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Race for N.H. Governor Takes Shape, And Could Shape State House Debates in Coming Year

Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, left, announced his candidacy for N.H. governor Oct. 23, 2019. He's shown here Wednesday as Gov. Chris Sununu and Council meet at the State House.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky has joined Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes in the Democratic primary for New Hampshire governor.

Both men are Concord lawyers: Volinsky is best known as the lead attorney in the Claremont education funding lawsuits; Feltes spent years as a legal aid lawyer before running for office.

Both men see themselves are leaders on progressive issues.

And both men, in their respective roles at the State House, have the ability to stymie Gov. Chris Sununu’s agenda in the coming year, even before Election Day rolls around in 2020.

For Feltes, this will likely play out in legislative policy debates. He and Sununu, for instance, have been at odds over several issues, including a family leave program, the minimum wage and tax policy.

Volinsky, meanwhile, has worked to check Sununu’s nominations to key state offices and will likely continue to do so in the months to come.

Volinsky led the Executive Council’s opposition during confirmation hearings for top Sununu appointees, including Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. He also helped thwart Sununu’s desire to appoint Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to serve as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

While the next gubernatorial election is more than a year away, the coming year in the State House will almost certainly be shaped by campaign politics to a greater degree than usual, making life for Sununu, in particular, potentially uncomfortable. Still, Sununu says he sees no particular challenge.

“We are running the state, we are managing, we are doing very well,” he told reporters Wednesday. “It has nothing to do with those two individuals.”

Sitting governors have faced challengers who were serving in the Legislature. John Lynch faced and defeated then-state Sen. Joe Kenney and then-Rep. Jim Coburn; John H. Sununu beat Chris Spirou, who was House minority leader at the time he ran for governor. But there’s no recent precedent for two people in lead State House roles, in the majorities of their respective bodies, simultaneously challenging an incumbent governor.

Any governor seeking another term with a Legislature and Executive Council controlled by the opposing party can expect pushback in an election year. But Sununu’s situation could be particularly fraught, and there are big issues.

Democrats could plausibly pass dozens of bills on issues – ranging from energy, guns and election law –  that will put their policy goals and Sununu’s into stark relief. That much is common in an election year. As majority leader, Feltes is also in a position to tank Sununu’s legislative priorities, potentially denying him a portfolio of recent accomplishments to take before voters.

Sununu could face similar challenges from Volinsky at the Executive Council table, where he will need Democratic support to get things he wants done, like naming a leader for the state’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. Current Commissioner Jeff Myers is stepping down in January.

Sununu appears to have abandoned, at least for now, his hope of filling another key state post, that of Supreme Court chief justice.

In July, when Democrats on the Executive Council - including Volinsky - voted as a bloc to reject MacDonald's nomination for that role, Sununu decried it as “political,” and declared what he called a pause on judicial nominations.

On Wednesday he said he had no timetable for lifting that pause.

“I think it would be great to be able to move forward,” Sununu said, “but I’m not going to bring folks forward if politics are a key variable in the thinking of the Executive Council.”

Several councilors said they’ve reached out to Sununu to discuss nominations, but have received no response.

Volinsky, on the day he announced his intent to fill Sununu’s seat come 2020, offered his own interpretation of the showdown.

‘What he’s doing is really in violation of the Constitution," Volinsky said, “and he’s just being obstinate.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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