The Very Personal Mission Behind This Governor’s Rise To The Top

Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s current governor, is a shining example of how the political is personal. A lawyer, she began her public service career to fight for the rights of children like her son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. As the Democrat running for Senate this year, she wants to take that fight to the national level. In her tenure as governor, she has tried to remain true to that mission. As chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor, and Consumer Protection, Hassan pushed for Connor’s Law in 2010, requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for medically necessary autism therapies like ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis). Hassan was the driving force behind New Hampshire’s bill legalizing marriage equality. At the heart of her work is a desire to bring people in from the margins — through improving rights for people with disabilities, extending health coverage, championing for bipartisan budgets that exist without a sales or income tax, and lowering college tuition costs. Refinery29 spoke with Hassan about why she got into politics in the first place, why family comes first for her, and the long tradition of women leaders in New Hampshire politics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. What inspired you to run for office? Was it a specific problem, or an injustice you wanted to address?
"Pretty soon after my husband and I started our family and our oldest child Ben was born, we learned he had serious disabilities. We quickly realized that if Ben was going to have the opportunities that all parents want for their children, we were going to need some help. "Ben had the opportunity to go to school to learn and make friends, just like every other child. As I watched the bus driver lower a wheelchair lift, and Ben went off to school — I thought to myself that it was only possible because of those who came before us. Our family was able to thrive because of all the people who fought to bring people like Ben in from the margins. "That inspired me to advocate for others, and it was one of the reasons I ran for the state Senate and then for governor, and now for the United States Senate."
What was the conversation you had with yourself in the moment you decided to run for office?
"When I was deciding whether to run for state Senate [or not], I had a busy law practice and two kids. I had also gotten more and more involved in ad­voc­at­ing for children like Ben so they had the support they needed both in and outside of school. I was hearing concerns that the legislature wasn’t representing the interests of the people and businesses in our community. These were concerns I shared as a citizen and as a mom. The key for me was that I felt that I could make a difference on the challenges facing families and small businesses in my community. "But I also had concerns about what running would mean for my family. With 24 hours left to make my decision, I listed for my husband, Tom, all the reasons why we wouldn’t be able to make it work. And at the top of the list were my job and the kids, particularly Ben’s special needs. And Tom responded, 'You know, you’d be good at it, and we’ll make it work.' And while we, of course, have had challenges like any family has, we’ve always been able to make it work." More women than men turn up at the polls — what should every political candidate be doing to connect with women voters?
"In my time as governor, my focus has always been on expanding economic opportunity, and ensuring that all women and families have the opportunity to make their own choices and chart their own destiny. And that’s what I’d tell any leader — to focus on the issues that are affecting the ability of our families to get ahead and compete. That means ensuring safe and secure communities, equal pay for equal work, access to affordable higher education, and access to high-quality child care. "It’s also critical that all leaders understand that a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions is both a matter of freedom, and it’s also a matter of economics. When women have to pay more for their health care — things like paying out-of-pocket for contraception, or when they aren’t given the freedom to decide when to start a family — it creates a significant economic strain."

...A woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions is both a matter of freedom and a matter of economics.

Maggie Hassan, Governor of New Hampshire
Worst-case scenario: You lose this election. What would it take for you to run again?
"First, the decision would be about the challenges facing our families, and whether I could make a difference for people across the state. And then, it would be a discussion with my family. Whenever I’m making a decision like that, we get together and try to determine what’s best for our family. And we also try to figure out what kind of impact we can make as a family. While my son Ben can’t speak and he can’t walk, he is very mentally and cognitively able, and he certainly participates in decisions like that in our family." It always seems suspect when strong women say gender hasn't impacted them at all. Can you tell us about a moment when you encountered sexism?
"In New Hampshire, we have a strong tradition of women in leadership positions. In the State House, we have fourth graders visiting all the time from across the state on class trips. And sometimes I’ll meet a fourth grader who was unaware that a woman could be governor. But more often, I hear stories, like one from one of our state senators. He told me his young daughters saw that I had called him. One of his daughters asked him whether he planned to run for governor one day. He asked them what they thought, and his older daughter replied that he couldn’t run for governor because he wasn’t a girl. "We know that when there are more perspectives represented, when there are women at the table — and crucially, at the head of the table — we make better decisions. And while I’m proud of our strong tradition of women in leadership positions in our state, we still need to do more to encourage women to seek out leadership positions." As a woman, particularly one in the spotlight, how do you combat the pressure to be all-around perfect?
"The most important thing is making sure that women know that whether you’re studying, in the workforce, or have a family — you can always find a way to make it work. "And that means first, you need to have the confidence to believe that you’ll be able to find a way to make it work. Second, you need to surround yourself with people who will always support you no matter what." What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
"The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from my dad, who told me to never confuse luck with merit. It was his way of both encouraging hard work but cautioning against self-satisfaction." Worst piece of advice you've ever received?
"I’m sure that I’ve gotten some bad advice over the years, but I really try not to remember bad advice!" What advice do you wish someone had given you but never did?
"One of the best parts of my job as governor is getting to travel around the state and talking directly to people and businesses. And Granite Staters are never shy. They tell me about their concerns and priorities — and how they think we can best move forward as a state. So, whether it’s from my family or the families I meet in Dunkin' Donuts or Market Basket, people give me a lot of great advice." Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Hassan was the nation's only female Democratic governor. She was the only one until the 2014 election.

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