By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – It was, at times, a fiery exchange between the two gubernatorial candidates on issues of how to steer the state on issues of the economy, a new abortion law, taxation, education choice, and leadership during COVID-19.
The first face-to-face debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election featured three-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and Democrat Dr. Thomas Sherman, a Rye state senator.
The Good Morning NH 2022 Gubernatorial Debate on The Pulse of N.H. Radio WTSN, WTPL, and WEMJ was moderated by broadcaster Jack Heath. It was held in the former Walker School building in Concord, owned by Binnie Media.
Sununu said the cost of living is the most important issue facing voters.
Sherman said he thought the most important matter is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion without government interference, charging Sununu with approving new limits on those rights.
In the most heated exchange, Sherman charged Sununu with a lack of leadership in allowing the Republican-backed Executive Council to drag its heels for weeks on a contract to hire thirteen workers to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations.
“A lot of people died because of Delta (the COVID-19 variant), who would have been able to have been helped if he had been able to lead the Executive Council…,” Sherman said.
“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa,” Sununu said. “There was no delay,” arguing that the time frame Sherman was referencing was wrong and that he was referring to boosters.
They debated dates, either August 2021 or October 2021. Sununu said it came up in October 2021.
“It came up in August of 2021 because I talked to the (Health) commissioner in August of 2021. People got sick, and people died who would have benefited from having the earlier vaccine,” said Sherman.
Heath interrupted and asked Sherman if he was saying the governor was to blame for deaths due to the delay.
Sherman said, “I’m saying that the state needed to get those vaccines in people’s arms, and the failure to approve $27 million…” Sununu interrupted. “That is a lie; that isn’t even a debatable issue,” Sununu said. “Everyone had access to the vaccine,” and he said the state had one of the quickest rollouts in the nation. “The idea,” he said, “Is absolutely insulting.”
On another disagreement, Sununu said Sherman has a “very elitist attitude” in opposing Education Funding Accounts, saying the opposition was not allowing the poor to access the education of their choosing. Sherman said the state lacks equal education from community to community and has no equal education, to begin with.
Sherman opened the one-hour debate by noting he has been a doctor, state representative, and senator and said he has learned from patients that every relationship should be built on trust and listening.
He said that has helped inform him as a politician noting he is proud of bipartisan accomplishments from Medicaid expansion to most recently promoting New Hampshire-made steel fabricating.
From listening to residents across the state while campaigning now, he said people are concerned about skyrocketing housing costs, property taxes, and now energy costs. “Parents are concerned about childcare, and public schools and businesses are concerned about workforce,” he said.
“Chris Sununu has been taking the state off course, caving to extremists in the legislature on abortion and on energy, and I would like to make sure everyone understands that as governor, we have so much we can get done. We can make sure there is choice; we can lower costs….” He was cut off as his time was up.
Sununu said New Hampshire is the “envy of the country.”
“We have the fastest population growth. We have thousands of people coming into the state. We have businesses coming in here. We are ranked number one for personal freedoms, we cut taxes – I’ve never raised a tax – and yet we are still ranked as the most fiscally responsible governor in the country, and I am very proud of that because it allows us to invest in programs, new mental health programs, new programs for opioid and addiction, new opportunities in education, all of this stuff gets invested in, and we still have surpluses at the end of the day, and that allows us to keep going and kind of do things that we haven’t been able to do before and it makes us kind of the envy, definitely of New England…but the rest of the county.”
“We have some issues. We have inflation. This is real whether it is the high cost of fuel, the high cost of electricity, the high cost of using goods, just making kids lunch and getting gas in the gas tanks [those] are real issues, and you need someone who understands fiscal responsibility. We have very likely a recession coming, and you need folks who can make tough decisions at the top level. So I am very proud of what we have been able to do, but we have some challenges ahead,” Sununu said.
Sherman was asked why he calls the state’s new law limiting abortion after 24 weeks “Sununu’s abortion ban,” yet the new New Hampshire law does not restrict abortion in the first and second term but only in the third.
“It’s a Sununu abortion ban because he signed it into law,” Sherman said. He said if you look at the third trimester of pregnancy when something goes wrong, “it’s about tragedy,” and a woman works with her doctor to decide what to do.”
“The government has no role in that relationship,” Sherman said, “and the new law brings a lawyer into the room because it is criminal behavior if a doctor performs the abortion after 24 weeks. They can intervene only if the life of the mother is in danger or there is an anomaly that makes the fetus unviable.”
Doctors can now be incarcerated. “If they go too long, she could die, and too early, he could face felony charges,” Sherman said.
Sununu agreed that he would like to see the decriminalization of doctors in the new abortion limits and that there could be future legislation to eliminate it. “It’s not my abortion ban,” said Sununu. “I did not want to put that in the budget. The legislature did that. But of course, we were not going to shut down the government and veto a budget over it.”
He said he supports Roe v. Wade, and though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision reversed that, it did not change anything in New Hampshire.
“I get that the Democrats are trying to do everything they can do to avoid the issues like inflation and all this other stuff and just focus on one issue. We wanted more flexibilities,” in the original new state abortion law, and he said he fought for it and got some.
“Decriminalization, exceptions for rape and incest, I am all for it. I want to see all that just like Tom Sherman,” he said. He said 24 weeks is not “extreme” and exactly the same laws as in Massachusetts and New York.
“At the end of the day, I think we see eye to eye,” Sununu said.
Sherman disagreed. He said everything has changed since the law went into effect.
“This is absolutely different than any other states around us” because it criminalizes doctors, Sherman said, noting the difference in New York and Massachusetts, which does not criminalize doctors.
Sununu said you want to decriminalize it? “Guess what, me too.”
“Well, governor, you shouldn’t have signed it into law,” noting he vetoed a budget before to keep in corporate tax cuts. Heath said most polls show folks don’t support last-trimester abortions.
“In the last trimester, we just don’t do elective abortions,” Sherman said, and women should have full right to make a decision with her doctor in that third trimester without government intervention. He said Sununu has flip-flopped on the choice issue, depending on his audience and the day of the week.
Sununu said abortion is not the most important issue, and he supports abortion rights, but this is being pushed by Democrats because of the Supreme Court decision.
The real important issue, he said, is inflation and that the Biden Administration and Democrats “have gone too hard too fast,” increasing the cost of living, impacting everyone.
Sherman said the cost of living has skyrocketed under Sununu, arguing property taxes have gone up over 15 percent during his tenure.
“So the $100 million in property tax relief that I signed, why did you vote against it?” Sununu asked.
“Because you had an abortion ban in the budget,” Sherman said.
Heath noted the state is paying among the highest electric rates it has ever seen, and Sherman has said Sununu is responsible for not supporting more renewable options. Sununu said he vetoed all of Sherman’s renewable energy bills that would have increased costs.
“We have to make a transition,” Sununu said, not the Green New Deal or other initiatives.
Sherman said Sununu is again not telling the truth on renewable costs. He said we need to lift caps on renewables to allow businesses to create businesses and produce their own energy. It would take that energy they use now off the grid, creating capacity in the system. He said Sununu’s major contributors are the utility producers.
Sununu said liberal Democrats shut down the 1,200-megawatt Northern Pass project, which would have provided renewable hydropower to the regional grid. He said an independent watchdog group; the EIA estimated if all the state Democratic-backed bills passed, the state’s ratepayers would be paying $100 million more directly on their utility bills. “I’m not going to let that happen,” Sununu said.
Sherman said he knows no one in the state who is thanking Sununu for vetoing those energy bills and that the state should have more energy diversity. He pointed to another study in the Boston area where over four years, there has been $1.1 billion in savings to the states who have moved forward with more renewables.
“Wow’ that is backward thinking, man,” Sununu said. “Someone’s got to pay the bill, man.”
“I know you want to go to Washington, but this is New Hampshire,” Sherman said. “I am looking at our rates.”
Sherman asked Sununu if he would support net metering caps being lifted. “Absolutely not,” Sununu said. “Because it would be a retail rate, not a wholesale rate,” he said.
“So what Chris Sununu is saying is people of New Hampshire should not have the freedom to produce their own energy at a level that they think they could ….” Sherman said.
Sununu said, “When the cost is on the back of fixed income individuals, an elderly family on a fixed income they have to turn on the lights like everyone else, and they all have to pay the subsidy” for renewable development.”
INCOME OR SALES TAX
Sherman said he has not, nor would he support, an income or sales tax if it came across his desk as governor. But he said he would work to reduce property taxes which he said have gone up by $1.7 billion under the Sununu administration. He noted the governor vetoed and then finally signed such relief as part of the agreement for a new budget during the last biennium, and then he went around the state and took credit for it. “People need property tax relief,” Sherman said, particularly the elderly and those on fixed incomes.
Sununu said Sherman supported a tax increase under the previous budget, which would have added a tax on wages. It was vetoed. “So Tom, which paycheck was not going to have to pay? The government is taking money out of every paycheck in the state. That’s not an income tax? Yes or no? It’s not an income tax or not,” Sununu said.
Sherman said, “It’s not. All the folks in my district said it’s not an income tax.” “That’s right,” Sununu said “they called it a ‘premium on wages.'”
“It’s optional, and you know it,” Sherman said, noting that the company would have bought into it.
“No! That is not the way the bill is written!” Sununu said. “Either you are lying about it, or you know it’s an income tax,” he said.
“It’s not an income tax,” Sherman said.
Heath then asked Sununu about criticism that property taxes are going up.
The governor said the state does not control property tax, but it can send back cash, and he has been doing that to help with costs for schools, roads, and bridges that otherwise would increase property taxes. He said a Republican-backed initiative also sends more money back in rooms and meals taxes, and Sununu said Sherman did not support it. Sununu said the budget he signed sends back more dollars for children than ever before, but Sherman challenged that. Sununu acknowledged there are fewer kids now being educated, and it is a per-pupil cost.
Sherman said he supports an equalized education, and that is not the case now and depends on the community.
Parents, Heath said, are having issues with teachers and school boards, and he asked about how much information should be shared with them if the safety of the child is at risk. Both ended up agreeing that it should be handled on a case-by-case basis to protect the child from possible abuse at home.
The two agreed parents and teachers optimally work as a team to help the child grow. They disagreed, however, on the new education freedom accounts, which allow low-income families a voucher of up to $5,000 to attend a private or another school than the public school.
Sununu called it “really awesome” and noted the state is talking about 1 or 2 percent of the educated population. “It’s an equalizer,” Sununu said.
Sherman said he does not support them, and the state has an unequal education system. “It’s a total mistake,” he said, and a total misappropriation of money. He noted about 85 percent of recipients in this first year did not have children in the public system to begin with.
Sununu called Sherman’s view an “elitist attitude.”
Sherman said he would not change the business taxes at this point, but he would use any surplus business tax revenues to reinvest in child care and new housing to support business growth.
Sununu said Sherman did not support breaks in business taxes in the last biennium, and Sherman countered he supported leaving rates as they were.
Sununu agreed “childcare is absolutely essential,” noting he gave $150 million in federal COVID-19 relief money for child care and gave them more flexibility. Sherman said the money had not been entirely used.
MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
Sununu said when he got to the office in 2017, 95 people were waiting for a mental health bed in hospital emergency rooms, and he got that number down to zero. That number has fluctuated and is now at about 30, said state health officials this month.
Sununu said he got mobile strike teams for mental health care crisis passed, invested in a new children’s hospital at Hampstead, a 24-hour crisis line, and Sununu also said there are now judges who are dealing exclusively with hearings for those being held involuntarily for evaluation.
A state Supreme Court ruling forced the state to hold those hearings in a timely matter.
Sherman said the state is not doing enough and that it is trying to catch up still. While he has since retired, Sherman noted on his rounds as a doctor, he met a child who asked him to make sure no other child has to go through this experience. “They are still going through this,” he said. “All of this could be anticipated. “We have a chaotic system….and children are not getting the care the moment they need it,” Sherman said.
Sununu said staffing is an issue and is also impacting surrounding states as part of a national workforce crisis.
FIRST IN THE NATION PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARY
Sherman was asked if his party was failing to retain the first-in-the-nation primary. Sherman said he is not worried “because I think we have a tradition.”
Sununu said the Democrats have essentially lost the primary for New Hampshire, noting the Democratic party is not deciding on who will host it until after the midterms election. “That does not bode well,” Sununu said.
COVID LEADERSHIP FROM WASHINGTON
Sununu said the federal delegation did nothing during COVID-19 except vote for the Cares Act.
Sherman said they provided all the money that was spent and claimed he was the one who did nothing. “I have to remind the governor that when he let the emergency order expire, he did nothing.
Heath asked if Sununu planned to run for President. He said, “Oh no, I am running for governor; give me a break. What are you talking about?” He said his name is ‘out there nationally “because things are running really, really well,” he said.
Sununu said he supported contracts for Planned Parenthood and others and “twisted as many arms” as he could but could not get support on the council for the health care contracts for the poor. Sherman said he did nothing, but Sununu said: “it would have never been on the agenda” of the council if he did not support it.
Sherman noted when he was an executive councilor in 2015, Sununu voted to oppose a similar contract. “I was in a Republican primary, in 2016, four candidates, I voted for the Planned Parenthood contract people said it would ruin me politically. I said, ‘it’s the right thing to do,'” Sununu said. He won, “and we did it in 2016” and in other years going forward.
“What my complaint is you put the politics before the people, and that is what I am saying,” Sherman said.
“Sounds like you should run for Executive Council,” Sununu said.
Asked by Heath what the two liked most about the other’s leadership, Sherman said Sununu signed all the bills that he was a prime sponsor. “That is rude,” said Sununu. “Your compliment to me is what you did?” No, said Sherman, it was what Sununu did to move the state forward.
“I hear Tom Sherman is a great doctor, which is great,” said Sununu, noting he thinks Sherman should stay a doctor.
Sununu closed by saying the state is in good shape, but it is facing a potential recession in mid-2023 and needs seasoned fiscal leadership going forward. Sherman said he does not see the state now in a recession, but if the state could bring down costs, it could be more resilient moving forward. Sununu said the state has personal freedom, a strong economy, says no to bad ideas, keeps income taxes out, creates an opportunity for individuals, and allows for choice in education. “We do it better here…in a fiscally responsible way,” Sununu said. “I love the job. We’ve got a lot of energy for it,” he said. “I want to earn people’s vote.”
Sherman said in voting for governor, “The choice could not be more stark.” “This is about trust. This is about somebody saying the way it really is,” charging Sununu does not do that, referring to Sununu’s statistics on overdoses in Manchester and Nashua as an example.
“And together, we can lead. We can lead on (reproductive) choice. We can lead on bringing down the cost. We can expand our energy options. We can make sure that we stop being the only state in the region that is outsourcing their revenue to all surrounding states by legal adult use of cannabis…We can be bringing down property taxes, and I have a history of doing much of that.”
A taped version of this debate is available at https://thepulseofnh.com/concord-lakes-news/gubernatorial-debate-on-good-morning-nh/