For the last four years, Chris Sununu and Colin Van Ostern have sat – literally – across the table from one another at executive council meetings.
So they’ve had plenty of time to get to know each other’s political style, personal habits and voting record. And now that they’re both vying for the same position as New Hampshire’s next governor, Van Ostern, in particular, seems more than ready to use his opponent’s voting record as a line of attack.
Take the issue of Medicaid expansion, for one. Van Ostern, a Democrat, accused Sununu, a Republican, of jeopardizing the expansion at the outset by voting against a key contract that launched the program back in 2014.
“If Chris had his way, in the vote that he cast, multiple times, 50,000 people today would not have healthcare coverage," Van Ostern said. "That contract would have failed, if three people, not two people, voted against it."
“What vote?” Sununu replied. “What vote?”
“It was in July, two years ago. It was in the Hanover Inn, when we had a governor and council meeting,” Van Ostern said. “And it was the last opportunity we had to ensure that the New Hampshire Health Protection Plan actually took place.”
Sununu, for his part, noted that he’s voted both for and against Medicaid-related contracts while on the council. And he turned that particular example back around on Van Ostern, accusing his opponent of blindly approving a multimillion dollar item that was presented to the council the day of the vote.
"I simply said, we need to read it first. And Councilor Van Ostern and Maggie Hassan said there’s no time, we need to pass it right now, and then we can go read it — exactly as Nancy Pelosi did,” Sununu said. “That is exactly not the New Hampshire way. I will never, never approve of a contract when I’m given a $292 million contract 15 minutes before the vote. The people didn’t have a chance to read it. I didn’t have a chance to read it."
“C’mon,” Sununu added. “It’s about checks and balances and process.”
Today, Sununu says he wouldn’t cut the program altogether as governor — but he wants to avoid spending state money to keep it going permanently and doesn’t want to incentivize people to stay on publicly funded healthcare coverage. Van Ostern, meanwhile, said continuing Medicaid expansion is one of his highest priorities, even if it means spending some state money along the way.
That was one clear point of contrast, but there were other areas where the candidates clearly differed.
Commuter rail, for one: Sununu calls it a “boondoggle,” while Van Ostern views it as a vital economic engine. Or the minimum wage: Sununu thinks New Hampshire should use the federal rate, Van Ostern thinks it should be higher. Or Northern Pass: Sununu says more of the power lines could be buried, but he still supports the project; Van Ostern doesn’t support the current plan and thinks more of the line should be buried for it to move forward.
Another area in which the two sparred directly over their votes on the council: energy. Van Ostern touted his strong support for solar and renewable energy, arguing that Sununu has been less supportive of such alternatives as an executive councilor.
“I think he’s probably voted against more solar and renewable projects than any politicians in state history,” Van Ostern said of Sununu. “I’d love for someone to compile a whole list.”
Here, Sununu said he was just trying to weigh each contract on its own merits.
“We can create programs and projects that we get a bigger bang for our buck: geothermal, hydro, good solar projects, wind projects. I’ve supported all of them – the ones that are good, smart and make sense for New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “Councilor Van Ostern’s right. He has been a rubber stamp and voted for every single project, without question, since the day he took over as the council. I bring discernment, judgment and frankly just good common sense to making sure we do it right.”
But it wasn’t just policy differences that served as a source of friction between the two councilors. At one point, the two candidates were asked whether – in all the time they’ve spent working together – they’ve picked up on any annoying habits in one another.
“To be honest, I think, often, Chris brings politics into the discussion in a way that doesn’t help… We just had a debate for an hour, and he blamed half a dozen different folks of the other party. I think the way we succeed in New Hampshire is finding ways to work together and checking politics at the door. And I think that is something that we can both strive for.”
“That response,” Sununu said, “is a pet peeve of mine.”
The two candidates will have plenty more chances to call out their opponents’ habits, at the executive council table and on the debate stage, between now and November.