The two Democrats running for New Hampshire governor, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and State Senator Dan Feltes, have some things in common. They're both from Concord, and they're both lawyers.
Both also describe their legal experience as critical to how they'd approach the job of leading the state. Volinsky has been a prominent New Hampshire litigator for 30 years, and Feltes spent close to a decade as staff attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance.
NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about the differences in the two candidates' respective legal backgrounds and how that informs their politics.
Rick Ganley: Let's talk about Andru Volinsky's background first. He's been on the Executive Council now for two terms. But to the extent that he's known to the general public here in New Hampshire, it's likely due to the notoriety that he gained as the lead counsel for plaintiffs in the Claremont education lawsuits more than 20 years ago now, right?
Josh Rogers: Yes, and certainly Andru Volinsky will tell you himself, as well as his campaign staff, that if he were to boil down his motivations for his run for governor this year to a single idea, it really is to change the state's school funding system and to reduce the reliance on property taxes. Those issues were obviously at the core of the Claremont suit. But, you know, Volinsky has been a lawyer for a long time, and his legal work includes a great deal more than simply matters of school funding.
Rick Ganley: I know that he's cited his work on death penalty cases.
Josh Rogers: He has. After law school in the 1980s, Andru Volinsky was a public defender. Among other things, he defended people in death penalty matters. And in 1986, he actually prevailed in a death penalty case on the grounds that a trial judge had improperly excluded a qualified juror. This was a case out of the state of Mississippi that actually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is Gray versus Mississippi.
Tape of Andru Volinsky: "This court also must recognize in reaching its conclusion, a clear distinction between the jury function of fact finding in the guilt or innocence phase, and the discretionary function involved in determining whether a particular community, particular community believes that the appropriate sentence in a particular case is death."
Josh Rogers: So that was Andru Volinsky arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled 5-4 in Volinsky's favor. He was then 30 years old. He sounds kind of young in that tape.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, that was in 1986. Since then, what other legal work has Volinsky done?
Josh Rogers: Well, obviously, the Claremont school funding case is perhaps his most prominent matter, but he's handled a variety of work, which isn't too surprising for someone who is a well regarded litigator. These cases have ranged from tax matters to discrimination. He was for some time the counsel to the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and he's represented victims in cases involving excessive force by police. He's over also represented people fighting to keep their jobs, including, you know, police chiefs under duress and school superintendents. And a lot of his work over the past decades has involved employment law; he's represented both workers and employers.
One interesting example of Volinsky's work was the five years plus he spent working in and around the Cabletron Company, which was at one point the state's largest employer. Volinsky first represented Brian Miller, a former Cabletron worker who sued in 1994 over being fired for refusing to replace a female worker with a man. And that order to replace the woman or the man came from Cabletron's then-CEO, a man who went on to become New Hampshire's governor. That was Craig Benson, obviously. And Miller and the other plaintiff won a $2 million judgment.
Volinsky then went to work for Cabletron, which hired him to improve its anti-discrimination and personnel policies. And Volinsky says that relationship with Cabletron lasted until the company broke up. And he'll say that he really sees the work he did at Cabletron and the relationships he had there as things that show the techniques he honed as a lawyer, the power to persuade and the ability to communicate and to do so, even with people you might be prone to disagree with politically, is proof that he has the skills needed to lead the state.
Tape of Andru Volinsky: "You know, if you're talking about trying to govern a state where the governor doesn't have a lot of direct power and has to be the collaborator in chief, I have shown that I can talk to hard-right Republicans and gain their respect and very progressive Democrats and cross those boundaries over and over again, because of my commitment to facts and being competent on the issues."
Rick Ganley: Okay, Josh, so with Volinsky the claim is that his law career is giving him the skills and experience needed to lead. What about Dan Feltes?
Josh Rogers: Well, it may not shock you to learn that Dan Feltes also thinks his legal work has equipped him with leadership skills. And if you've listened to Feltes' campaign at all, you've probably heard him mention his time at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that provides civil legal services to people with low incomes.
Tape of Dan Feltes: "I think the first case they did was an unemployment insurance case for someone who lost her job, and we didn't end up winning the case. But the person at the end of the case called me up and said, 'thank you,' which made an imprint on me. You know, that person had never really had anyone in their corner."
Josh Rogers: Dan Feltes' stress on his work with legal assistance does make sense politically. It is basically how he spent his career prior to joining the state Senate. He first won election six years ago. Feltes worked for New Hampshire Legal Assistance for close to a decade, where he handled a variety of issues. He's since also done some mediation work.
And if you talk to him, he'll say he sees all this work as kind of being of a piece: in the trenches with working class people, helping them navigate bureaucracies, be it governmental ones or commercial ones, systems that don't prioritize their needs, basically. And Feltes says the experience of helping clients secure benefits from the V.A. or keeping housing when they face foreclosure, has taught him the power and in some ways also the limitations of legal work.
Feltes says one reason he decided to basically shelve lawyering for politics is that he came to see elected office as maybe the better way to reach what he considers justice. And while Feltes will tell you he thinks his background in the law is a help, he also says that getting things done politically or electorally is sometimes less about nuance.
Tape of Dan Feltes: "Fundamentally, where is your gut? When the chips are down, are you thinking about it, and are you standing with people who need help? Working families, working people who never ask for help, but need to be looked out for, need an advocate."
Rick Ganley: Okay, he used the word advocate. I notice Feltes didn't say lawyer there.
Josh Rogers: No, he didn't. But you know Rick, no matter which Democrat ends up winning this party primary, Democrats will be nominating a lawyer to take on incumbent Republican Chris Sununu. And either way, that's going to inform how either man, Dan Feltes or Andru Volinsky, is going to be making their case to voters.