President Bush’s top priorities. Observers say he proved his mettle in the long, difficult to-and-fro with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.—one of the Senate’s most formidable politicians and the outgoing chairman of the education committee—and with House education leaders from both parties.

Mr. Gregg also has a hand on the purse strings for schools as a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, where he’s generally known as a voice for fiscal restraint. (Indeed, there was some speculation last month that possible committee shuffling could give him a shot at chairing that subcommittee as well in 2003.)

It’s worth noting, though, that Sen. Gregg has cast plenty of aye votes for the mushrooming federal education budget the past few years.

‘Citizen of the Year’

It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to see a whole lot of New Hampshire. Sen. Gregg, packing his schedule during a Dec. 10-11 visit home, managed to get a look at a sizable chunk of the state. He flew up from Washington early on a Tuesday morning and made his way across southern New Hampshire, barely glancing at his notes as he made remarks during public appearances that day in Durham, Manchester, Keene, and finally Nashua. At the Nashua event, the local chamber of commerce honored him with its “citizen of the year” award.

Heading west among the wooded hills on meandering Route 101 from Manchester to Keene, Mr. Gregg talked at length about his state. He pointed out landmarks and the headquarters for Yankee magazine (yes, he reads it). He even pressed his longtime top political aide, Joel Maiola, to make a quick detour through Peterborough, a small town dating back to Colonial times that is said to have been the inspiration for the mythical Grover’s Corners in the Thornton Wilder classic “Our Town.”

Mr. Maiola, who has an easy familiarity with his boss, later joked about the senator’s vast knowledge of New Hampshire.

“I found a road about 15 years ago that he hadn’t been on,” he said. “Yeah, it was in Vermont,” Mr. Gregg quickly shot back.

The senator described some of his state’s popular hiking areas, from nearby Mount Monadnock, said to be the second-most-climbed mountain in the world, to Mount Washington up north, the highest U.S. peak east of the Mississippi River. An avid outdoorsman, Mr. Gregg has scaled Mount Washington many times.

That private passion has carried over into the political arena, where he’s used his influence to help protect the state’s natural resources. “I personally got 300,000 acres into quasi-public ownership,” he said.

Friends and colleagues describe Sen. Gregg as, in many respects, a New Hampshire prototype. He’s reserved and stoic, and known to be far more of a workhorse than a show horse. He often wears, especially on Capitol Hill, a serious, even stern expression, a characteristic mien that spurred Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to (in fun) nickname him “the Curmudgeon.”

Mr. Gregg shuns elevators in favor of stairs whenever possible, and generally expects the same of his aides when they accompany him.

But those familiar with the senator only from committee hearings or by catching him on C-SPAN may miss one dimension of his personality: a dry New England wit.

That side of him surfaced publicly several years ago after he heard an episode of the National Public Radio program “Car Talk.” The show’s hosts, two Cambridge, Mass., auto mechanics who dispense repair advice and levity in roughly equal measure, took some playful shots at neighboring New Hampshire. Striking a pose of indignation, Mr. Gregg wrote the hosts to defend his state’s reputation.

“New Hampshire ... as most people from the former socialist commune to our south know, is the lowest-taxed state in the country (no income or sales tax), with the best health care, highest SAT scores, and most livable environment in the nation (all ratings achieved from independent, NPR-recognized sources),” he wrote. “In addition, we have more cars per capita than any other state in the country, which means any mechanic with half a mind would be living and working in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts.”

A Political Family

The wealthy Gregg family is an institution in New Hampshire politics. Sen. Gregg’s father, Hugh, in fact was governor half a century ago. The younger Mr. Gregg—who is next up for re- election in 2004—remains undefeated in nine political campaigns, and these days his Senate seat is considered among the safest in the country.

Sen. Gregg is personally close to President Bush, and a staunch political ally who worked hard in support of Mr. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. In fact, Mr. Gregg served as a stand-in for Vice President Al Gore in practice debates with the GOP nominee. That insider relationship has led to recent rumors that he might be asked to serve in the Cabinet, or become a federal judge, even a Supreme Court justice. Mr. Gregg, however, said he plans to remain in the Senate.

Despite his allegiance to President Bush, the two do part company on some issues, though not always in the same political direction. Mr. Gregg rarely disagrees with the president publicly, but last month he openly criticized a White House plan to relax air-quality requirements on power plants whose pollution often ends up in New Hampshire and other parts of the Northeast.

On the other hand, Mr. Gregg’s education politics by most accounts are somewhat to the political right of the president’s, tending toward a firmer emphasis on local control than on the aggressive federal mandates at the heart of Mr. Bush’s calls for accountability. Asked if there are aspects of education policy where he and Mr. Bush disagree, the senator replied, “Many, and I wouldn’t discuss them publicly.”

Many Democrats who regularly deal with Sen. Gregg say they respect him, even if they often part ways with him politically.

“He’s a thoughtful fellow, and he’s also somebody that, when you discuss the issues, he knows the issues,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who has served with Mr. Gregg on the education committee.

Sen. Kennedy—who will remain the panel’s senior Democrat—is confident that he’ll continue in a productive working relationship with Sen. Gregg, said Mr. Kennedy’s spokesman, Jim Manley.

“They spent many hours behind closed doors” negotiating the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Manley said. “They both walked away with an appreciation that they could work together.”

The two senators last May unfurled a bipartisan bill on early-childhood education, and they’ve been working closely together on the upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the cornerstone of federal policy on special education.

That said, when President Clinton was in office, Mr. Gregg at times wasn’t in the mood for bipartisanship. In March 2000, when the education committee first tried to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Mr. Gregg led GOP members in voting against their Republican chairman—Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate who has since become an Independent—on a couple of key provisions.

Mr. Jeffords voted “present” on those amendments, and reluctantly agreed to back a highly partisan bill on a 10-8 committee vote. It later died on the Senate floor, and it took almost another two years for a much different ESEA to become law as the No Child Left Behind Act. Actions like the one in 2000 later led Mr. Jeffords to lament that he had been chairman of the committee in name only.

Last month, Mr. Gregg found himself having to defend the No Child Left Behind Act back home. The New Hampshire School Administrators Association issued a report calling it an unfunded, or at least underfunded, mandate.

“The money is here, ... and there’s been a dramatic increase,” Sen. Gregg replied during a morning call-in show on New Hampshire Public Radio. “Some members of the education community are using the old saw of dollars to avoid responsibility.”

Sen. Gregg said during an interview with Education Week in his Concord, N.H., office that while the 1-year-old federal law isn’t everything he wanted, it makes “major strides in the right direction.”

“I don’t think there’s any question that those of us who have come from [the perspective of] giving the local community lots of flexibility and choice ... didn’t get a clean win with No Child Left Behind,” he said. But compromise was necessary to have a bipartisan product, Mr. Gregg explained.

‘Cash Cow’ for N.H.?

The education committee’s first order of business on schools this coming year will be the renewal of the IDEA.

“We’re very close to an agreement,” Sen. Gregg said. “I think we need to significantly reduce the bureaucracy and the litigiousness of the law, address the discipline issue, and figure out a way to fund it.”

Ratcheting up the federal share of special education funding has long been a big issue for the senator.

“I would not be as ardent an advocate today had not Sen. Gregg introduced me to the issue in 1996,” said Republican Rep. Charles Bass, who occupies the House seat Mr. Gregg vacated in 1988 to become governor. “I remember him bringing this up in a meeting in Amherst, [N.H.]. ... Every head in that room started to nod up and down.” He added, “This was the mother of all unfunded mandates.”

The issue is especially powerful in New Hampshire because of the hands-on role many local communities play in school budgets, and because education funding is driven by property taxes.

“Voters see much more clearly what the cost of special education is,” Mr. Bass said.

Sen. Gregg claims a good deal of credit for prodding his party to fight for, and secure, large increases for special education the past several years. That said, he opposes a plan Rep. Bass and many Democrats endorse that would radically change how the program is financed. It would shift the funding from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the federal budget and lock in big increases for years to come.

Mr. Gregg, despite his reputation for fiscal conservatism, is not shy about steering money to New Hampshire. He’s adept at a favorite pastime in Congress: “earmarking” money for projects back home outside the normal authorization process. Critics deride the practice as pork- barrel spending.

New Hampshire’s universities, in particular, have benefited greatly from the largess.

Some critics suggest there is a little hypocrisy in Mr. Gregg’s skill at snagging federal dollars.

“He’s a cash cow,” said Arnie Arnesen, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for New Hampshire governor in 1992 and the House in 1996, who now hosts political programs on radio and TV. “That’s the irony. This is the part that drives me nuts. His claim to fame is, ‘Look what I brought you.’”

Some critics also question Mr. Gregg’s dedication to public education. He and his wife, Kathy, sent their three children to private schools, and he himself attended high school at one of the country’s most celebrated prep schools, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. They also point to his staunch support of school vouchers, among other positions.

Mr. Gregg has had some personal experience with public education, however. He attended public schools in Nashua for the elementary and middle grades, and his wife taught at a public school in Hudson, N.H., when they were first married.

The senator said he’s committed to preserving and enhancing public schools, which he called “the key to our democracy.” In fact, he suggested that some observers have overplayed the problems with public schools. He views the more fundamental problem to be “the breakdown of the family unit,” especially in urban areas.

Mr. Gregg said his wife’s experience helped him appreciate how hard teachers work. But his attitude toward teachers doesn’t extend to their unions, which he has long criticized as advocating what he calls a “stratified, inflexible view of education.”

Dennis Murphy, the executive director of the New Hampshire NEA, said his group—an affiliate of the National Education Association—doesn’t talk to Mr. Gregg, and has routinely opposed him in political campaigns.

“When it comes to conservative Republicans, teachers’ unions are the groups they love to hate, and I think Judd Gregg falls into that category,” he said.

It’s nothing personal, though, Mr. Murphy added.

“On public policy, we are just miles apart,” he said. But when Mr. Murphy is walking down the streets of New Hampshire, a state with only 1.3 million or so people, it’s different.

“I look forward to the times that I bump into him,” he said. “He is a person that you wouldn’t mind living next door to.”

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