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Is Paid Family Leave a Flashpoint in the N.H. Governor's Race?

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

  We are a week into the general election and if one policy issue can be said to be at the center of the governor’s race, it may be paid family leave. Paid family leave has been a subject of longstanding debate in Concord, but until this year and this election – it’s never been what anyone would consider a political flashpoint. NHPR's Josh Rogers joined All Things Considered host Peter Biello to discuss why the matchup between Molly Kelly and Chris Sununu may make it one.  


So Josh, if anyone has followed this campaign -- the last few weeks of the primary and the first flush of the general – it’s pretty clear paid family leave has been a focus for Molly Kelly’s campaign.

It certainly has. It’s a focus of Kelly and anyone working to help her get elected. And if you spend any time around her campaign you quickly get a taste of why she and her staffers think so. Let’s take a listen. First, we’ll hear Senator Jeanne Shaheen and then Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who leads the Democratic Governor’s association.


“She’s not going to be a governor who says, “Well, I'm not going to support paid family leave because when people have children it’s a vacation," right? Every mom in this room knows having a baby is not a vacation.”


“And you could not design a better candidate than Molly Kelly, a woman who raised a family as a single mother, who’s gone on to a leadership position, to lead helping families through family leave, and wants to defeat a guy who thinks family leave is a vacation.”

That was Jay Inslee and Jeanne Shaheen, obviously calling attention to a comment Governor Sununu made about participants treating paid family leave like a vacation.

Yes, and Democrats do bring that comment up a great deal. They see it as showing the governor as being insensitive to, or out of touch with, the pressures many working families feel. That’s one aspect of this. The issue also ties in well with the single-mom aspect of Kelly’s bio that her campaign is stressing. Another, and you can hear it in Jeanne Shaheen’s comments invoking childbirth, is the view that this issue will attract support from female voters.  Paid family leave is a policy polling shows is popular overall, but perhaps particularly among women. Democrats tend to prosper when they can mobilize women. So that’s there, too.

But Governor Sununu says he supports family leave, at least conceptually.

Yes, and that gets to another part of why the Kelly campaign is pushing this. Sununu signaled support for family leave as a candidate back in 2016. As lawmakers debated the bill it was believed he would support it. The fact that it never happened is another way to take aim at Sununu’s mixed record working with lawmakers. As for this bill, it’s important to remember the plan started out as a mandatory one – meaning it would apply to all workers, or pretty much all workers, they would be getting paid leave. The four states that have paid leave  -- California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York – structure it that way. But as the bill was debated in Concord, it shifted to a voluntary program, which was probably politically necessary for the bill to win majority support in a GOP controlled legislature. And that bill cleared the House. When it got to the Senate, it failed, the governor said he had concerns over its solvency. And he was backed up in this by state actuaries from the Insurance Department and economists from the Department of Employment Security. But backers of this bill felt a bit betrayed.

Today’s Concord Monitor has an op-ed from former Insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny saying Sununu made the right call by opposing the bill.  

Yes – that's what the op-ed argues, that the bill that wasn’t being considered didn’t pass actuarial muster. But it goes a bit beyond the technical details. It describes Governor Sununu as supportive for paid family leaver from Day No. 1, and insists there is no doubt that Sununu is “passionate” about the idea of family leave. So, if the first week of this campaign is any indication Sununu will get ample opportunity to display that passion should it exist. The governor has never spelled out any specific plan on the issue.

Now where precisely is Molly Kelly on this?

Well, it’s interesting you say precise, because this is one of the relatively few policy issues on which Kelly has actually been precise. She says she favors the bill lawmakers rejected. During the Democratic primary, Steve Marchand called for a mandatory, all workers get included-style proposal. Kelly, as recently as two weeks ago, was saying she favored a plan that workers could choose to opt-out.

Kelly: “The fact that it is an opt out does give workers choices and I think when you have language that people have been working on to have something in front of you that’s ready to go, that’s what I would prefer. I don’t need to take responsibility for writing the piece of legislation, what I want is to be able to see that it gets through.”

So should voters expect that some version of paid leave is inevitable regardless who becomes the state’s next governor?

A lot will depend on the legislature, but the fact that this issue has been in gestation for some time would probably make it easier to achieve, should whomever wins in November really pushes for it.


Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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