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With Eyes On Election Day, Candidates Work To Leverage N.H. Police, Firefighter Support

Josh Rogers | NHPR

With primary results in the books, party nominees are now setting their sights on November. Candidates in races for New Hampshire governor and Congress are coming out of the gates by touting their support among unions representing firefighters and law enforcement.

NHPR’s Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered Host Peter Biello on Thursday, Sept. 10, to discuss the politics behind this year’s endorsement season.

(The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.)

Peter Biello: So, unions representing first responders – firefighters, and police – can get pretty political in any election cycle. Is there anything different about their support in this moment?

Josh Rogers: Well, it’s definitely the case that unions representing fire and police workers get engaged in most election cycles, and they can be potent allies. They are boots on the ground in their communities, and some of these unions are large. The firefighters, who endorsed Chris Sununu yesterday, they’ve got 2,000 members. And come get-out-the vote time, those numbers help.

There is also the fact that police and firefighters’ job is public safety: obviously a core concern for any politician. So, too, is the courting the middle class and, increasingly, these public safety unions are deployed as proxies for folks in the middle of the wage scale, though maybe with better pensions. And while some of these unions have partisan leanings, others bounce back and forth, so you can see them as swing voters. And culturally they do, at least in New Hampshire, tap into a part of the electorate that could be persuadable. So a lot potentially a play with unions.

Biello: But is it surprising that right out of the gates, these candidates were essentially wrapping themselves in fire and police union support? Is that how it struck you?

Rogers: Well, the endorsements did come fast. Gov. Chris Sununu, again, won the backing of the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire - a union, by the way, that is backing Democrats in many other races, from president to state congressional races. So touting this now is a way to play up his role as governor; it’s a way to introduce testimony, if you will, to his role leading the state during COVID-19. And it’s a way to undercut the case Democrats are trying to make against him, that he is too tight with President Trump, and that he is out of touch with average New Hampshire people. Here’s what Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire President Bill McQuillen had to say about Sununu just a few days ago:

McQuillen: “What we look for is an advocate for working families and what they want most in life: a good job, a healthy family and a safe community. We look for an honest broker with an eye and a passion for getting the job done. The true litmus test for an elected official or candidate for office is their priority list: a safer public and those entrusted to protect it. Governor Sununu has passed that litmus test and demonstrated his commitment to firefighter in this state.”

Biello: Now Dan Feltes was endorsed by the New Hampshire Troopers Association, representing state troopers, just two days after the Democratic gubernatorial primary. That same union endorsed Sununu in 2018.

Rogers: They did. They too bounce around a bit in terms of who they support, but tend to tilt Democrat in governors races. That’s one thing to bear in mind with these unions, is that they do like to back winners, because for them, there are budget and contract implications. And the troopers have had a rough go of it with the Sununu administration on a state contract. Right now, they are working without one. Sununu rejected a contract suggested by a third-party mediator. Here’s Troopers Association president Mark Beaudoin.

Beaudoin: “We were hit with a wall every step of the way with the governor’s team. So we’re here to endorse an individual that has always had an open door policy. We might not always agree. But the one thing we can agree is the open door policy is helpful, to be able to go in and have a conversation and have them listen to your point of view is important for our organization.”

Biello: That was Mark Beaudoin, of the New Hampshire Troopers Association. That sounded pretty transactional.

Rogers: Sure. Unions are first and foremost about representing members. They’ve had it with Sununu and figure Feltes would give them a better hearing.  That’s what’s going there, and what goes on in many union endorsements. But sometimes these union endorsements can be leveraged into something less concrete and more symbolic. A case in point is in the state’s first Congressional district, where the Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association has endorsed Republican Matt Mowers over incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas.

Biello: What’s going on there?

Rogers: Well, from the start of this race, Mowers has highlighted, a la President Trump, that he supports police – a real “law and order message.” The Manchester Association of Police Supervisors and Manchester Police Patrolman’s Association endorsed Mowers yesterday. They backed Pappas two years ago. At issue, substantively, is Pappas’ support for a Democratic plan to reform policing proposed after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. A key part of that bill would strip police of qualified immunity from certain civil lawsuits. That’s not popular with police unions. And for Matt Mowers, getting these unions to back him over Pappas gives a guy whose ties to New Hampshire are pretty thin, the chance to link Pappas, a Manchester native, to a potentially divisive national policy that some local police don’t like. Maybe a smart political move.

But in doing so Mowers is embracing some divisiveness himself. The Patrolman’s Association in Manchester is the union that’s fighting for a policeman fired over sending racist text messages to keep his job. Mowers says he doesn’t back the union on that. And neither of these union are ones that are going to tend to move lots of votes on the ground in a congressional race, like say the firefighters, who are backing Pappas by the way. But this instance does show another way a labor endorsement can be leveraged.

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