If elected governor, N.H. Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes knows he would inherit the state’s COVID-19 struggles, and he has a lot of ideas about how to approach the challenge.
From reopening guidance for schools to additional provisions for people who are struggling to pay their bills due to the pandemic-related economic downturn, Feltes says he would take New Hampshire’s coronavirus response in a new direction. He said he would support measures to help prevent people from losing their homes, along with aid funding more narrowly focused on small businesses. He also emphasized the importance of paid family and medical leave legislation.
During a Thursday meeting with The Sentinel’s editorial board, Feltes, a Democrat, also took aim at his opponent, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of Newfields, for leaving school-reopening plans largely up to individual school districts. Feltes has drafted his own plan for schools to reopen safely, which calls for free weekly testing, providing supplies for teachers and students, and increasing state education funding on top of assistance that comes from federal aid packages.
Also in contrast to Sununu, Feltes is in favor of a statewide mask mandate.
“It’s something that’s common sense,” he said. “We’re the only state in New England without a common-sense mask requirement.”
Feltes, a 41-year-old attorney who lives in Concord, will challenge Sununu for the state’s top executive position during the Nov. 3 general election. He became the Democratic party’s nominee after beating District 2 Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky during the primary election earlier this month.
Also on the general election ballot is Darryl W. Perry of Manchester, a Libertarian.
Feltes is in his third term as a state senator. Prior to getting involved in politics, he worked as a legal aid attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.
In Thursday’s editorial board interview, he criticized the way the state is spending the $1.25 billion in CARES Act money New Hampshire received from Washington. He again took aim at Sununu, saying he took “unilateral control” of the money by establishing the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery to dole out the funds instead of allowing the Legislature to do so. If elected, Feltes added, he would not permit the governor’s office to continue to dictate how the money is spent.
“The unbroken, bipartisan tradition of New Hampshire governors — Craig Benson, John Lynch — in a time of emergency, is to go to the fiscal committee, to work in conjunction with the fiscal committee to authorize expenditures,” he said. “That’s what I’m gonna do.”
But COVID-19 isn’t the only issue Feltes would face if he wins in November. Though somewhat overshadowed by the pandemic, opioid addiction continues to plague Granite State communities, and Feltes said the problem has only been exacerbated by the outbreak.
If elected, he said he would focus on ways to help those with substance-use issues in the recovery process. This would include replacing the Doorways program — a hub-and-spoke model created under Sununu to connect people to treatment — with a Doorways to Recovery program focused on respite care, in- and out-patient treatment and recovery housing.
Noting that addiction and mental health issues often go hand in hand, he called for increasing the resources available for mental health treatment.
But treatment for substance use and mental health disorders are just two facets of health care. One thing Feltes feels New Hampshire could do better is providing access to preventative care, which he said decreases long-term health-care costs.
Reproductive health care is also a large part of the equation, he said, noting that he would appoint a candidate who supports abortion rights to a vacant seat on the state Supreme Court.
Feltes said he supports a recent series of recommendations from a state commission on police accountability, which include enhanced training, using mental health professionals on tactical response teams and considering a requirement that officers be subjected to periodic psychological screenings. Sununu created the commission earlier this year in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police.
However, Feltes feels there’s much more to be done. He said legalizing marijuana could go a long way toward limiting instances of police violence, calling it an issue of both criminal and racial justice, and said he has adopted Volinksy’s plan for moving forward with legalization.
He also advocated for establishing an office of racial equity within the governor’s office, as was done in Vermont. He said the office works to pinpoint elements of state government practices or policies that disproportionately affect people of color.
“In addition to that,” he said, “the office would work to involve communities of color in key decision-making processes in the state and work to recruit folks to potentially fill vacancies in key posts in state government to make New Hampshire government look a lot more like the people that it serves.”