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Anti-mask Republican representatives seek impeachment of Sununu

  • On Sunday, a group of about 100 people, including one state representative, Anne Copp, of Derry, met just outside Sununu’s private home with a bullhorn calling on him to reverse the mask mandate. Paul SteinhauserFor the Monitor

  • On Sunday, a group of about 100 people, including one state representative, Anne Copp, of Derry, met just outside Sununu’s private home with a bullhorn calling on him to reverse the mask mandate. Paul SteinhauserFor the Monitor

Monitor staff
Published: 11/24/2020 2:50:56 PM

A group of Republican state representatives is pressing for the impeachment of Gov. Chris Sununu over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, alleging he has exceeded his constitutional authority during the state of emergency, the group announced Tuesday.

“Simply, we are violating the rights of our people,” said Rep. Michael Sylvia, a Belmont Republican who is part of the effort. “This is not something that we can tolerate now or in the future.”

In a resolution currently working its way through the legislative drafting process, the representatives will call for an impeachment inquiry against Sununu, a fellow Republican, during the legislative session next year.

That resolution must pass the 400-member House of Representatives with a majority vote before the inquiry can begin – a tall order in the Republican-controlled House. After separate hearings and separate inquiries in the House and Senate, the motion to impeach would also need majority votes to pass.

A spokesman for Sununu’s office did not have an immediate comment.

For Sylvia, the impeachment attempt boils down to one motivation: reining in the governor. Since the pandemic swept New Hampshire in March, Sununu has been relying on an emergency powers statute, RSA 4:45, that Sylvia believes is unconstitutional.

“It is very broad language for the statute, which allows for arbitrary guidelines that the governor has put in place,” he said. “And some of these things, they just don’t fit our Constitution.”

Sununu instituted a “stay-at-home” shutdown order in late March that required “non-essential” businesses to shut down operations forcing restaurants and bars to close. Over the following several months into the summer, he gradually eased that order, eventually allowing restaurants and retail outlets to open back up for business with restrictions.

Last Thursday, though, as daily COVID-19 case levels continued to hit historic highs, Sununu implemented a mandatory mask-wearing executive order, the first of the pandemic.

That was a major catalyst behind the impeachment attempt, Sylvia said.

“I would say that the mask mandate was the final straw,” he said. “That is another very clear violation of our rights that we are guaranteed under our Constitution.”

The exact language of the impeachment motion was not immediately available and is still being drafted in the Office of Legislative Services – the team of non-partisan legal staff who write up and format requests for bills from representatives, Sylvia said.

The prime sponsor of the motion, Hudson Rep. Andrew Prout, was not available for comment Tuesday.

It is unclear how much momentum the proposal has politically. But the move represents the latest and most significant widening of the rift between Sununu and Republican party leadership and the Libertarian wing of the party.

Back in March and April, a movement called “Reopen NH” emerged with a singular focus on getting Sununu to reverse his shutdown orders for businesses and restaurants. That group protested regularly at the State House, occasionally directing their frustration at the governor directly.

Shortly before the election, Reopen NH released a list of 119 candidates they endorsed. The organization, which has now re-branded to the new name, “Rebuild NH,” says 74 of them were elected.

How many members of that 74 would support an impeachment against the governor is unclear.

On Sunday, a group of about 100 people, including one state representative, Anne Copp, of Derry, met just outside Sununu’s private home with a bullhorn calling on him to reverse the mask mandate. That group was not affiliated with Reopen NH, which disavowed the choice to go to the governor’s house.

And on the House floor this year, some of the same representatives who have signed onto the impeachment effort this month made a short-lived attempt to end Sununu’s emergency powers in a floor motion.

The impeachment request has already drawn the rebuke of upper party leadership.

In a statement Tuesday morning, New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Steve Stepanek and Vice-Chairwoman Pamela Tucker said the impeachment was a distraction from the reasons Republicans reclaimed the majority in the House and Senate.

The Republican Party stands for cutting taxes and state spending and expanding school choice options, the two argued – not impeaching a member of the party for overreach during a crisis.

“The NHGOP has always and will continue to stand with Governor Sununu and his team as he fights for Granite Staters during this global pandemic,” Stepanek and said in the joint remarks.

“Talk of impeachment is a severe obfuscation of the reasons Granite Staters elected Republicans on November 3rd and these House members seeking headlines will look foolish when this effort falls flat before it even gets off the ground.”

Still, for Sylvia, blowback from the top brass is expected.

“Obviously, this does not put me in great standing with the party,” he said. “Obviously, we would like to be all unified and this is not ... a unifying issue. But we do need to settle this.”

Sylvia says it isn’t personal against Sununu. To him, the impeachment is about sending a message to all future governors, not just the current one.

“We know that the Democrats were very happy with the governor taking executive powers,” he charged. “Because they see a future where they can grab the ring of power and use it in a way that is perhaps less restrained than Gov. Sununu has been.”

In reality, Democrats did oppose aspects of Sununu’s state of emergency – specifically around spending issues.

The Democratic chairwoman and chairman of the House and Senate Finance committees, Rep. Mary Jane Wallner and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, sued Sununu in March over his refusal to allow the spending of $1.25 billion in federal COVID assistance to be passed through the Fiscal Committee – the legislative body that normally approves federal grants and transfers.

The lawmakers had argued that not allowing legislative approval of the spending was an unconstitutional assertion of executive power. Sununu had argued that the executive branch needed to move quickly to disburse the funds and that the emergency powers statute. The Hillsborough Superior Court agreed with the governor and ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.

Still, Democrats have not directly opposed the use of executive orders, and in some cases have urged him on. In March, around 200 House Democrats signed a letter urging Sununu to issue a “stay-at-home” emergency order that would shut down businesses and restaurants, a move the governor ultimately made.

Just how much the impeachment attempt complicates Republican party unity could be clear on Dec. 2, when the newly-elected New Hampshire House meets in Durham to elect the House Speaker, with Dick Hinch as the favorite.

“Organization Day is going to be interesting,” Sylvia quipped.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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