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Sununu shoots for national status, but State House challenges loom

Gov. Chris Sununu talk with CNN reporter Dana Bash at the New Hampshire State House as part of a profile the network broadcast on him earlier this month.
Gov. Chris Sununu talks with CNN reporter Dana Bash at the New Hampshire State House as part of a profile the network broadcast on him earlier this month.

When Gov. Chris Sununu sat down recently for a podcast interview with DC-based news outlet Politico, he stressed his approach to leading New Hampshire requires a rigor few possess.

“I’m a governor, I’m 24/7,” Sununu said. “My phone is on. You have a flood, you have a disaster, you have a problem with corrections. It’s a hard job. And then you add running every two years, it’s too much for folks, it really is.”

Fresh off an easy reflection to a fourth term as governor, such interviews – and such talk -- have become habit for Sununu. He’s been on a national media blitz in recent weeks, with long interviews with the New York Times, CNN, and other outlets.

But when New Hampshire lawmakers return to Concord in early January, Sununu’s immediate task will be to lead at a time when the State House is more closely divided than it’s ever been.

It would seem a moment made for the around-the-clock engagement Sununu claims to embody. But when he sat down with local reporters earlier this month, Sununu indicated the near partisan parity in Concord wouldn’t prompt a more focused approach to dealing with lawmakers, or spur him to focus on any specific new policies,

“I don’t think so. I engage with the Legislature as much as I feel we need to engage on certain issues,” Sununu said.

Sununu says his agenda will center on the state budget, “managing” his revamping of the state’s mental health system, and refining the state’s addiction program known as the doorway. As for fresh policymaking — or even brokering deals when the going gets tough inside the State House — Sununu said that’s essentially up to lawmakers.

“I’m more than happy to help with that process, but again, it’s their process and I would defer to them in terms of trying to make sure we actually get stuff done,” he said.

Such deference – however at odds with the repeated claims of prowess Sununu makes to national media – might be welcome news to top Republicans in the New Hampshire House. Leaders in that chamber have passed conservative policies with Sununu’s blessing, including tax cuts and looser gun laws. But they have also clashed repeatedly with him over COVID policy, legislative redistricting and parental rights legislation.

“I’ve given up trying to figure out his process,” said Majority Leader Jason Osborne in an interview at the State House.

Osborne and other House Republicans say Sununu sends mixed signals and can change course without warning. But Osborne also said everyone in Concord should recognize that under the circumstances, Sununu – whether he chooses to exercise it or not – will have the power to dictate outcomes on key debates.

“He is clearly going to have the ability to put his thumb on the scale anytime he wants on any given issue,” Osborne said. “I’m sure he can say, ‘I want this,’ and that’s the way it’s going to go.”

But what Sununu wants – policywise and politically – isn’t that clear to many in the State House these days. While the governor has pointed to a few priorities – maybe tax cuts, perhaps some changes to the state’s higher education system – he’s also indicated he plans to travel the country to promote New Hampshire-style leadership in the coming months. .Beyond that, Sununu has said he’s open to all political possibilities – including a 2024 presidential run.

In the meantime, Sununu’s immediate challenges – passing a sound budget through a near evenly divided State House, and navigating an uncertain economy -- remain. So too does Sununu’s penchant for talk some lawmakers say makes it hard to see him as the collegial guy he claims to be.

“Are you really that shocked that the House of Representatives is doing something kinda wacky and unexplainable,” Sununu said during an appearance on a WGIR radio talk show last week, dismissing lawmakers in the New Hampshire House as prone to “wacky” and “unexplainable” acts.

Sununu derision stemmed from Speaker Sherman Packard’s move to reappoint Rep. Ken Weyler to lead its finance committee. Weyler was forced out of that same job last year – with Sununu’s pushing – after he circulated a document full of conspiracy theories.

Under normal circumstances, Weyler and the governor would be expected to work closely on the budget and other big issues. But that feels like a stretch this year.

“I’m kind of curious to see what kind of nonsense comes out of Ken Weyler’s mouth next,” Sununu said on WGIR. “But I don’t sweat it much.”

Yet some practiced hands in Concord say they are beginning to sweat Sununu’s approach -- in particular his growing thirst for publicity outside New Hampshire.

That’s my concern: chronic self promotion,’ noted Manchester Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the longest serving member of the state Senate.

D’Allesandro said he hopes Sununu can work closely with senators, particularly on the reauthorization of the state’s expanded Medicaid program.

“My hope is he will focus on those items and not get drawn into this national situation,” D’Allesandro added.

But with the opening of the new State House session just weeks away, the national situation still seems very much on Sununu’s mind. This week his political committee began running Facebook ads to boost his profile well outside of Concord – in the early presidential voting states of Iowa and South Carolina.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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