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With Big GOP Wins Down Ballot, One-Party Rule To Return To N.H. State House

Governor Chris Sununu voting in Newfields on November 3, 2020.
Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu, seen here after voting Tuesday in Newfields, will likely begin his third term with Republican majorities in the State House.

New Hampshire voters may have re-elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and congressional seats this week. But when it came to State House races, Republicans are the ones celebrating.

Republicans appear poised to claim new majorities in the state Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the Executive Council. And Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican from Newfields, was perhaps the biggest victor on Tuesday night, winnning re-election by a 2 to 1 margin over his challengers. 

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Sununu Thursday morning.

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Rick Ganley: We've got several races, not official yet, but Republicans do appear likely to control both chambers of the state legislature coming out of this election, going into your third term. What are you hoping to accomplish if that is the case and you have Republican majorities to work with?

Chris Sununu: Sure. So, you know, I think there's a lot to do. Obviously, the COVID-19 crisis is still going to be the No. 1 issue. I think that's surrounding the state. I think there's a lot of things I had to do through my emergency orders that I think the legislature should likely take up -- things like telemedicine and such that I think should be permanent. They shouldn't just be part of the state of emergency. They really should be permanent. So I think there's some opportunity there.

You know, working with the Republican legislature in 2017 and 2018 really built, I think, a great economic model for the state, putting businesses first, tax cuts, things of that nature that encourages more businesses to come in and the state builds more revenue from that actually. And we've seen that model work. So I think not just kind of holding the line, but really getting back to putting those individual communities and businesses first, a good, strong, balanced budget. That just creates opportunity for everyone. So a variety of things.

But I think some of the opportunities, if you will, believe it or not, we saw some opportunities to the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be through telemedicine or expanded health care opportunity or whatever it might be. I want to keep those things and make them permanent, those kind of shots in the arm of technology that a lot of us are using, make those types of things more permanent in our everyday lives, whether it's for school or remote working, installing more fiber and broadband across the state. We did that through COVID-19. I think we can do more of it now and we need more. You know, those are the types of things that I think we'll come up with.

You know, I haven't sat with anyone yet, but we'll kind of sit down with both the majority and minority leadership, Democrats and Republicans, to see what their agenda is. I just feel confident, like most years, we can come to an agreement and a clear mind on getting a lot of this stuff done.

Election Live Blog: N.H. House Likely Flips to GOP

Rick Ganley: Well, I want to ask you about your first term as governor. You had the GOP controlling the legislature, your second term, Democrats holding majorities. Now, in both cases, it wasn't always smooth sailing. I mean, you are known for a record number of vetoes. What have you learned about working with lawmakers and how have those relationships evolved over time?

Chris Sununu: You know, as many vetoes as we had, and yes there are obviously bumpy times in every State House. But you always find a way to work through it. For the most part, you really do. There's a lot of things I vetoed that I think we could come back to. For example, the dental bill. We want to include dental for Medicaid, for folks that have Medicaid. The price is just way, way too high. I think there's a good middle ground, but let's get back to that. And so there's a lot of those bipartisan initiatives that I think we can.

But everyone has their own working style. And having 400 representatives, it's a lot, right? And so I can't meet with every single one of them. I'll be trying to meet with them in committee form or whatever it might be. But you kind of have to learn people's working styles. And I think that helps you, you know, understand what their priorities are. Republican, Democrat, it doesn't matter. Everyone just wants the best for their community. And when you go in with that mindset, that look, you might disagree on process, you might disagree on policy, but everyone is coming from the right place, I think that kind of gives a kind of an empathetic connection across that party line to get stuff done.

CLICK HERE for AP 2020 election results in New Hampshire

Rick Ganley: The Executive Council, which also appears likely to shift from Democratic to Republican control, did reject your nomination of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to serve as chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court last year. That seat has been left vacant ever since. Do you plan to bring his nomination back before the council?

Chris Sununu: Well, I haven't talked to Gordon about it, but if he's willing to serve the state, we'd be lucky to have him. Really. So, I mean, maybe this week I can kind of revisit it. I think that would be premature to do anything before we knew what to make of the council. I think there's a lot of other really important positions that will come up. If Gordon were to move on to the Supreme Court, we'd need a new attorney general. We have a couple of vacancies in a couple of the departments. And just as you know, the natural course of those positions, they don't follow a governor, right? They follow their own terms and they're kind of off schedule. So every year, a few different significant positions come up. So working with the council to fill those will always be a priority.

Rick Ganley: So not definitely saying yes, but a possibility?

Chris Sununu: Yeah, oh absolutely. I think he'd be great. I mean, Gordon, as Democrats and Republicans testified on his behalf in his first hearing, he'd be phenomenal. And you know, whether words of former Chief Justice Broderick, or all the different lawyers and judges that came up and said this is the guy. I mean, he'd be phenomenal the job. But politics got in the way, and that was unfortunate. But I think we can move beyond that now, and hopefully --

You know, the other very important thing here is we had a lot of individuals come to me and say, I don't want to be nominated anymore. I know that you want to nominate me. I don't want to go through that. It's too political or too ugly. My hope is that a lot more people will step up and say, you know what, I do want to serve. I think we can get past the politics of all this. Democrats, Republicans, I've nominated folks on both sides of the aisle. We're going to continue to do so. And I think my hope is that this new council will give some of the general citizens more confidence to come forward and say we want to be part of a process that can and should be nonpartisan.

Rick Ganley: Over the summer, you created a commission that looked at police accountability and transparency, and they made dozens of recommendations for changes to the state's criminal justice system. How are working to implement some of those changes? How's it going?

Chris Sununu: It's going very well. So I don't know the exact number. There were about 48 total recommendations that they recommended, and I agreed to every single one of them. Maybe about a third or 40 percent of them or so we could do through an executive order, and there's a couple of executive orders that are moving forward that can champion that. Still, maybe a dozen or maybe two dozen different initiatives that probably have to be done through the legislature. And we're working on a bill that will get bipartisan, co-sponsors for and move that forward through the legislature. And then finally, there are some recommendations in there that the state government can't really force. It's more local, community recommendations. And we'll be working with a lot of the local law enforcement agencies and community groups to get some of those recommendations hopefully implemented at a local level. So we can't force every one of the recommendations there, but we can be kind of champions of those messages to be sure.

Rick Ganley: There's nothing you could point to directly right now that is in play that's happening on the ground?

Chris Sununu: You know, I don't know. I don't know. Well, I guess the changes at the police standards and training, those are going on right now. So we've moved those forward. The [New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council] has their own commission. They've taken those recommendations. And John Scippa, who runs the police standards and training, has been starting some of those implementations already. They're looking at everything from new software protocols, to new protocols to what happens in the field, training protocols for individuals for when they're in certain situations in the field. Also the aspect of getting more folks with mental health experience and backgrounds in behavioral health experience to work side by side with law enforcement, both at the local and state level, that's also being implemented as we speak.

Rick Ganley: One last question for you, Governor. This week, the governors of Maine and Massachusetts have both implemented new restrictions aimed at curbing rising COVID-19 cases. You know, given the steadily rising infection and hospitalization numbers that we've been seeing, are there new restrictions coming for New Hampshire?

Chris Sununu: We're always looking. So every day we get new numbers. You know, we had a couple of days this week where the numbers were over 100. We're probably going to have a couple of days this week where the numbers could be over 200. Our percent positivity [rate] is still very low. There's nothing that I can point to today that says today we're going to do X or Y or Z, but we're always looking at it. And I think because we've been very specific about the guidance and regulations we've already put forward, we can be very targeted.

For example, when we saw the outbreak with hockey, we could be very targeted around hockey. Or if we see an outbreak in long term care facilities, we can be very targeted there. And also regionally as well, obviously, a lot of the cases are still happening in the southern tier. But as you know, there's even some small outbreaks in Coos County, right? So that if anything is a message that no one is immune. Just because you're in a rural area, or an area that traditionally has not had higher levels of COVID-19, it doesn't mean it can't happen. And we all have to be vigilant. But no, there's nothing specific I can point to today that says we're going to do X, but we try to take it kind of piece by piece and region by region.

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.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.

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