Meet the candidates: Chris Sununu says he’s running on his own merits

  • Chris Sununu speaks at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics last month. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Executive Council member and Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu attends a gubernatorial forum on young children at New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Goffstown on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/9/2016 12:23:29 AM

Republican Chris Sununu is already the closest candidate to the governor’s office.

In a picture that hangs outside the office, a young Sununu, bundled in a parka, smiles and poses side by side with his brothers and sisters on a snowy ski hill.

The image appears in the official portrait of Sununu’s father – former governor John H. Sununu – and it has hung in the State House for at least 20 years.

Sununu, 41, is a member of one of the Granite State’s most well-known political families.

It’s a connection he downplays on the campaign trail, saying he prefers to run on his own merits. Sununu’s father and brother, former U.S. senator John E. Sununu, rarely appear at his roundtables or alongside the candidate as he walks in local parades.

“At the end of the day, I need to make the case for myself,” said Sununu, who lives in Newfields. “Having a known name is fine, but people have to understand what Chris Sununu is about.”

In the crowded Republican field, Sununu has cast himself as a fiscal conservative with business savvy who will bring civility and cooperation to state government.

Sununu, the CEO of Waterville Valley Resort, has tried to carve a name for himself in state politics as a member of the Executive Council, a group charged with approving state contracts and political appointees.

While he plays up his own credentials, there’s no denying the value of his last name in the contest. A recent WMUR Granite State Poll showed that Sununu has the most name recognition of any Republican or Democrat in the race.

Richard Bowles, owner of Exeter Music, is leaning toward voting for Sununu in Tuesday’s primary because Bowles knew his father. “He comes from a good family,” he said, echoing the sentiment of several voters who spoke with the Monitor.

While Sununu was initially turned off by politics, it was his parents’ message of giving back to the community, he said, that drew him to it.

“Running for office is not the driver in my family, that is one of the biggest misnomers out there,” he said. “It’s public service.”

On the council

In his six years on the Executive Council, Sununu has cast thousands of votes. He has opposed funding for solar and wind projects, calling them bad deals. He has approved a contract to have private companies manage care for New Hampshire’s Medicaid program. He voted to pardon Ward Bird, a man convicted of waving a gun at a woman who got lost and trespassed on his Moultonboro property.

But it’s Sununu’s votes both for and against Planned Parenthood funding that have proven most controversial. In 2011, he voted with the minority in favor of a contract with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England that was blocked by three other Republicans.

Sununu, who identifies as a pro-abortion rights candidate, reversed course and voted against a similar contract in 2015, after controversial videos surfaced purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials talking about fetal tissue donation procedures. The videos, filmed by an anti-abortion organization, incited Republican outrage and prompted several states to launch investigations.

Sununu cited the videos when he sided with two Republicans to block the $638,000 contract to Planned Parenthood that would have covered family planning services, not abortions.

When a Houston grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing this year and instead indicted the two activists behind the videos, Sununu told Seacoast Online at the time that he would not change his position on the Planned Parenthood contract. He cited Gov. Maggie Hassan’s refusal to investigate the local Planned Parenthood branch and attacks on him by the health care provider following his “no” vote. “They proved themselves to be bullies and I don’t do business with bullies,” he told the news outlet.

But when the Planned Parenthood contract came up for a vote again in June, Sununu joined the two Democrats on the council to approve it and said the Texas grand jury findings changed his mind. His “yay” vote prompted an audible gasp in the Executive Council chambers.

Sununu reiterated his position in a recent interview, saying once investigations into the organization were “cleared,” he felt comfortable resuming the funding. “We took a pause because we should have for legal purposes,” he said. “There’s no doubt I have put myself on the line to make sure that women get healthcare services, and get what they need.”

Sununu’s contrasting votes have attracted attention from people on both sides of the issue. Anti-abortion activists rallied outside the council chambers during the most recent vote urging Sununu to oppose the contract.

State Rep. David Kidder, a pro-abortion rights Republican from New London, wasn’t “a happy camper” when Sununu voted against state funding for the health care organization.

“Sometimes you just have to have some political courage,” said Kidder, who hasn’t decided whether to vote for Sununu on primary day. “He bailed a little too easily.”

On the council, Sununu turns to constituents for advice, he said. He also seeks input from Senate President Chuck Morse, who endorsed Sununu earlier this year.

“It’s definitely been an open door,” Morse said.

Sununu said seeking advice is one of his best skill sets. “I’m not always the smartest guy in the room,” he said. “But I am really good at bringing the smartest people together and putting the best ideas on the table.”

Growing up Sununu

Sununu hasn’t always been drawn to politics. He grew up in Salem but moved to northern Virginia when his father became chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush. He was in high school when his father resigned from the White House amid accusations he used official military aircraft for personal trips.

Recalling that time, Sununu said, “I could never go into politics – no privacy,” according to the book What Really Happened to the Class of ’93, written about Sununu’s high school class and published in 2004. Sununu refutes most of the book’s contents but doesn’t disagree with the quote.

What eventually pushed him into politics a decade later, he said, were his three kids, now ages 12, 10 and 3, and his business.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree. When Sununu, investors and other family members bought Waterville Valley from a California company, he had to navigate state regulations.

“When someone from the government visits your business, it’s to audit you or fine you,” he said. “Government’s job is to provide good quality services to those who need it, and get the heck out of the way.”

When he and his wife, Valerie, had children, they first tried home-schooling them. Then the couple tried to get the kids into a local charter school, but they were wait-listed, he said. Now, his oldest kids are attending a local public school, but Sununu regularly complains about the amount of time they spend preparing for standardized tests. He advocates for school choice and opposes Common Core.

“My eyes really opened up that things had changed to a point where I never expected them to,” he said.

Sununu weighed a run for governor in 2014, but decided against it. When he told his parents he would run this election cycle, they had no question he could win or do the job, he said. But they reminded him how tough running for office can be on a family.

Sununu knows that firsthand. “I grew up in it,” he said. “I guess maybe that gives me my thick skin.”

While his wife is “disgusted by the negativity” of campaigns, she is supportive, he said. “She very strongly believes that I have skills and temperament to make some incredibly positive impacts to the state.”

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