Former N.H. house speaker named Rockefeller Center distinguished visitor

by Estephanie Aquino | 9/29/15 6:55pm

Former New Hampshire House of Representatives speaker Terie Norelli (Dem.) has been praised for her collaborative spirit and gregarious nature by her colleagues in the legislature and for serving as symbol of female empowerment in politics. The Rockefeller Center has named her this year’s Perkins Bass Distinguished Visitor for her long and fruitful career.

Under Norelli’s leadership New Hampshire passed the legalization of same-sex marriage and health care reform policy.

She said that the health care reform policy was one her greatest accomplishments because it would have a direct impact on the lives on countless individuals.

“Most people don’t know this, but lack of health insurance tends to be one of the leading causes of bankruptcy,” Norelli said. “There are so many people whose health and economic well-being is compromised because they don’t have access to affordable health care, and giving this to people who have not had access to health care can make a big difference to the life of the community.”

Rockefeller Center director Andrew Samwick said that status as the Perkin’s Bass Distinguished Visitor is offered to an individual that has had an influential role in New Hampshire state policy.

“New Hampshire’s politics are often contentious and you have to build consensus in order to accomplish things, and she was good at doing that,” Samwick said.

New Hampshire representative for the ninth district Sharon Nordgren (Dem.) said she has known Norelli since 1996 when Norelli began to serve in the New Hampshire house.

Apart from knowing Norelli professionally, Nordgren said that she has spent a lot of time forming a personal relationship with the former speaker.

“We have spent a lot of time outside of the office, we have done many lunches together,” Nordgren said. “She has a very gregarious personality, which has been beneficial given her role in the house.”

Nordgren added that she believes Norelli’s past experience as a teacher has encouraged cooperation in the house.

“Despite many differences in policy that Republicans and Democrats have, [Norelli] has been able to have them work together,” Nordgren said. “I think it’s still the teacher inside of her that does has this collaborative spirit.”

Norelli began her political career in 1996, after serving as a high school math teacher and women’s rights activist. She received a degree in mathematics from the University of New Hampshire.

“I entered college as an ‘untraditional’ student. I was older than most of the students and had a daughter,” Norelli said.

Norelli said she taught for 10 years and credits her success in politics to the support of her family and the geography of New Hampshire.

“I don’t know of anyone who would be able to do this job without a supportive family, it takes a lot of time,” said Norelli.

Norelli’s interest in politics was sparked by a personal connection to women’s rights and sexual assault.

Norelli, who currently serves as the chief executive officer and president of the New Hampshire Women Foundation, said that she had always been interested in economics, civil rights advocacy and women’s issues, but her involvement in women rights activism increased when a close friend experienced sexual assault.

“As an adult, I have always been a strong advocate for women,” she said. “An office colleague was sexually assaulted, and unfortunately I had a front row seat to see the devastation that had on her life.”

Norelli said that after that incident she became involved at a rape crisis center in Charleston, South Carolina, and later served as chair of a New Hampshire Women’s Help Center.

Norelli’s local activism involvement caught the attention of House representatives, and she was recruited to run as a representative in 1996.

In 2006 Norelli was the minority leader in the New Hampshire House. That year, however, she became the first Democrat to assume the role of house speaker in 84 years, and in the process became the first Democratic woman to lead the House. Though she would lose that role in 2010 when Republicans took control, she would regain it again in 2012. That first year in charge, Norelli said she experienced several challenges, particularly around her gender along with her position.

“There were some personal challenges — while I wasn’t the first women speaker in New Hampshire, I was still only the second, so I had a sense of responsibility that I felt was higher than an ordinary speaker,” Norelli said. “ I felt that people were not only going to look at me as Terie Norelli house speaker. But they would look to me as a representation of woman in politics and to see how a well a Democrat could run things.”

Norelli added that she focused on solving these challenges by emphasizing cooperation and mentorship in the house.

“I was fortunate enough to be a part of a strong freshman class in the house that encouraged the distribution of leadership through mentoring, so I tried to do the same thing,” Norelli said.

Norelli added that she also worked to create transparency in politics by keeping the public informed and accountable for the government’s actions.

While Norelli has retired from her legistlative and educational positions, she continues to maintain a passion for teaching and an influence on students. Her desire to advocate for the practice of collaboration and learning in government has persisted throughout the years.

“I want to advise students to learn to listen,” she said. “Listen to those you don’t agree with, we aren’t the only ones with ideas.”

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