9 Facts You Should Know About Maggie Hassan
Maggie Hassan is the newest member of New Hampshire’s all-female (and all-Democratic) congressional delegation. The junior senator previously served as governor of the Granite State before entering national politics. Read on for nine facts you should know about Maggie Hassan.
1. HER FATHER WORKED FOR JFK AND LBJ.
Maggie Hassan was born Margaret Wood in 1958. She grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., with excursions to her mother’s family’s summer home in Rhode Island. Her mother, Margaret Byers Wood, was a teacher, while her father, Robert Coldwell Wood, was a political science professor at MIT when Hassan was born, and their family lived in the wealthy Boston suburb of Lincoln.
While running for the presidency in 1960, John F. Kennedy reached out to Robert Wood for guidance on urban issues, and Wood wrote him a campaign speech about the needs of the American city. In 1966, Wood took the position of Under Secretary of the then-new Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Lyndon Johnson, and moved his family to D.C. Hassan and her two siblings, Frank and Franny, attended elementary school in D.C. and then moved back to Lincoln with their parents in 1969 after Robert Wood finished his tenure at HUD and returned to academic work in Boston. He soon became the president of the University of Massachusetts.
A friend of Hassan’s from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School told New Hampshire Public Radio that the family was a bit intimidating: “I mean there were signed pictures of JFK in the study, and they would sit at the dinner table and have conversations about current events.” The Wood siblings remember those conversations well. “There were a lot of interesting people in my house while I was growing up,” Hassan’s brother, Frank, remarked in an interview. “Mostly, I remember listening to all these people, but we were also encouraged to talk and, whether we knew it or not, develop our speaking skills.” Hassan agreed, telling the New Hampshire Union Leader, “My father used to actually go around the table person by person and ask them what they thought, so everybody from family members to our guests were expected to either think out loud or have an opinion, and we did.”
This encouragement to practice their speaking skills served the Wood children well: Hassan entered politics, while Frank became a Broadway actor.
2. A FAMOUS BOARDING SCHOOL BROUGHT HER AND HER HUSBAND TO NEW HAMPSHIRE.
Hassan went on to Brown University, where she met her future husband, Thomas Hassan. He was the son of a butcher [PDF] and a secretary who had attended Brown as an undergraduate and was working at the school at the time he met Maggie. Tom wanted to become a teacher, and he went on to complete his master’s and doctorate in education at Harvard.
The two married in 1983, and while Tom was pursuing his PhD they lived in a freshman dorm at Harvard, where he served as assistant dean of freshmen. Meanwhile, Maggie went to law school nearby at Northeastern University. She graduated in 1985 and started her career as a lawyer in Boston. In 1989, Tom landed a job teaching at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was excited by the opportunity, falling in love with the school when he went to visit, so the couple moved to New Hampshire, where Maggie would launch her political career. Tom later became the principal of Phillips Exeter, and the couple lived on campus for years with their children, Meg and Ben, who both attended the school.
3. HER EXPERIENCE ADVOCATING FOR A SON WITH DISABILITIES LED HER TO POLITICS.
Soon after their first child, Ben, was born, the Hassans learned he had cerebral palsy. Though his mind functions at a high level, Ben cannot speak, walk, or use his hands, and Hassan quickly realized that she and Tom would need to become strong advocates for their son to ensure he received the same opportunities as other children. “Twenty or thirty years earlier we would’ve been pressured to put him in an institution,” Hassan noted in a campaign ad. Ben’s parents wanted him to have access to a mainstream education, so they sent him to public school, beginning with preschool at age 3. When the bus came to pick Ben up on the first day of preschool and Hassan wheeled him onto the wheelchair lift and watched him leave with the other children, she reflected on the work others had done in the past, telling Roll Call, “That really got me focused on the work that other families and advocates and elected leaders had done so that, on that day, my son wasn’t in an institution. He was going to school and he was having a chance to learn and make friends.”
But there was still a lot of work to be done. Hassan had to fight to get Ben’s elementary school to adjust to his needs, and in doing so, she became more and more involved in disability-rights activism, all while working as a lawyer and raising Ben and his younger sister, Meg. “I ended up advocating a lot locally, and then at the State House,” she told NH1. Her activism caught the eye of Jeanne Shaheen, then the governor of New Hampshire, who appointed Hassan to a state commission on education in 1999. In 2002, state Democrats encouraged Hassan to run for the New Hampshire Senate, but she worried about juggling a campaign with her law practice and family responsibilities. Tom recalled to NH1, “[S]he came up with all the reasons why it would be really hard and I said to her, ‘You’d be great at it.’” So she ran. And lost.
But in 2004 Hassan ran again, against the same Republican incumbent who had beat her two years prior, and this time she won. Hassan would serve three consecutive terms in the state Senate, becoming assistant Democratic whip, president pro tempore, and finally majority leader over the course of six years.
“I don't think I would have run for office if I hadn’t been Ben's mother,” Hassan told NH1. She also told Refinery 29, “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.”
4. SHE PASSED LAWS TO KEEP KIDS IN SCHOOL LONGER.
During her time as a state senator, Hassan also helped pass legislation mandating universal public kindergarten across the state. From 1988 until the bill took effect in 2009, New Hampshire was the only state without universal kindergarten. But the state constitution requires New Hampshire to provide an “adequate education” for its children, so in 2007, the legislature passed a bill defining an “adequate education” as including kindergarten, thus requiring all school districts to offer at least half-day kindergarten.
During the same legislative session, Hassan sponsored legislation raising the legal age at which children can drop out of school. New Hampshire had originally set the age limit at 16 in 1903, and over a century later, Hassan and others pushed that limit to 18, hoping a change in the law would lower drop-out rates. The law seems to have been successful: The state drop-out rate has declined by over 50% since it was passed, leaving New Hampshire with one of the lowest drop-out rates in the nation [PDF].
5. SHE HELPED LEGALIZE SAME-SEX MARRIAGE.
In 2008, Hassan was appointed Senate majority leader by the president of the New Hampshire Senate, Democrat Sylvia Larsen. Larsen told the Boston Globe that she chose Hassan over other, more senior politicians because “She was a powerhouse” who could drive the other Democrats into line while Larsen worked across the aisle.
Hassan’s forceful leadership was perhaps most obvious in 2009, when she became determined to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire—and had to convince other Democrats, who were worried voters weren’t comfortable with the idea. In 2009, Democrats controlled both houses of the New Hampshire legislature as well as the governor’s office, and Hassan wanted to take advantage of that opportunity. Over the course of six months, she presented to the legislature three different versions of a bill recognizing same-sex marriage, tweaking the language as she went along to earn more supporters. Another Democrat who originally opposed the bill later told New Hampshire Public Radio, “Maggie was very constructive in getting us to a place where the language of the bill was refined, and making sure that other Senators were comfortable with the language.” Hassan negotiated successfully, but did so quietly. She did not publicize her stance on the bill at the time, telling The New York Times in April 2009 that Senate Democrats “like to talk to each other and hear each others’ thoughts out as well, and we try to do that privately.”
The third version of the bill recognizing same-sex marriage narrowly passed both houses of the New Hampshire legislature, and on June 3, 2009, Governor John Lynch signed it into law. Though Hassan didn’t take credit at the time, others later revealed that she was the driving force behind the bill. Larsen told The Atlantic that while some senators thought the bill was ahead of public opinion, Hassan convinced them that “the time was right and we should do it because it’s the right thing.”
6. SHE HELPED PASS CONNOR’S LAW.
In 2010, Hassan used her position as chair of the state Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Labor and Consumer Protection to pass legislation requiring insurance companies to expand coverage of autism therapies. The bill, known as Connor’s Law, mandates coverage of medically necessary treatment programs, such as applied behavioral analysis, speech therapy, and physical and occupational therapy.
7. SHE WAS JUST ONE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE’S HISTORY-MAKING WOMEN IN 2012.
After six years in the state Senate, Hassan was ousted in autumn 2010 by the same man she’d originally won her seat from—Republican Russell Prescott. Republican support surged across the country that year, and New Hampshire was no different, with the GOP gaining control of the state Senate. But in 2011, when Democratic governor John Lynch announced he would not be seeking reelection, Hassan saw an opportunity and threw her hat into the ring. She won the 2012 gubernatorial election by over 80,000 votes, carrying all of New Hampshire’s 10 counties.
And the 2012 election was historic for New Hampshire: Two female Democratic candidates ousted the state’s incumbent GOP Congressmen, joining Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte to make up the first-ever all-female congressional delegation from any state. With four women in Congress and Hassan elected the second female governor, New Hampshire entered an unprecedented era of female leadership.
8. SHE BANNED DISCRIMINATION AGAINST TRANS PEOPLE.
Hassan used her power as governor to issue an executive order in June 2016 banning discrimination in state government against transgender people. Expanding New Hampshire’s existing non-discrimination regulations, the order prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and expression in government hiring, in the administration of state programs, and by private contractors employed by the state.
9. HER NAME CAUSES CONFUSION.
Hassan’s spokesman explained that her surname is pronounced “HASS-in, sounds like fasten.” But because it’s spelled the same as a common Arabic name pronounced Huh-SAHN, Maggie Hassan frequently has her last name mispronounced—including during her swearing in for her second term as governor and when she was mentioned in a prompt on Jeopardy. During her Senate campaign, she even faced a raft of negative campaign mailers from a group called One Nation, ads which the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations claimed exploited her “Arab and Muslim-sounding name” by connecting her to the threat of “Radical Islamic terrorists.” The group who sent out the fliers said that they were not insinuating Hassan was Muslim but simply highlighting her support for the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, and that they sent out the fliers about other Democratic candidates as well.
But that wasn’t the first time the Hassans encountered suspicion about their name. Far-right internet commenters charged that Tom Hassan had allowed “radical Islamists” to speak at Phillips Exeter and speculated that he was secretly Muslim himself. (He’s not.)
To clear up any confusion: Hassan is an Irish surname. It’s the Anglicized version of the Gaelic Ó hOsáin, which means “descendant of Osán.” The name Osán is itself a diminutive of the Gaelic word os, meaning “deer.”