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On Energy, Election Commission, & Education, Sununu Casts Himself As More Pragmatist Than Politician

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

On The Exchange, Governor Chris Sununu addressed the uproar over the White House request for voter information and defended his decision not to join an alliance set up by states pledging to uphold the Paris Accord on climate change. He reaffirmed his support for the Northern Pass project and called for a "smart portfolio of renewables," including geothermal.  As for the political dimension of these and other debates,  Sununu had this to say: "I do my best to throw politics out." 


What can you say to put fears and concerns at rest about the Trump Administration's request for voter information?

The state’s going to comply with the law, first and foremost, whatever the law allows.  N.H. law. There is an active lawsuit , and we may hear where that goes this week and wherever it comes out, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.  The only information we have said we would release is the information that’s already public -- your name, your address, your party affiliation, but no birthdays, no social security number, not a single bit of private information will be released.

A listener asks:  Why is any of my voting information public information in the first place?

It’s not a bad question. In 2007, a law was passed, the Democrats passed a law that allowed this information to be sold. Let’s talk facts: The Democrat party itself has sold this information for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Republicans, too have sold this information.

(Democrats) far exceed anybody. If the legislature wants to take up  how we treat this information and whether it can be sold, I’m open to that. I think those are worthwhile discussions to have. Right now, the basic information we have that is public, that you or I can walk into our town halls and see, that’s the only information we’d even remotely consider making available. Again, it’s already available.

What’s your response to the concern that putting this information in a big database at the federal level makes it a lot easier for hackers to access?

It's already in a database that the federal government provided to the state. It’s sitting in the archive. It’s there. This is not sensitive and personal information that would be private. So no private information is being released.

Do we have voter fraud? I’ve always said, we have no evidence of voter fraud in this state, we have none. I’ve never seen a bit of actual evidence of it. Are we going to put this debate to rest one way or the other? Well, the only way to do that is to look at whether it’s really there or not. I suspect even if it’s there, it’s pretty minimal. So, you’ve got to either put the debate to rest or we’re always going to be having this discussion. I can’t speak for the president.

Is it overly optimistic to believe that this commission will settle this question, given the political polarization we see?

No, it’s not. If you have a lot of people that doubt the system, and lack trust -- and there’s a lot of lack of trust out there -- but that doesn’t mean you don’t take action. As a governor, as a secretary of state, our job is to manage, our job is to find solutions, our job is to keep trying to find the pathway to restore trust and integrity. And in a state like New Hampshire, integrity in our election is so important because of our First in the Nation primary status, because of our high voter turnout.  

We’re at the cutting edge of whether people start losing faith in the system, so what better time to take some form of action, but again it has to be public, it has to be open, it can’t be behind closed doors, it has to be within the law.

Was Kris Kobach of Kansas, who was recently fined by a federal judge for misleading a court on documents related to a voting rights case, the best person to lead the Election Integrity Commission?

I don’t know him; I’ve never met him; I can’t speak to that. I do  have a lot of faith (in) a gentleman like Secretary of State Gardner, one of the country’s foremost authorities on this, a Democrat, but works in a very bipartisan manner, is in support of this very strongly, understands the pushes and pulls of this I think better than anybody. And to have someone from New Hampshire leading that charge in such a nonpartisan way, that’s exactly who you want on that commission defending the interests of New Hampshire.

In a way we’re giving the federal government access to information they already have access to. In other states, it might be different – they might collect birth dates or social security numbers or things like that. But that’s not part of the public database here. We’re unique here because we keep our information so limited, because we have that live free or die spirit here, if you will, and I think we respect the integrity of people’s personal and private information.

A listener asks: Why didn’t you join other Republican governors in refusing to hand over voter information?

Because I don’t care about the politics… Whether Obama was doing this, or Trump was doing this, or the next president, I think we should go through the process because we have a pretty good system at hand already in New Hampshire.

You’re always going to have a lack of faith in the system until you do something one way or the other, either prove or disprove the unknown. I can’t speak for the President, but I think that’s at the heart of what we’re talking about.

A listener asks: What assurances have you received that members of the commission will be equally diligent when it comes to the investigation of incidents of voter suppression?

I would hope so… You’ve got to make sure there’s true balance in what you’re looking for. It can’t just be a witch hunt on one side, or a witch hunt on the other. I think a lot of times you see that. This is a bipartisan commission. This is a commission simply looking to put integrity and trust back into the system.

Some states waited for their Attorney General to say yes or no to this request; now that it’s in the courts, would it have been better to go to the Attorney General first?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. Every AG is different, every state law is different. My guess is they put it to the Secretary of State because they’re truly in charge of the election, knowing that if there was a legal issue, the Secretary of State would then work with the AG to determine the legality.   No, I think in these situations you go to the department head and then within the state they have to work out whether there’s a legal issue, which is what we’re doing now, which is perfectly fine and probably a good move.

Have you been surprised by the outcry?

This is an era of misinformation, an era of political partisanship. I do my best to throw the politics out, on whether it’s a policy issue or an issue like this, working with the Trump administration, or whatever it might be: Get the politics out and figure what are we trying to achieve. As long as I have faith that the folks in charge of driving to that outcome are going to stay as bipartisan or nonpartisan as possible, then I’m going to have faith in those outcomes.

Freshwater experts say that climate change threatens N.H. waterways. What climate impacts do you see to N.H.’s natural environment?

Environmental stewardship is something we all take seriously here… On a very local level, I think we do a very good job with environmental stewardship. That being said, you have to look at the big picture: Where are we going. Where will we be in 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years? As Governor, it is what is the Department of Environmental Services doing, what resources can we provide them, what information are we gathering, what are we doing with our energy?

Long term, right now we have a ground water problem in our state. Not a crisis yet but we do have a problem.... There’s no greater public trust than when we turn on our faucets very day; we’re assuming the government has done its job and the water we’re giving our kids is clean and safe. So, first and foremost, that’s an issue we’re dealing with in our state.  

A listener asks:  You said that New Hampshire would not be joining the states' Climate Change Alliance, yet many reliable studies show the impact of climate change on New Hampshire: heavy storms, warmer winters, sea-level rise, coastal flooding, insect-borne diseases. 

Sununu: Would signing a piece of paper prevent the major storms from coming? No, it wouldn’t. That piece of paper folks wanted me to sign, think of where it came from, it came from the Governors of New York and California, the two biggest polluting states in the country. .. Look, we are good environmental stewards here. I don’t need to sign a piece of paper to reaffirm our environmental stewardship. Those states that are polluters, that’s exactly why they do it.

A listener asks: Does the Governor believe that carbon emissions are a leading cause of climate change?

I don’t know for sure. And I’ve studied this at MIT. I studied earth and atmospheric sciences with some of the best in the world. And I’ve looked at the data myself… I think we should keep looking at it. We have to keep studying it, understand all the impacts, whether they’re to the environment, social, economic, or other factors that might come into play. Is carbon the leading reason why the earth has warmed up pretty much continuously over the last 150 years, I’m not sure. It could be. But one of my jobs being a good manager is not making drastic decisions one way or the other, not reacting to the pendulum swinging in terms of public perception. You’ve got to be measured in your approach.

If local towns want to take certain steps, and they have, if you look at seacoast towns – Portsmouth has taken I think some pretty drastic steps, frankly, in terms of what they’re doing  -- that’s fine. Let’s maintain local control and local decision making. I think the folks at DES and PUC are very smart; they’re doing a very good job.

Listener: N.H. is missing out on an opportunity to join with Maine and Massachusetts to develop off-shore wind projects and create hundreds of jobs and clean energy.

We can’t even get onshore wind projects, let alone off shore wind projects…If folks want to try to make the case to get that done in New Hampshire, I’m not opposing it, but I don’t think it’ll pass and I don’t think it’s necessarily the best economic idea for the state when you look at the resources, where we can put our resources into renewable energy… Do we need a smart portfolio of renewables? Absolutely. Smart solar, smart geothermal, hydro.

Which of the renewables are “smarter” to pursue  in terms of New Hampshire?

I think hydro and geothermal have a lot of opportunity here. Geothermal because we have such differentiation in our temperatures here. Hydro because we have so many rivers and things like that.

Listener: No other issue has united all elements of the political spectrum in Coos and Grafton counties as opposition to Northern Pass; the Governor should be out front in opposing it.

I think people were a little politically timid about Northern Pass. There’s no doubt it brings 1100 megawatts of clean, renewable energy to the Granite State and Granite State rate payers. Northern Pass shouldn’t be political. It just shouldn’t be. It should just be about what’s the outcome, are we going to get clean energy? Yes. Are we going to get lower rates on energy costs? No doubt. Is pretty much the entire infrastructure going to be paid by Hydro-Quebec? Absolutely. Are 90 % of the towers already there? Yes. They get a little taller but nothing like those giant wind mills that you see on the mountains that people have complained about.  90% of this project is already in an existing right of way.

Kindergarten is funded in an unusual way, with Keno.

That was not my idea, but I’ll take it… It’s not my preferred path for funding kindergarten, obviously, and there’s ways that we can maybe adjust that. That’s what I tried to tell the Democrats: Look, we can adjust the funding mechanism down the road. It was shocking to me how many Democrats loved this idea and then for political reasons quickly came against it because I think they were trying to give themselves political leverage. For me, it’s not about political leverage, it’s about the outcomes. Do we want full-day kindergarten in our communities? Yes. This gets us there. I’m proud to be not the only governor who proposed it but the only governor to get it done.

For the full Exchange conversation, listen here.

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