New Hampshire’s governorship is considered relatively weak, structurally. The state’s Constitution set up a very large legislature, which is responsible for approving the state budget, and created a council that must approve executive appointments and major spending.
But we’ve seen in the past two years that the state’s chief executive can wield a great deal of power, even faced with legislative and Executive Council majorities from the opposing party. In many cases, that’s proven a frustration, as Gov. Chris Sununu has used his veto power with great abandon to stifle the will of the Democratic-led Legislature. But there are also circumstances under which having a strong leader can be a great asset — in a crisis such as a pandemic, for example.
Sununu is in a battle for re-election against the state Senate’s majority leader, Dan Feltes. Feltes has been a very effective lawmaker, who’s advanced a progressive agenda. He’s fought for paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, forming an independent redistricting committee and untying keno from kindergarten funding. His efforts played a big role in repealing the state’s death penalty a year ago. He’s put forth policy plans focusing on clean energy, election/government reform, worker’s rights and racial justice — all of which deserve consideration from voters and lawmakers alike.
Based on all that, we think Feltes could make a fine governor, though that’s hard to infer only by listening to him campaign. When we spoke with him, his main message boiled down to two arguments: 1) Chris Sununu is bad; and 2) I’m not Chris Sununu. Given repeated prompts to discuss his vision for the state, he chose to highlight instead, that Sununu is “a Trump guy through and through.”
Yes, that is a concern. So is Sununu’s excessive use of the veto, and his changing stances on why he’s repeatedly vetoed similar bills or why he vowed not to suppress the vote of college students, before doing precisely that.
In short, we’ve disagreed with a lot of Sununu’s policies and moves during his time in office.
However, these are not ordinary times. A global pandemic has threatened, and still threatens, our collective health, our economy and our sanity. During such times, leaders either wither or they step up, and Sununu has, mainly, done the latter.
In doing so, he’s kept the effects of the coronavirus to a minimum in the Granite State. The “Trump guy through and through” has been everything the president has not: He’s listened to the scientists and health experts, never publicly questioning their knowledge or advice. He acted quickly to shut down sectors of business that posed the greatest chance of rapidly spreading the virus, and was careful in reopening them. He put resources into contact tracing, something Trump won’t even commit to among his own staff.
Sununu worked with the state’s Democratic congressional delegation on getting PPE and stimulus funds. He quickly distributed CARES Act funds to businesses, health care providers and others (and yes, his “power grab” of those funds, bypassing legislative and Executive Council oversight, and some of the choices of where to send the aid have raised eyebrows, but the bulk of the aid has gotten where it needed to go in a timely manner). And he continues to be a realist about the pandemic and the prospects of the crisis ending any time soon.
This last part can’t be overstated. While we’re all hoping for an end to the pandemic soon, we just don’t know. Even when vaccines are available, the easily transmitted coronavirus might remain a deadly factor in our lives if people are too quick to resume “normal” interactions. Sununu understands this, telling us the state will have to see how people react even once a vaccine is widely available.
Sununu has also significantly distinguished himself from Trump on the other pressing issue that has predominated 2020: addressing racial injustice. Unlike Trump, who seems almost incapable of even saying the names of victims of systemic racism, and insists the only issue is to crack down on protesters, Sununu acted swiftly to condemn George Floyd’s killing and express support for lawful protesting. And he backed up those sentiments by forming a broad task force charged with making recommendations for improving law enforcement standards, training and transparency. He then put in place more than 20 of those recommendations via executive order, and backs the rest through legislative channels.
All that leads us, at this time, under these circumstances, to endorse Sununu for re-election. The challenges facing the Granite State, as elsewhere, aren’t going to disappear, even if the health concerns are lessened. He’s handled the crisis well so far, and we don’t see that changing leadership now would be in the best interest of New Hampshire. It is certainly a concern that Sununu, who has appointed two state Supreme Court justices and could soon attempt again to fill a third, would be in a position to nominate yet a fourth justice by the end of the next term. It is a concern that without a dramatic increase in Democratic lawmakers, he’ll again be in a position to undo any progress the Legislature tries to achieve. But these are normal considerations in a given election year, when we’d typically ask: Where would we like the state to go over the next two years? Right now, the answer is to get back on solid footing, and Sununu has demonstrated the ability to do that.