The State We’re In: Gov. Chris Sununu on leadership, the pandemic and bridging the political divide

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Watch Above: Melanie Plenda of Granite State News Collaborative interviews NH Governor Chris Sununu 

In this episode we speak one-on-one with New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu who talks about leadership, the pandemic and bridging the political divide. In preparation for our conversation, we asked the 15-plus member news outlets and community partners of the Granite State News Collaborative for questions they deemed important for their readers, listeners and viewers.

Editor’s Note: A partial transcript of the conversation is below. This content has been edited for length and clarity. View the video for complete Q&A.

Melanie Plenda: First, I’d like to discuss the events of the past week; days before the deadly insurrection on the nation’s Capital, you referred to threats being made that prompted you to cancel your outdoor inauguration event. Given what we’re finding out about the warning signs in DC now, do you think there was any connection to the threats here?

Gov. Chris Sununu: No. I think what happened in DC was isolated in that it was just going on in Washington. I think it’s some of the same pent-up frustrations that you saw building over the past year. There are folks that are either not understanding that some things have to be different around COVID – obviously, the election played into what happened in Washington – or lingering frustration surrounding the president’s election and some of the allegations of election fraud and all of that here in New Hampshire. I think a lot of the frustration …these are different issues and in different locations, they’re different situations, but I think it’s all part of that pent up frustration of 2020.

Melanie Plenda: The town of Troy reports being inundated with harassing and threatening phone calls after news surfaced of their police chief’s attendance at last week’s rally in Washington. What concerns you most about the divisive and dangerous political divide in our country and here in New Hampshire?

Gov. Chris Sununu: It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to have a different point of view. It’s okay to disagree with something you might see. That’s all fine and it’s okay to talk about it and even protest about it. There’s a time and place for all of that, but when it crosses that line of becoming intimidating language, that can result in other folks taking action or those individuals making those same threats and taking action themselves to spring the crowd up.

That’s really what you saw in Washington was some rhetoric that definitely incited a lot of what we saw happen over at the Capitol. There’s a responsibility in leadership without a doubt. First and foremost is leadership as elected as leaders – whether it’s the president, the town planner, a parent, or a business owner, if you have a leadership position then what you say carries weight and has an impact and influence into those that you work with or represent.

I think there just has to be a greater responsibility in understanding the power of our words and what they mean, and I think all of us have to understand that there is a responsibility to each other in this new age of social media and the new age of divisive political partisanship. It’s okay to be partisan sometimes, but you can’t let that break down your ability to actually get things done and move things along, right?

I’m a Republican; it’s okay to have Republican ideals and stick to those ideals and those values but if you do it at the expense of moving the ball forward, then nothing gets accomplished and you have failed in your job and you fail for every constituent that you represent. As leaders, we represent not just those that voted for us; as a governor, I represent all 1.35 million people in the state of New Hampshire without pride or prejudice. My biggest concern is that some folks don’t understand and appreciate the power and responsibility the media has as well. Their words have consequences and actions. Overall, I think we’re very fortunate in New Hampshire; the media does a great job. When you get a little partisanship here and there, and opinion pieces here and there, that’s fine, but I think the national media really makes their money on being divisive. 

The State We’re In: Host Melanie Plenda conducts a one-on-one interview with Gov. Chris Sununu.

Melanie Plenda: I’d like to turn now to the pandemic. In your inaugural address, you express gratitude for everyone who has done their part to address the spread of the virus, but there are still many in New Hampshire who think the state has gone too far in its emergency response. You have personally been the target of anti-mask protests in your hometown of Newfield. What is your message to those people?

Gov. Chris Sununu: Back in March, we knew how serious this was going to be, and we knew that very early on I was going to have to make decisions that I never wanted to have to make as a governor. We just had to do what was right even though there was going to be potentially a lot of pushback. We see while the most recent pushback and the most vocal pushback has been against my family and at my home and things of that nature. I do see a lot of one side saying lock it all down and the other one saying open it all up. I think we’ve done a really great job, pretty much every business has opened with some restrictions.

My message to everyone is that this is temporary. When I go into these emergency orders, we’re not making permanent law. We’re asking folks to understand the seriousness of the situation, understand that there is a pathway out if we all do what we’re obligated to do for our neighbors and our loved ones and our families. There is an end game here. I understand masks are an inconvenience, but that doesn’t mean we’re infringing your rights. Businesses can enforce no shirt, no shoes, no service rules. We’ve had those signs in our stores for ages. When people walk onto a construction site, we ask them to wear a hardhat and steel-toed boots. I don’t like wearing a mask. I don’t like having to do all the social distancing. I don’t like not being able to see my parents as often as I would like. Nobody likes it, but we have to accept those responsibilities so that we can move forward. I think in the next couple of months, we’re looking to be in pretty good shape here. The vaccine is rolling out, our most vulnerable citizens are getting protected. Hopefully, people understand that when we ask you to wear a mask, it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else that we’re trying to protect.

Melanie Plenda: Speaking of that vaccine rollout, New Hampshire is one of only three States that don’t include educators in phase 1b of their vaccination plan. You have shared they’re later in stage two. Can you walk me through the reasoning behind that decision and should they be moved up?

Gov. Chris Sununu: I could put everybody in phase 1a and 1b, but ultimately that would take six or seven months to vaccinate just that group. Then those more high-risk individuals within 1b might have to wait months because there’s just such a backlog. By keeping the groups very segregated and keeping them manageable, we can move through them rather quickly. We’ve gotten pretty much everybody their first shots in, or we’re getting there.

I think in the next week, we’ll have the second shots already being administered. Those that are at highest risk of being unfortunately fatal with COVID and those who take care of those at the highest risk of dying from COVID are the two biggest metrics that we always want to put forward.

The teachers come into play because we don’t want schools to be closed. It isn’t that we don’t care about teachers or grocery store workers or this group or that group, but when you start picking winners and losers based on occupation, you get into a very tough game. The winners here really have to be those that are most vulnerable, and the only two areas of the workforce that we segregated out were the healthcare workforce, because they take care of our most vulnerable. And they’re therefore at the highest risk of transmitting the COVID virus to someone of high risk or teachers. Not that teachers have a necessarily higher risk than anyone else coming in contact in a congregate setting. We do want to make sure that those schools get open, so putting them up in group 2a was the right thing to do. We’ve kept our groups a little smaller than other states so we can get through them faster and make sure we keep that prioritization where it needs to be.

Melanie Plenda: Moving on now to the upcoming legislative session and your agenda for the upcoming year, at the conclusion of your inaugural dress address you talked about some policy challenges ahead of us including workforce housing, student debt assistance, paid family leave, prescription drug pricing, and education funding among others. You also mentioned clearing out waste to create a more streamlined and efficient government. How will you accomplish that?

Gov. Chris Sununu: A great example I always give is that we used to have departments at Health and Human Services that deal with kids and health issues around kids, and then we had folks within the Department of Education that was making sure that certain health programs were being instituted in schools and interacting with kids and folks at DHHS over email, but they had never really met sometimes. We brought them all together for the first time and said Jim this is Sally, Sally this is Mary, and everyone started understanding how the left and the right hand were working not independently anymore, but together.

We created a lot of efficiencies and most importantly, we can take a lot of the funding of those programs and not cut it, but in many ways combine it instead. They’re not fighting against each other, they’re not duplicating each other, they’re working in real harmony together. What we’ve tried to do is take that model that we worked on about two or three years ago and really bring it to all the other aspects.

We have a dispatch center for Fish and Game officers, we used to have a dispatch center for Marine patrol and a dispatch center for local law enforcement and dispatch center for state police. We’ve combined some of that, but not all of it, so why don’t we keep combining it? When you’re talking about getting emergency services out, they shouldn’t be figuring out which dispatch center to go to and whatnot; it creates inefficiency and ultimately a waste of money.

We just did a big study on the cost of inadequate education and how that’s moving, and I think everyone on both sides of the aisle agrees that the school funding formula definitely needs to be changed. It’s not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. You have to understand that adequacy in Manchester might be very different from adequacy Newfield, for example, and understand those balances. It’s not necessarily more dollars into the system, but a better use of those dollars to make sure that we’re meeting the educational standards in the outputs in education that we want to see. We don’t have a budget crisis, but we are going to have to be a little tighter on the budget, and that creates an opportunity to ask our commissioners to work with advocates in the public, to dig deep and find where some of these barriers might be, and challenge ourselves to go after them.

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