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Where Does Gov. Sununu Stand On Abortion And Systemic Racism?

Photo of Governor Chris Sununu
Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Much of the debate in the waning days of the state budget negotiations has focused on a handful of non-spending questions. At the fore are two in particular: abortion rights and systemic racism.

The budget isn’t on Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk yet, but his position on both those issues can be hard to pin down. And they're ones that are sure to figure in his political future.Get NHPR's reporting about the state house and other headlines in your inbox — sign up for our newsletter (it's free!) today.

NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers has been following the debate in the State House and Sununu’s role there. Below is a transcript of his conversation with Morning Edition’s Rick Ganley.

Rick Ganley: Josh, abortion and race, these are two complicated issues and not ones that you'd normally expect to see at the heart of budget talks. So what's going on this year?

Josh Rogers: Well, that's true. The expectation was that tax cuts and spending pinches would be at the center of budget discussions coming out of the pandemic. But, you know, we're not in that situation now. A lot of the negotiating these days, and to be clear, this is really Republican-on-Republican negotiation, in the House and Senate is tied up on these two issues. We can start with abortion. The House budget included policies to force family planning providers to segregate operations if they were also providers of abortion. That provision was really squarely aimed at Planned Parenthood. Over in the Senate, meanwhile, there was an added ban on abortion, making it a felony for doctors to perform abortions after 24 weeks with very limited exceptions, including none for rape or incest. And, you know, right now, negotiations are ongoing, but it seems the budget likely to reach the governor will include increased oversight of family planning, as well as that 24 week abortion ban.

Rick Ganley: Chris Sununu has said throughout his political career that he supports abortion rights, but he's also said that he's willing to sign this 24 week ban on abortion. So what's going on with that?

Josh Rogers: Well, the governor has, and he's also been describing his current position as being entirely consistent with earlier statements and stances. When the governor first ran six years ago, he faced a competitive Republican primary. At that point, he was pretty clear that he opposed so-called late term abortions. His current bottom line is that he sees a Republican-backed 24 week ban as "common sense" and similar to policies on the books in other states. And while it is true that a 24 week gestational limit on abortions is a pretty common threshold in other states, some of the states that Sununu has cited as analogs to what we're potentially doing here in New Hampshire are Massachusetts and New York. They have 24 week bans, but those states include exemptions that aren't included in the language being considered here. And, you know, as you know, something that's interesting here is that abortion is an issue Democrats pretty much always work to put at the center of campaigns. Governor Sununu certainly knows that. And while Sununu has definitely been challenged on this front, since he once voted against a state contract for Planned Parenthood back when he was an executive councilor. But in recent years, he's successfully neutralized efforts to effectively question his credentials as a pro-choice Republican. This is definitely going to complicate that. Why don't we take a listen to what Governor Sununu told WMUR-TV last year when he was up for reelection:

Chris Sununu: Abortion restrictions? I don't, I'm not looking to make any changes on that. I'm a pro-choice governor. I've been pro-choice. I've supported, whether it's the Planned Parenthood contracts, which are really developed around women's health issues. Since I was in the Executive Council, we've supported those contracts. I don't think we're looking to make any abortion restrictions in this state.

Rick Ganley: Okay, so that was Chris Sununu last year. How does he explain his position now supporting a ban on abortions after 24 weeks, given that earlier statement?

"Let's be frank, the governor is an ambitious politician who's weighing his next move right now."

Josh Rogers: Well, basically, the governor is saying he didn't propose this. He also says since it's in the budget, which includes lots of policies important to the state, he's not going to veto a spending plan over it. He's described the ban as reasonable. You know, "common sense" is the term he seems to have arrived at. You know, people can make of that what they will. But, you know, it's also, let's be frank, the governor is an ambitious politician who's weighing his next move right now. That could be a run for U.S. Senate. And, you know, pushing against an abortion ban would force the governor to basically lock horns with conservatives in a way that he's historically been reluctant to do. And should he go forward and run for Senate, being in step with national Republicans on issues like abortion could be important, particularly from a fundraising perspective. And if he were to fight a 24 week abortion ban and run for Senate entering the national scene as a as a Republican who potentially vetoed an abortion restriction, [it's] probably not a good look for him. And signing into law a ban on abortions, meanwhile, will help him potentially attract attention from Republicans and conservative donors. But there is a flip side, and some political risk:  Democrats have for years worked [to] sow doubt about Sununu’s claims that he supports abortion rights. This is something they can claim proves he’s a hypocrite.

Rick Ganley: Ok, so there's a political calculation going on here. It does appear that some kind of an abortion ban is going to appear in the final state budget. It's a bit less clear how Republicans will resolve their debate on another of their goals in this budget, putting limits on teachings and trainings about racism and sexism.

Josh Rogers: Well, you know, the specifics, as you know, on this front, have shifted over the course of the budget debate. But throughout Republicans here, as they have been in other states, have looked to limit what they're calling divisive concepts, which essentially amounts to anything that suggests that traits including race or gender, could make a person inherently oppressive or oppressed. You know, the proposal under discussion now would limit things like implicit bias training for public employees. It could also affect course materials in public schools, you know, might even cover police training.

Rick Ganley: The governor, Josh, has talked about this last issue, police training on implicit bias and racism, a lot over the past year, particularly in light of the commission that he put together on police reform.

Josh Rogers: He certainly has. And, you know, from the start, Governor Sununu has worked to signal, I guess you could call his openness to a range of perspectives on this front. You can recall he took a step of adding a local Black Lives Matter activist to his police accountability commission. In the end, that commission proposed almost 50 changes in terms of law enforcement accountability. And this, of course, came in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. And the governor endorsed all of these 50 changes and he promised to implement some of them via executive order. But, you know, when the legislation to enact some of these arrived before the legislature, Republicans thinned it out dramatically, the bill aiming to put that into effect. And the budget provision now being debated on so-called divisive concepts would, for instance, allow public employees to opt out of trainings around race that they find offensive. The governor has called that reasonable. But last year, he said mandatory bias training was reasonable, too. And more recently, he's also said he doesn't believe systemic racism exists in New Hampshire, which certainly fairly raises a question about where exactly he stands when it comes to the impact of racism on society in New Hampshire and state government's role in addressing it.

Rick Ganley: So that seems like kind of a journey for the governor over the past year after he hailed the work of this group on race and then police accountability last September. What's changed?

"But on this issue, you also have real ideological resistance among lots of Republicans to really anything that suggests structural racism is a reality. So the question is, is how interested is Sununu in fighting them on this? The answer appears to be not that much."

Josh Rogers: Well, one thing that's changed is the governor was confronted with the reality that, you know, lawmakers in his own party weren't particularly interested in pursuing a lot of these things quickly. You know, that's not surprising. Lawmakers aren't always eager to do a governor's bidding. But on this issue, you also have real ideological resistance among lots of Republicans to really anything that suggests structural racism is a reality. So the question is, is how interested is Sununu in fighting them on this? The answer appears to be not that much. He was asked about it last week. Let's take a listen.

Chris Sununu: I think all law enforcement should have some type of training. You can call it implicit bias training. You call it whatever you want.

Josh Rogers: That was the governor last week. Yes to police training, but, you know, not much specificity on the substance. And, you know, the way this seems to be playing out is pretty similar to what's underneath his current position on abortion. Governor Sununu very much wants a budget, one that contains a lot of policies he and Republicans like, and he wants to pass it in a fashion that suggests Republicans are united. And he wants to position himself as someone who achieves results with little fuss. And it would be hard, if not impossible, for him to do any of that if he basically stands astride the debate and threatens to veto the budget over this issue, which is something that Republicans nationally —  a group whose Sununu may find himself courting very soon — have made clear they are willing to make a big ideological point over.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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