Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision not to reappoint the wife of a local state senator to the Community College System of New Hampshire Board of Trustees this week has some prominent Democrats wondering if politics were at play.
During the N.H. Executive Council’s meeting Wednesday, the Republican governor appointed Todd Emmons of New London to replace Cheryl Kahn of Keene, who will finish her first four-year term on the board at the end of June.
Kahn, who is married to N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat, said the governor’s office told the board the the governor was looking for “a fresh perspective.” She was originally appointed in 2016 by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is now in the U.S. Senate.
“I’m just really disappointed,” Kahn told The Sentinel. “I really enjoyed being on the board, and they enjoyed having me, from what they say.”
Kahn was a business teacher at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School from 1990 until her retirement in 2011 and has also worked part-time for the state branch of the National Education Association, a teachers union, according to her résumé on file with CCSNH.
The 24-member CCSNH board sets strategic goals and oversees policy for the seven community colleges in the system. Kahn said she was one of five members whose terms are expiring this year.
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, whose district includes Keene, asked Sununu during Wednesday’s meeting to elaborate on the board’s new direction and why it justified not bringing Kahn back. Volinsky is one of two Democrats vying to challenge Sununu in this year’s gubernatorial election.
“She happens to be from Cheshire County, she is married to Sen. Jay Kahn, and I just want to make sure that Cheshire, which is in my district, is well represented and that there’s no politics behind it,” Volinsky said during the meeting, a recording of which is posted on the Executive Council’s website. “I’m just wondering if anyone knows why Cheryl Kahn is not being reappointed.”
Sununu denied there was a political motivation behind the decision to appoint someone else, saying he had “zero idea” she is married to Sen. Kahn until Volinsky brought it up.
The governor said it’s important to give those who want to serve on the board a chance to do so and to bring in new people with new ideas.
“Sometimes there’s just opportunities that the state might be looking for, or the board might be looking for, or the systems themselves might be looking for, given new dynamics, new challenges that they might have ahead of them,” Sununu said during the meeting. “Sometimes you want to change the makeup of a board given what some of the bigger challenges within the next year or five years or whatever might be.”
He said there was no specific reason why Kahn wasn’t reappointed.
Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, echoed Volinsky’s sentiment and said the CCSNH board was losing a valuable member. Pignatelli’s district includes the local communities of Antrim, Bennington, Fitzwilliam, Greenfield, Jaffrey, Peterborough, Richmond, Rindge, Swanzey and Troy.
“I just hope this isn’t a political move because she happens to be married to a state senator of a different party than you are, Governor,” Pignatelli said.
Volinsky asked that the nomination be tabled, but the motion failed — only he and Pignatelli supported it —and the other three councilors, two Republicans and a Democrat, voted it down. The nomination of Emmons then passed unanimously, after Volinsky and Pignatelli explained they have no issue with him but rather concern about why Kahn wasn’t reappointed.
In an interview Thursday, Sen. Kahn said his wife has been “a very active, contributing trustee.” He said he’s disappointed she hadn’t been renominated and feels the decision was made due to their relationship, not the value she brought to the board.
“My feeling is that it was political,” Cheryl Kahn said.
In a statement Thursday, Benjamin Vihstadt, a spokesman for the governor’s office, called the idea that the decision was politically motivated “unequivocally false.”
“The governor has the prerogative to bring in new individuals to serve on boards and commissions that help bring a fresh perspective,” Vihstadt said. “The governor has appointed hundreds of new individuals for other boards and commissions over the years — including the CCSNH board.”
Emmons has an extensive history working in higher education. He held administrative jobs at various colleges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts between 1985 and 2016, according to a copy of his résumé provided by the governor’s office. Currently, he serves as the chief financial officer for the Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield.
This article has been changed to correct Cheryl Kahn's teaching position, and that it was the governor's office that was looking for "a fresh perspective."