Personal, political sides of paid family leave on display 

For the Monitor
Published: 10/20/2018 11:03:33 PM

An emotional plea by Kurt Sundstrom is front and center in New Hampshire’s race for governor.

The widower from Concord, who appears to fight back tears as he discusses the 2015 death of his wife from terminal brain cancer, is featured in the latest television commercial for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Molly Kelly.

“Paid family leave would have meant the world to me and our son because having to worry about money is the most horrible thing when you’re trying to care for someone,” Sundstrom said in the ad.

Kelly, a Harrisville resident who spent 10 years representing the southwest corner of New Hampshire in the state Senate, is trying to apply a full-court press to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu over his scuttling of a paid family medical leave bill earlier this year.

Quietly, though, Sununu and state Republicans have been pulling together a proposal of their own.

The program, first publicly announced by Sununu on Thursday, is being called a “public-private partnership” and is intended to bring in private carriers to offer plans to state and private-sector workers without imposing a mandate.

Sununu sometimes has a unique way of accomplishing his goals, like using keno revenues to pay for the expansion of full-day kindergarten.

Under the proposal, the state would contract with a private insurer to offer a paid family and medical leave policy to 10,000 of the state’s public employees, which would then be made available to private employees, who would likely pay premiums to join the program. The state employee policy would provide a baseline for other private insurers to base their own plans.

Sununu’s emerging voluntary plan hasn’t stopped Kelly from trying to capitalize on the issue on the campaign trail with stops in Concord, Portsmouth, and Londonderry over the past two weeks to illustrate how small businesses could benefit from a paid family leave program in the Granite State.

Sununu campaigned in favor of paid family and medical leave as he ran for governor in 2016, but Kelly argued that New Hampshire’s first GOP governor in a dozen years didn’t follow through on his pledge.

“Chris Sununu had an opportunity to put through paid family medical leave. He had a majority in the House and Senate. He didn’t do it,” she charged.

Kelly said she supports a House of Representatives bill that passed the GOP majority chamber three times earlier this year. The legislation would have created a state-run program, available to all private-sector employees, to allow for up to six weeks of paid leave for pregnancies, illnesses and other qualifying conditions. Participating employees would pay in 0.67 percent of wages and the program, administered by the state Department of Employment Security, is expected to cost about $14.5 million to set up.

After the threat of a veto from Sununu, the Republican-controlled Senate voted down the measure.

“I believe (the bill is a) a win-win, and will improve the lives of the people,” Kelly said.

Speaking with reporters recently, Sununu again panned the measure Kelly supports.

“I did oppose their plan because it was a terrible idea for New Hampshire,” he said. “It was essentially an income tax and any leader of the state has to stand against that, and come up with better solutions, creative solutions, voluntary plans that really work for the people.”

While many Democrats applaud Kelly’s emphasis on the issue, some Republicans criticize her strategy.

“I just think it speaks to her lack of substance and diversity of issues. A one-trick pony show is not going to get it done,” said David Carney, a Granite State-based GOP consultant who’s a veteran of numerous presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.

On Thursday, Kelly was joined on the campaign trail by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – who’s the lead sponsor of a paid family leave bill in the U.S. Senate. The trip by Gillibrand to the first-in-the-nation primary state also fueled more speculation that the senator may launch a bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Last week, Kelly again criticized Sununu for referring to the program as “vacation” during a forum in August. “It’s hardly a vacation,” she emphasized.

The commercial with Sundstrom is Kelly’s second straight in the general election. And both spots focus on paid family leave. The first ad, titled, “Families,” which hit the airwaves two weeks ago, features workers and a widow who explain why the program would help them.

In the new commercial, Sundstrom said that “Gov. Sununu blocked the paid family medical leave. He called it a vacation.”

With his voice starting to choke up, Sundstrom emphasized the gravity of the issue.

“I want Gov. Sununu to know that it’s not a vacation,” he said. “To know when you see someone that you love die, in front of your eyes, and there’s nothing you can do. It’s time for a change.”

Kelly’s campaign said paid family leave isn’t the only issue that they’ll highlight in the two and a half weeks until Election Day.

But Kelly’s emphasis on the issue sits just fine with Steve Shurtleff, the top Democrat in the state House.

“It’s a value that both House Democrats and Molly share. It’s something we believe is very important to the people of New Hampshire,” the House minority leader told the Monitor.

“It’s something that is part of this campaign for House Democrats and will be top priority for Democrats in the next biennium,” Shurtleff added.

But he mentioned that there was no coordination between the Kelly campaign and state House candidates, explaining that “it really is everybody doing this on their own.”

Some Democrats say spotlighting the issue and Sununu’s “vacation” comment reinforces an image of Sununu that they’re trying to paint.

“By focusing on a paid family leave, Senator Kelly is exposing who Chris Sununu really is. His comment about paid family leave being a ‘vacation’ cuts against his ‘everyman’ image and reminds us that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” said Rep. Amelia Keane of Nashua, who serves as executive director of the New Hampshire Young Democrats.

By contrast, Kelly presents herself as a single mother who worked her way through college.

Carney said he thinks the attack will be ineffective.

“I do not think a one issue strategy will be effective. There’s so many issues facing parents and voters in this state,” said Carney, a Sununu supporter who worked for the governor’s father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, both in the Corner Office and in the White House when the elder Sununu served as chief of staff to then-President George H.W. Bush “They’re just trying to manufacture an issue. It’s just crazy.”

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