By Chris Jensen,
The five members of the Executive Council are some of the state’s most powerful officials. They advise the governor, vote on major expenditures and approve key appointments, including judges and top-level state employees. And the seat representing the North Country is up for grabs on Nov. 8.
Littleton native Mike Cryans, a Democrat, is challenging Republican incumbent Joe Kenney, of Union, to represent District 1. It covers the North Country, but goes well below the notches.
Cryans and Kenney first matched up in March 2014 to fill the seat of Executive Councilor Ray Burton who died late in 2013. With about 41,000 votes cast, Democrat Cryans lost by about 1,300 votes.
Cryans is a former teacher and bank official who spent 10 years in charge of Headrest, a nonprofit organization in Lebanon focused on issues including mental health and substance abuse.
He’s in his 19th – and last year – as a Grafton County Commissioner. During much of that time he worked with Republican Ray Burton, who was also a commissioner in addition to being a member of the Executive Council.
Cryans has been endorsed by the Burton family. “What I see in Mike is a people person,” says Joan Day, Burton’s sister. “He reminds me a lot of our brother.”
Kenney is a Wakefield native. Starting in 1994, he served 14 years in the state legislature, including six years in the Senate. He sponsored bills including requiring insurance companies to pay a midwife for home births (it passed) and he voted against gay marriage.
In 2008, he ran against John Lynch for governor. In February he’s retiring as a lieutenant colonel after 37 years in the Marines with assignments including Iraq and Afghanistan.
While in the legislature, Kenney signed the pledge from David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity. That pledge requires cutting taxes and fees and opposing any tax increase; cutting spending and the size of government; passing a right-to-work law and opposing “all forms of Obamacare in New Hampshire, including Medicaid expansion.”
Kenney said he hasn’t recently signed the pledge, but he remains in “general agreement” with it except that he does not oppose Medicaid. He said he wants to see how the current expansion works before taking a position.
Cryans and Kenney have similar positions on some issues. Opposing Northern Pass. Making fighting the opioid crisis a priority. Economic development.
But there is a sharp difference over two controversial decisions.
One is funding Planned Parenthood. Kenney voted against funding, while Cryans favors it.
The other is Kenney’s vote to block a former public defender from becoming a judge, in part because she was required to defend people charged with sex crimes. Cryans says nominee Dorothy Graham was qualified and should have been appointed.
Here are some of their other positions.
Both say they will work fulltime as commissioners and helping constituents will be a priority.
While not from the North Country, Kenney says he has traveled extensively and has developed a good network and understanding of the area. He says 14 years in the legislature – and the last two years on the Executive Council – give him the experience to do more for the North Country than Cryans.
When a Vermont company recently announced it was opening a plant with 60 manufacturing jobs in Groveton, the developer praised Kenney for his help. Kenney has also voted for community block grants to help places including Berlin, Littleton and Colebrook.
Cryans says he’s better prepared because he’s a Littleton native and spent 19 years as one of three Grafton County Commissioners – including being mentored by Burton. He says that gives him an excellent background in how government works as well as where the North Country needs help and how to provide it.
He says people in the North Country feel they don’t have a voice in Concord because they are not understood and as a Littleton native he can be that voice.
Kenney and Cryans agree fighting the opioid crisis is a priority.
Kenney says he’s been working on it including voting for funding and looking at how to expand Friendship House, the only residential treatment facility in the North Country.
He also says he supports the concept of a drug court in each county.
“We just have to figure out how to fund it,” he says.
Cryans says he has a solid understanding of the issue because he was in charge of Headrest, which dealt with substance abuse. And he says the state needs to do more with counseling and residential treatment.
But he admits funding will be a challenge. “I’m not sure there will ever be enough money to battle this, but if we don’t try obviously more people will die,” he says.
Both say they hope the Balsams resort will be redeveloped.
However, before supporting a state-backed $28 million loan, they each want to see an independent, detailed report on developer Les Otten’s finances and the prospects the resort will be a success.
If the state’s Business Finance Authority recommends backing the loan it would have to be approved by the Executive Council and the governor.
Cryans says he supports Medicaid, which provides medical insurance to about 48,000 low-income families in the state.
Kenney says it has been “a positive experience to provide more coverage for people” but it will take five to seven years to see how the benefits compare to the costs. “I was skeptical at first but I am starting to turn around and say ‘let’s look at the data in the coming years.’”
Cryans and Kenney agree a major issue for the North Country is economic development.
Cryans favors exploring more cooperative programs with organizations such as Plymouth State and perhaps getting successful business owners talking to people about “what they could do to start a business and how they could make it work.”
Kenney says “the next big crisis on the horizon” is not having enough workers.
“We have a millennial generation that we have to capture and keep here in New Hampshire. We’re going to gray and gray until we look around and there are no young people here.”
He favors exploring strategies including how community colleges could help with that.
Northern Pass is not an issue that will be decided by the Executive Council. But Cryans and Kenney both oppose it and say it should be entirely buried.
The Role of Government
Kenney says government’s role is to provide essential services such as safety, roads and education.
“But I am a person who is very much in favor of local control. In some cases, less government is best government,” Kenney says.
Kenney says government should help “the most vulnerable” people, including those “developmentally disabled or people with mental health issues or people that are less fortunate because they have had some illness.”
Cryans says: “I’ve always felt the role of government is there to help people that need help, social services and stuff like that. It is there to do the basic things we all want. Good roads. Good drinking water. To provide services the general population expects in the most cost-efficient way.”
Last year Kenney was one of three votes rejecting Gov. Hassan’s nomination of Dorothy Graham as Superior Court judge.
Graham was a public defender for two decades, which sometimes put her at odds with Manchester police. But Manchester Police Chief Enoch F. Willard sent a letter to the Executive Council urging her appointment. It said, in part, “she is of unquestioned integrity, honesty and her commitment to fairness is absolute.”
Graham’s nomination was killed on a 3-2 vote by Kenney and Republicans Chris Sununu and David K. Wheeler.
At the time, New Hampshire Public Radio reported that Kenney explained that he rejected Graham after reading an article in a conservative Republican publication.
It began: “New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan tapped a public defender with a history of trying to get child rapists off on technicalities for a vacant judgeship.”
However, public defenders are assigned cases, have no choice and NHPR reported that the American Bar Association standards say an appointed lawyer must defend the client with “devotion.”
In a recent interview, Kenney told InDepthNH.org that the “compelling” reason he voted against Graham was that as a public defender she lacked the “diversity in her background” to be a judge on the Superior Court.
But then he added: “The other reason was that we looked at many of the cases she did defend and some of them were some severe cases of sexual predators that she was defending and asking for reduced sentencing and I don’t like that.”
Cryans says Graham was qualified and Kenney should not have rejected her because he didn’t like the people she was assigned to defend.
Planned Parenthood Funding
Last year Kenney voted against awarding a $549,000 contract to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. He joined Executive Councilors and fellow Republicans Chris Sununu and David Wheeler to kill the contract.
According to New Hampshire Public Radio concerns cited at the meeting involved allegations around a video by an anti-abortion group that seemed to show Planned Parenthood executives from outside New England discussing getting money for fetal tissue.
But Planned Parenthood claimed the video was edited and misleading, it was widely discredited as edited and Politifacts concluded the claim that “some Planned Parenthood chapters have been selling the body parts of aborted fetuses for profit” was false.
Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire also said it does not donate fetal tissue and failing to fund the contract would hurt 12,000 women a year who receive other health services.
Kenney said the video did not play a significant role in his decision. “That was the theater around Planned Parenthood, but with it or without it I would not have supported Planned Parenthood,” he said.
He said he has always opposed Planned Parenthood because it supports abortion and he thinks the state should be providing the other health services such as mammograms.
Cryans says “I think the services they offer are essential for women. To say that somebody else would do it. No one else stepped forward. They had the contract for 40 years.”