Public health, Medicaid, abortion rights: A look at Tom Sherman's State House record
Tom Sherman is the first doctor to run for governor in New Hampshire in more than two decades. He's also the third straight Democratic gubernatorial nominee attempting to make the jump to New Hampshire's corner office from the state Senate.
NHPR’s Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered Host Julia Furukawa to discuss Sherman's profile as a physician-lawmaker and how it intersects with his policy priorities.
Julia Furukawa: Tom Sherman's a doctor, which is something he's foregrounding as he runs for governor. How much does that background in medicine inform what he has focused on in Concord?
Josh Rogers: Well, Tom Sherman was a practicing gastroenterologist for four decades. In terms of his time in the Legislature, he spent eight years there: four in the New Hampshire House, four in the state Senate. And the first issue that brought Tom Sherman much attention in Concord was Medicaid expansion, back when he served in the New Hampshire House. Tom Sherman played a lead role in writing the plan that House lawmakers first passed back in 2013 and in negotiating with the then Republican-led state Senate when Medicaid expansion, which put people of low income on private insurance plans as part of so-called Obamacare, ultimately became law. This was back when Maggie Hassan was governor. Democrats held the House, Republicans the Senate. So, I think it's fair to say Sherman played a role in brokering a bipartisan deal on Medicaid expansion.
When Tom Sherman landed in the Senate in 2018, he enumerated a policy focus that was really centered on issues tied to health care and science. Here’s what he told NHPR he’d focus on back then: “My highest priorities are going to be to really fully address the opioid crisis, the mental health issues, and then the combination of drinking water issues, as well as the concerns about contamination.”
Furukawa: So those were his priorities heading into the Senate. How did Sen. Sherman do on these fronts?
Rogers: Well, Medicaid expansion itself improved access to health care for people who lacked it. This includes substance abuse and mental health treatment. Sherman has pushed insurers on mental health parity issues since being in office. He's also pushed to foster the expansion of telemedicine in New Hampshire, and he's worked to get hospitals to increase the number of mental health beds in the state and also to try to boost mobile crisis units to address the emergency room crowding issue the state has and does continue to face.
Sherman has also been involved in establishing a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water. So, Sen. Sherman has definitely followed through on priorities he laid out when he first joined the Legislature. And many of these are obviously tied to his professional background. And along the way, I think he showed he could work with Republicans in many cases to advance policies people could agree on. He's had to obviously, given the partisan makeup of the state Senate.
Furukawa: Has that portfolio of issues changed at all over time as he's become a more prominent lawmaker?
Rogers: It has changed a bit, as has Tom Sherman's manner as a lawmaker. He's become, I guess you could call it, more emphatic when it comes to floor debates. A noteworthy example of this is when lawmakers were debating the ultrasound mandate that was part of the 24-week limit on abortion enacted back in 2021.
Sherman, in a move forbidden by Senate rules, went so far as to brandish an ultrasound wand during the floor debate in front of his fellow senators.
Here’s what he said in that moment: “Let me just be clear about what we're talking about. This is the probe. Gentlemen, look at this. If you have daughters, you have wives. This is the probe that's medically used for this purpose. Now you know what you're voting on.”
Rogers: Sherman has also played a lead role in fighting other Republican priorities, strongly opposed by Democrats, besides limits on abortion. One example was a bill that Sherman pushed to require annual means testing for participants in the state's voucher-like school choice program. That bill was rejected by Senate Republicans.
Furukawa: So you say Sherman's work on issues connected with health care have probably been more meaningful than on bills addressing other topics in Concord. Where has Sherman been on issues tied to what polls show are voters top concerns right now: the economy?
Rogers: Well, Tom Sherman's a Democrat and he's pretty much voted with the Democratic caucus on bills on these issues, whether we're talking something like minimum wage increase or paid family medical leave. These sorts of issues are ones where senators in both parties are probably more prone to hold the partisan line.
It also could be said that defining what is an economic issue can be fraught. The case could be made that so many things are economic issues, including abortion rights. That's something Democrats are stressing a great deal lately. But health care issues are real a throughline in Tom Sherman's legislative career and understandably so.
On those issues, I think people can say he's shown a capacity to be effective in advancing his point of view, even when that requires reaching across the aisle. That's been less the case, I think, on other issues.
Furukawa: How much do you think Sherman's record at the State House will affect this race?
Rogers: That's sort of hard to say. But it is worth noting that Sherman is the third Democratic nominee in a row who served in the state Senate to try to take on Chris Sununu. In 2018, Democrats nominated Molly Kelly, and she kept that race fairly tight with Sununu. In 2020, Sununu routed Dan Feltes, who was then the Senate majority leader, by a two-to-one margin. Feltes had really tried to make the race about State House politics and debates.
Tom Sherman's in a different situation. Winning the corner office from the state Senate can certainly be done. Maggie Hassan did it. Jeanne Shaheen did it. But they never had to take on a well-known and popular incumbent the way Tom Sherman has to.