Progressive Policy Focus Puts Dan Feltes In The Spotlight As He Weighs Run Against Sununu

May 22, 2019

It’s a busy time of year at the New Hampshire State House, and no lawmaker may be as busy as New Hampshire Senate Majority leader Dan Feltes. 

His prolific sponsorship of legislation has made him the face of his party at the capital. The Concord Democrat appears to be banking on this as he weighs a gubernatorial run; so are Republicans. And Feltes’s political ambitions are an undercurrent in the final weeks of this legislative session.

But if you ask Feltes about a possible run for governor, he’ll insist his ambitions extend only to policy.

“I am focused squarely on the last part of the session, working hard to advance issues that help working families and small businesses here in New Hampshire,” he said. But in almost the same breath, Feltes can’t help but take a swipe at Gov. Chris Sununu, “Not the kinds of things that Governor Sununu and others are focused on, which is more and more tax breaks, often for big corporations out of state.” 

That combination - policy statement paired with an anti-Sununu barb - is a habit for Feltes. Take this comment from a recent State House news conference:

“With a governor and a Republican Legislature who have refused to fund child protection, we need soul repair right now in our politics. I hope to God Gov. Sununu sees the light.”

Assuming the role of Sununu antagonist may be necessary for Feltes - a legal aid lawyer turned senator in heavily Democratic district - to leverage his resume into a statewide profile.

But Feltes’s recurrent criticism of Sununu doesn’t mean he not also focused on policy.

He sponsored 106 bills this year – about 10 percent of the bills filed by the entire Legislature. These include issues like paid leave, minimum wage, and codifying aspects Obamacare in state law, all of which are at the core of his party’s agenda.

And Feltes's advocacy, be it in person at the State House or in videos posted on Facebook, can feel unrelenting.

“We’ve got a lot to deal with, from child protection, mental health, opioid epidemic, to education funding and helping our communities and including, reducing the pressure on the local property tax payer. So we’ve got a lot to do,” he said in a recent Facebook video. 

All this has raised Feltes’s profile and won him some hardcore fans.

"Yes I’m very impressed," said Deborah Jakobowski, a Loudon resident who's affiliated with the Kent Street Coalition, a progressive activist group. She said she finds Feltes's approach to politics moving.

“He brought his daughter last year to the Senate because they didn’t have childcare for that day," Jakobowski said, "and he had his bill in one hand, and a pacifier in the other hand. Yeah, he’s good."

That image of Feltes – the woke dad caring for his own family as he works to lift others – may impress liberals. But the state Republican Party is working to define Feltes in its own fashion, as in a recent online ad:

“Dan Feltes made a paid family leave program that creates an income tax his top priority. Dan Feltes’sincome tax holds granite state families hard earned wages hostage.”

That Feltes is the only State House Democrat to draw such attacks may be a sign that his political agenda is potent. Or, that Republicans may just find him easy to caricature.

GOP Sen. Jeb Bradley preceded Feltes as the Senate's majority leader, and the two have worked together on fraught topics like health care and energy. That said, Bradley thinks Feltes’s constant jabs at Sununu are a barrier to dealmaking.

"When you personalize it to the extent he has, sometimes that diminishes your ability to get the job done,” Bradley said.

Sununu will have something to say about how much Feltes ends up getting done. The governor has already vetoed Feltes’s signature bill, a paid family leave program. But he’s also cut a deal to support a Feltes-authored plan on solar energy. And this week, Sununu signed a Democratic plan to ease emergency room boarding.

But the budget debate will cast the longest shadow over State House politics this year.

Dan Feltes has increasingly been a target for conservative lawmakers and bloggers in the state

Feltes is a top budget writer, but to hear the governor tell it, any compromise – if one is to be had – will be brokered by other Democrats, and not Feltes.

“Sen. Soucy and Sen. D’Allesandro have been negotiating the budget with us, and I think have been very good about ensuring that the political nonsense that you see over there, doesn’t come into play in our discussions," Sununu told reporters recently.

For his part, Feltes says his political horizon extends only to pressing the case of Senate Democrats in Concord. But these days, that work is taking him far from the State House, and his home district.

Feltes has recently appeared in Exeter, Hanover and New Castle. He was out to promote Democratic policies, but the events also resembled campaign stops. In New Castle this week, attendees were invited to donate up to $2,500 each to Feltes. In Exeter, he was introduced as someone who would run for governor.

And Feltes says there is more to come.

“I’m going to continue to do these events, I’m going to continue to talk about the things we are working hard on, and continue to elevate the issues that people care about,” he said.

And if that also happens to elevate Dan Feltes, so much the better for him, should that gubernatorial run become official.