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After Years Behind The Scenes, Formella Hopes For Bigger Stage As N.H.'s Attorney General

Todd Bookman / NHPR
John Formella, center, who has served as Gov. Chris Sununu's legal counsel for the past four years, is now the governor's choice for New Hampshire attorney general.

John Formella, Gov. Chris Sununu’s pick to become New Hampshire’s next attorney general, will have a hearing before the Executive Council Thursday. In some ways, that hearing will be the biggest stage the 34-year old lawyer has ever occupied.

Formella has served as the governor's chief legal counsel during his entire tenure in office. That gives him perhaps the most essential prerequisite for being named attorney general: the confidence of the person who does the appointing. Formella appears to have that in spades.

“It’s just his approach: he’s a very positive guy, he doesn’t really let anything get under his skin,” Sununu said in a recent interview. “And he’s frankly one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen.”

If he’s confirmed, Formella would be New Hampshire’s youngest attorney general in at least the past 50 years. But it was his willingness to do what needed to be done that first caught Sununu’s attention. That was when Formella was a just an associate at Pierce Atwood, the firm he joined out of law school. The firm represents Waterville Valley, the Sununu-family owned ski resort Chris Sununu led before becoming governor.

Sununu and his attorney at the time, Jack Sanders, were discussing a legal matter and needed some photocopies made. Sanders called over to the neighboring office, where Formella sat, and gave him the task. Formella obliged.

Their relationship grew beyond errands. Sanders said he became a mentor to Formella, and despite partisan differences – Sanders is a Democrat; Formella a Republican – the two grew close. Sanders said Formella impressed him as someone who, party politics aside , was interested in how government functions.

“John loves government, loves policy, loves making it work, and I would put him in the category of someone who wants to do the right things in government,” Sanders said.

The nature of his current job keeps much of Formella’s duties on Sununu’s behalf fairly low profile.  But one exception was when Sununu tapped Formella to be his point-person in working to address the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling South Dakota vs Wayfair. The case appeared to clear the way for other states to force New Hampshire businesses to collect sales taxes. The issue provided Formella with a rare public platform.

Bill Ardinger, a prominent Concord tax attorney who worked on the issue, said Formella did a good job on a thorny issue.

“He brought to the table a wonderful, respectful, civil, temperament,” Ardinger said. “But he also brought to the table a remarkable understanding of the underlying state and federal constitutional issues that are very technical.”

But a matter needn’t be too technical to profit from Formella’s no-drama approach to problem solving: take urban poultry farming, for instance. That was among the issues Formella tackled last month during a meeting of the Portsmouth Zoning Board. (Formella appeared to favor granting an exception for keeping more than four chickens in less congested parts of the city.)

Credit Facebook
John Formella on the campaign trail for a local race in Portsmouth several years ago.

He’s been a member of the zoning board since 2016 and active in city politics for some time before that. It was a shared interest in local housing and land use issues that helped him become friends with Rebecca Perkins Kwoka. She’s now a Democratic state senator, but when she ran for Portsmouth City Council in 2015, Formella campaigned with her.

“He was involved in my city council election, which was non-partisan, because he’s my friend,” Perkins Kwoka said recently. “So, I think the process is interesting to him.”

Perkins Kwoka said Formella listens to people, works hard and doesn’t wear his political identity on his sleeve – all traits that could serve him well should he become the state’s next attorney general. But the job can also be a stepping stone, particularly for young appointees. That may be even truer for Republicans, many of whom have gone onto much bigger political jobs afterwards. Formella’s manner doesn’t suggest that elected office is an immediate goal of his, but people who know him well won’t rule it out.

“Yes, I expect he’ll run someday,” said Sanders, Formella’s old mentor at Pierce Atwood. “Once I got to know him, I thought, he’ll do that at some point.”

Formella’s first political test comes Thursday, when he’ll have his confirmation hearing before the Executive Council.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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