New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch died from COVID-19, a medical examiner ruled Thursday following his unexpected death.
Hinch, who was only sworn in as leader of the state's newly Republican-led Legislature a week ago, died Wednesday. Hinch was 71 and was starting his seventh, two-year term in the state House. He previously served as majority leader for the 2016-17 session and as minority leader when Democrats were in control the last two years.
His death was announced Wednesday night by his office, which did not give any details of what it called "this unexpected tragedy." Hinch is the first New Hampshire speaker to die during the session, according to House Clerk Paul Smith.
"We are sitting in unchartered territory here," Smith said.
The swearing-in of the 400-member House and 24-member Senate was held outdoors at the University of New Hampshire because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than a quarter of House members, most of them Democrats, skipped the ceremony after learning the day before that several Republican lawmakers had tested positive for the virus after attending an indoor GOP caucus meeting on November 20 where many attendees weren't wearing masks.
On Thursday, Acting Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Chuck Morse issued a joint statement following the news that Hinch had died of COVID-19. They said they were "committed to protecting the health and safety of our fellow legislators and staff members who work at the statehouse in Concord."
They said they will now be consulting with the state Department of Health and Human Services and the General Court's Administrative Office regarding any additional steps needed beyond the current contact tracing and COVD-19 protocols in place "to ensure the continued protection of our legislators and staff."
Packard, who represents Londonderry is serving his 15th term in the House, will remain the acting speaker until the full House membership meets on January 6.
Republican Governor Chris Sununu ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff and said he was profoundly sad to learn of Hinch's death.
"Speaker Hinch was a fierce defender of the New Hampshire Advantage, a close friend, and a respected public servant," Sununu said in a statement. "His loss will be greatly felt by the people of this state, and I ask Granite Staters to join me in praying for his family during this incredibly difficult time."
Republicans won majorities in both chambers in November. Senate President Chuck Morse, a Republican from Salem, said he had been looking forward to serving with a colleague he considered a best friend.
Democrats, including U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, also expressed sadness over Hinch's death.
"I had the opportunity to work with him closely when I was Governor, including working together to enact a landmark settlement to improve mental health services and to increase funding for combating substance misuse," Hassan said in a statement. "Serving in our legislature — and especially in leadership positions as Speaker Hinch did — requires tremendous effort, all in essentially a volunteer capacity. Speaker Hinch was deeply committed to this service, and I am grateful for all he gave to our state and our country."
A U.S. Navy veteran, Hinch also was active in his community, serving stints on the Merrimack Board of Selectman and town budget committee. He also was the owner and principal broker of a real estate agency.
In an emotional speech when he was elected speaker on December 2, Hinch urged lawmakers to view each other as "friends and colleagues," rather than members of opposing parties, particularly during a pandemic.
"I've been working with members of our caucus in good times and in bad for a number of terms. Long nights, stressful days, but charging ahead for what we believed was the proper course," he said. "Through that time, I've worked to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table."