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Sununu: It's Time To Move On From Extremism In 2021

Photo of Sununu speaking at microphone
Dan Tuohy / NHPR
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Gov. Chris Sununu is starting his third term as governor of New Hampshire. Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Sununu Friday about the challenges facing the state, events this past week in Washington, and what he hopes to accomplish in the next two years.

Rick Ganley: This week, you called the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol "domestic terrorists." You also said that President Trump bore some responsibility for contributing to that violence with his rhetoric. You did stop short of calling for his removal, saying that was up to Congress. But now that the House has voted to impeach President Trump, do you agree with that decision?

Chris Sununu: In terms of my decision, in terms of my statement, yeah, he had responsibility. His words carry a lot of weight. I think as leadership, our words always carry weight. We have to be careful of that. And obviously, you know, it led to folks coming down Capital Avenue there and entering a situation that just wasn't appropriate. It was beyond not appropriate. It was appalling. We sat there shocked while these individuals, these domestic terrorists, attacked our nation's capitol. And it was completely uncalled for, and, of course, the president has to take responsibility in that.

Rick Ganley: It seems unlikely that the Senate's going to vote on whether to remove the president from office. They're not going to vote till after Joe Biden is sworn in. But the Senate could also bar President Trump from ever holding public office again. Do you think that's warranted?

Chris Sununu: I don't think it matters, to be honest. Donald Trump was president. He's moving on. President Biden is coming in. And I don't suspect Donald Trump is ever going to be president again either way. So my job as governor is just to focus on everything we got at hand here. And what Congress does with impeachment, that is really up to them. And, you know, governors don't really have any influence or input on that, of course. And I don't even know if they'll take it up. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. Obviously, President-elect Biden will have a lot to say with the Senate about where that goes. But we'll see.

I mean, at the end of the day, in the next two or three months, the whole world's going to be very, very different come springtime if we do our job, we focus on COVID, we focus on the budget here, we focus on what has to happen. It looks like there could be some relief coming from Washington that could be a good thing. The bill has a lot of other stuff in it. I think we have to be careful of that. But there clearly is an urgency to get some additional relief to states, and that would be a good thing to allow us all to move on, not just politically, but just practically speaking, in our lives.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, I understand that you want to talk about moving on, but there is a division within the Republican Party nationwide. Is it Trump's party? Is it not? So where do you see the Republican Party itself going forward?

Chris Sununu: Well, it is - no, the Republican Party is never defined by an individual, not Donald Trump, not Chris Sununu, no one. It's not defined -

Rick Ganley: You don't think it hasn't been defined in the last four years by Trump?

Chris Sununu: No, no. I think the media loves to do that. But look, in New Hampshire, is the Republican Party defined by Donald Trump? No, no. He lost here pretty soundly, but Republicans took back the House in the Senate and won the governorship because at a local level where politics really matters, where we can have a voice and an influence, I think folks wanted to see that change. So, no, I think New Hampshire is a good example of why one individual never defines party. One ideal never defines a party. It's a collective, right? About what we stand for. And as a Republican, I can talk about low taxes, and limited government, and local control and these fundamentals that I think are very important that I think have served New Hampshire very well.

Rick Ganley: But have those fundamentals been talked about over the last four years? I'm wondering if you feel that it is still the same party that it was when Donald Trump took office?

Chris Sununu: Well, everything is always changing. Is the Democratic Party the same party it was when Obama left? No, no. Look, I mean, does Bernie Sanders, do any of those individuals in Washington define the Democrat Party? No, I don't think so. I don't think Joe Biden defines the Democrat Party. And they shouldn't, right? It's about their ideals, and their principles, and where they want to bring government and that responsibility to the states, which is not always 180 degrees away from Republicans.

That's the other issue we have. Everything wants to be black or white, right or wrong, agree or disagree. But in the real world, there's a lot of gray area there. There's a lot of compromise. There's a lot of ability to find that common ground. And that in itself defines this idea that we are not strictly stuck to one temporary individual. And they're all temporary - Obama, Trump, Biden - these are temporary leaders. They come in. They do the best they can and they move on. But the parties are here. The parties may evolve a little bit, but they're going to be here a lot longer than those individual, a lot longer than Chris Sununu, that's for sure. And so we just have to make sure we don't - you know, I talked about that in my inaugural speech. We don't put one person on a pedestal as the defining factor. We almost treat politicians as some sort of deity, right? And that they're infallible, right? It's this weird cult like status, but it's not real. That's not real at all. I think we all need to move on.

Rick Ganley: Well, ideally I think obviously you're right. But I think there is a certain segment of the party that has seen Donald Trump as somebody they put on a pedestal.

Chris Sununu: Sure, you're always going to get 10 percent of Republicans that are very extremist, 10 percent of Democrats that can be very extremist, and the rest of us live in the real world.

Rick Ganley: Okay well, I do want to move on, and I do want to talk about some of the things that you want to get to in your next term here. But something of a more immediate concern is the FBI alert sent out this week to law enforcement agencies in all 50 states warning of calls for armed protests at state capitols. How is the state prepared for possible protests, here in Concord, and elsewhere? And what have you heard from state law enforcement officials?

Chris Sununu: Yes. So we take these threats very seriously, without a doubt. I've talked to the governors to see what they're hearing out there. We have a great communication system with the FBI and folks at the federal level so that the information is there. We are making sure that whatever is going to happen, or not happen, over the next week or so, where the threats really lie. The state police, National Guard, full coordination with their federal partners, we're on alert and we're ready. We're ready.

The good news is so far we haven't seen anything so extreme pointed at Concord or at the state capitol. But we are going to be over-prepared, if you will, just to double our efforts to make sure we're talking to kind of our friends and neighbors. And it's not just the state house, other government buildings, other government complexes, we're going to do our best to make sure that we're ready and standing by if anything should happen.

So it's something we take very, very seriously. There is this, I think to your earlier point, is this heightened level of extremism on both sides. And it's unfortunate. We saw it really play out earlier over the summer of 2020. We saw it play out in a political sense down in Washington, which was just absolutely tragic to witness on television. So I think, obviously, if you want 2021 to be different, if you want it to be better, we have to make it better. But that does take that collective. But on the fringes where there are threats, we're going to be prepared as well.

Rick Ganley: Do you think we have to be prepared going forward beyond Inauguration Day at some of these buildings?

Chris Sununu: Sure. Look, I think, you know, I don't think we'll ever get a sense where the inauguration is done, we're okay now. No, that would be very irresponsible. I think as a culture, as a society, we need things to kind of tamp down with the extremism, tamp down with the over-emotion and that kind of, not hyperbole, but that extreme response, one way or the other, where levers are getting pulled. And so I have confidence that as we come out of COVID, because I think it is related, like this isolation, these amped up feelings that we all had through 2020. It doesn't just stop on a dime. We have to come out of it and we're going to be prepared all the way through.

Rick Ganley: Are you equating, though, some of the extremism on both sides? Are you equating that extremism?

Chris Sununu: No, no, I wouldn't equate it. They're two very different things. What we saw over the summer with the cities burning, and all of that and the frustration there is very different. And frankly, an insurrection against the government, right? But they are both forms of extremism. They are both completely inappropriate and appalling. They're not acceptable anywhere, has nothing to do with politics. It's just completely unacceptable. It's un-American. But the response, I guess, is what we were talking about in terms of safety, or the National Guard or being prepared for that type of stuff. The response really has to be there. We have to be prepared for whatever might come.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, no, I understand that. The state is planning on starting phase 1B of vaccine distribution coming up on [Jan. 26]. But many in the state, including those in long term care and some other frontline health care workers, are facing difficulties getting even their first shots. Health providers are worried that they won't have enough staff and resources to vaccinate people efficiently. How is the state going to address those concerns and ensure that those at the highest risk of COVID have access to the vaccine as soon as possible?

Chris Sununu: Sure. So the state has done, we've actually done very well. I think we're ranked, I think yesterday it was the 12th best state for administering the vaccine in terms of speed. The frustration, which is real, is we are essentially forced into this partnership with CVS to provide all of the long term care facilities with their first shots. They were a bit behind, about a week behind, from the original schedule. We've pushed them and we've gotten them a bit back on board over the last 10 days. So we will meet the schedule of making sure everyone has the first shots by the end of January, second shots coming into February, as was we always planned. But it has been a bit frustrating.

You know, it's a national effort at the same time a localized effort, right? So we push. We have our ways to pull some levers and things are definitely getting better. The good news is as we go into phase 1B, we will rely less on those federal partners and more on ourselves. And when we rely on our hospitals, our fixated sites, our National Guard, we do it really, really well. That's where we excel. And that's the vast majority of the system that we'll be relying on as we go into this next 300,000 folks that that comprise 1B.

Everybody over 65, just register and you can go in and get your vaccine. Anyone with a comorbidity issue, if you have other medical issues, call your doctor to set up your appointment to go get your vaccine. And we'll have sites all across the state to do that. So I think as we can move beyond our reliance with the federal partners, the system, as good as it has been, can can just get better and better as we ramp up to make sure that we're there for everybody over the next two or three months in that next phase.

Rick Ganley: Has the system been as good as it can be, though, with the feds? Do you feel like it's been a bottleneck at the federal level or do you feel it's manpower? What do you feel have been some of the issues with the slow rollout?

Chris Sununu: Oh yeah, I mean, they sent us 18,000 vials of vaccine. We don't hold it. We get it all out. We're getting it administered as fast as we can. And we do a pretty darn good job of that. And that's it. So as it comes in, it's immediately out. If they could give us more, we could get more out. And we make that plea all the time. I was on the phone with Secretary Azar, and Vice President Pence, and the folks in Washington just saying, look, more, more, more.

But it is fair, I'll say this for the federal government, they set up a system that is fair. It is not subjective or political. Every state gets their pro rata share. It's just that nothing is manufactured and distributed as fast as was originally planned. So we take what we can get. We get it out very, very quickly. But if the federal government is to speed up, have a system that could without a doubt keep pace, and we'll move it as fast as we get it.

Rick Ganley: Okay, I know we're limited time here. I do want to ask this though. Republicans now have the majority in the state House, the Senate and the Executive Council. What are the big things that you'd like to accomplish, or maybe things that you'd like to address that you haven't been able to coming up in this next two year term?

Chris Sununu: So the first big thing we'll tackle is the budget. Depending on what may come out of Washington, we do have to work with the budget, create some efficiencies, but we don't need giants cuts to programs or anything like that that you might see in other states. I think we're going to do very well on the budget here. I think there's a huge opportunity for student debt assistance. It's a program that cost taxpayer dollars nothing. I couldn't get the deal done with Democrats last him, but I think we can work to get it done. And obviously, I still very much believe that we can do paid family leave without an income tax. We have a plan. It's been proposed. It was shot down the last two years. I'd like to see that that move forward in some way.

And obviously just making sure that as we get out of the state of emergency, we're transferring those powers back to the legislature, in terms of how to spend any additional dollars that might come in. And making sure that at the same time, we still have the flexibility, if we should see COVID in another term, if things were to get worse, we still need that flexibility to react as well as we did the first time. So a lot of opportunity. But look, New Hampshire's in a great place. We really, really are. Compared to the other New England states, I think we're doing phenomenally well. Economically, we managed COVID, but it does take work. It does take management. And I think we keep our eye on the prize, and put our heads down and do our jobs. There's nothing that can't be possible to make 2021 as good as we want it to be.

Rick Ganley: I do want to ask you quickly about housing. It's been a big problem for New Hampshire. The pandemic exasperating that. Ensuring enough affordable housing in particular, to keep people here, to bring people to the state, do you have any ideas to address that this session?

Chris Sununu: Yes, we have over $200 million in housing relief coming from the federal government. It hasn't been made clear to us how exactly we can and cannot spend that. So we're still waiting for the federal government, but that's going to open a huge opportunity there. And then allowing those dollars to go to the local level and allowing, whether it be Manchester, or Portsmouth or Berlin, figuring out how to spend those dollars. Because the needs are always a little bit different in each of those areas. So getting the money out, giving them, the local communities, the flexibility to design their own path to meet the challenges, and homelessness and housing needs within those communities is going to be, I think, a vital piece of that puzzle.

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