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On the trail: Gubernatorial race fireworks over coronavirus crisis

  • State Sen. Dan Feltes speaks during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Sewalls Falls Bridge in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Democratic Councilor Andru Volinsky, center left, voices concerns with a 4.1 million scholarship program by Gov. Chris Sununu over the availability of state funds for religious institutions, April 11, 2018. The Council voted 3-2 to approve the scholarship program. Ethan DeWitt

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2020 4:21:19 PM
Modified: 5/8/2020 4:21:06 PM

A dispute between Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and the Executive Council over the distribution of nearly $1 billion in federal relief aid for New Hampshire is turning into a war of words between the incumbent governor one of the two Democrats running this year to challenge him in November’s general election.

The dispute led the governor to argue that “nobody cares what the Executive Council thinks” and for Democratic Executive Councilor and gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky to call Sununu a “coward.”

The political fight was sparked Wednesday when the five member Executive Council, which is domimated by three Democrats, voted 4-1 for a two-week delay in authorizing the distribution of $950 million to cover expenses by the state in June. Part of that haul included nearly $450 million in coronavirus federal relief aid that the state received as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress over a month ago.

Volinsky, a two-term councilor and Concord resident, and Nashua’s Debora Pignatelli moved at the virtual meeting to table the governor’s request for the June expenditures after they asked Sununu for more details on how the federal relief would be spent. They were joined in the vote by Democratic councilor Michael Cryans and Republican Councilor Russell Prescott, who’s not running for re-election this year.

The next morning on a regular appearance on the morning news-talk radio program “New Hampshire Today,” Sununu came out firing.

“I gave them (the council) two pages of information,” Sununu told host Jack Heath. “They usually get two sentences. We provide a lot of transparency. We tell them all of the line items, where the money is going to be going to.”

Taking aim at the councilors, Sununu said “they’re searching for headlines. People are desperate to get a headline and try to make some political hay during a crisis. I think it’s frankly terrible behavior. We’re just putting our heads down and getting it done.”

The governor added that the council shouldn’t thwart the state’s progress fighting the pandemic.

“I’m hoping at some point they just stop the nonsense and let us do our job,” Sununu said. “We’ve been insanely transparent. Every meeting is public. Every dollar we spend is public. It’s all going to be posted on a website.”

And he stressed that “nobody cares what the Executive Council thinks in this process right now.”

The governor’s radio appearance came the day after the deadliest single day in New Hampshire since the pandemic swept across the nation – with 19 reported deaths in the state – all at long term care residences.

Sununu cited the deaths in his conversation with Heath while criticizing the council’s vote.

“I’m not happy because my job is to get stuff done for the state of New Hampshire and all they’re doing it trying to distract, during a crisis,” Sununu said. “I had 20 deaths yesterday. How can I not be upset when we had 20 people who died in long term care facilities and these guys are trying to get political headlines. How is that appropriate.”

He accused the Democrats of “terrible behavior.”

Volinsky quickly shot back – appearing on Heath’s radio show minutes after Sununu.

“It would have been interesting if the governor had said anything in our meeting about his concerns, instead of building up this fake outrage on the next day,” Volinsky said.

Noting that the delay from the vote would not compromise the state’s June spending, Volinsky claimed Sununu was trying to create a false crisis.

“The governor didn’t have the courage of his convictions to say anything to us when the vote was taken,” Volinksy said. “He sat there silently….the governor is trying to turn it into politics.”

In a statement his campaign put out later, Volinsky called Sununu “a coward who did not speak up at the Council meeting.”

In an interview with WMUR, Sununu said he responded to the council’s request for more information on the spending.

“If they want more information, we’ll keep giving more information as much as we possibly can with all the transparency that’s allowed,” Sununu said.

“Of course they have every right to ask,” Sununu added. “We complied with that. They’re still not happy and I guess that’s where the argument is that they’re trying to just make a political point.”

The dispute between the governor and the council – both part of the state’s Executive Branch – comes as Sununu is also involved in a legal separation of powers fight with some of the top Democrats in the state legislature over who has the final authority when it comes to spending the federal coronavirus relief aid.

Sununu formed a unit in his office named the Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) to help determine the federal coronavirus aid should be divvied up. The panel is meeting frequently and publicly with various stakeholder and legislative advisory boards. But the governor’s insisted he has the final say during the emergency and points to state law to back up his case.

The judge in the legal battle recently sided with the governor, but the Democratic lawmakers are pushing for reconsideration.

On Friday, the day after Sununu and Volinsky appeared on “New Hampshire Today,” the other top Democrat running for governor took to the same airwaves.

New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes – who’s not part of the legal action against the governor – argued that “the long term care facilities are a major problem and I firmly believe that Gov. Sununu hasn’t taken the steps necessary to protect those residents.”

Asked about Feltes’ comment, the governor’s office told the Monitor on Friday that “the people of New Hampshire care about increasing the availability of testing and that’s what Governor Sununu is focused on – not responding to political accusations.”

Feltes – in his radio interview – also seemed to indirectly criticize Volinsky – his rival for the Democratic nomination – for calling the governor a coward.

“Certainly I think Gov. Sununu’s dropped the ball on a lot of these things but name calling I don’t think is the way to go,” the state senator from Concord said. “Debate the policy, debate the steps that may or may not have been taken, debate the policy, not the person. Don’t attack people personally and call them names.”

Abrams launching NH Dems convention

The unofficial race for the Democratic Party’s 2020 vice presidential nominee will run through the Granite State this weekend. 

Stacey Abrams – who’s considered one of the contenders to be named as Joe Biden’s running mate – will be in the state – virtually – as she launches the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s state convention. Due to social distancing restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – the Saturday gathering will be held on-line rather than in-person.

Abrams – the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives – two years ago became the first black female gubernatorial nominee from a major party in American history. She narrowly lost the election, in a contest marked by controversy.

Abrams – who’s spent a lifetime breaking barriers – isn’t the typical running mate candidate. While most contenders don’t publicly campaign for the job, Abrams is speaking out.

“I would be an excellent running mate. I have the capacity to attract voters by motivating typically ignored communities. I have a strong history of executive and management experience in the private, public and nonprofit sectors,” she touted in a recent interview with Elle Magazine.

Pappas and Meyer reunited

Congressman Chris Pappas this week announced that Lucas Meyer will manage his re-election campaign.

The veteran Democratic organizer – who’s well known in the state’s political circles – has served as president of the increasingly influential New Hampshire Young Democrats for the past four years – and works as a government affairs adviser at the Concord and Boston based Preti Strategies.

Meyer – who served as state Senate Democratic Caucus campaign director in 2016 and advised several state senate candidates in 2018 – knows Pappas well. He managed Pappas’ successful 2014 re-election to the Executive Council.

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