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Sununu looks outside government for top department posts

  • Frank Edelblut speaks at the State House in Concord during a public hearing Jan. 31 on his nomination to lead the state’s education department. As first-term Gov. Chris Sununu builds out his cabinet of commissioners, he’s tapped some appointees with little to no professional experience in the departments they’re tasked with leading. AP file

Associated Press
Published: 5/14/2017 10:35:44 PM

As first-term Gov. Chris Sununu builds out his Cabinet, he’s largely turned to appointees with little to no professional experience in the departments they’re being asked to lead.

For education, he tapped Frank Edelblut, a businessman who home-schooled his children.

For labor, it’s Ken Merrifield, a city mayor and former state employee, but one without experience in labor relations.

For administrative services, the state’s fiscal management arm, Sununu’s pick is Charlie Arlinghaus, his budget director and longtime head of a free-market think tank.

“What I’m trying to do is not look within state government just to find more state government people to move up the chain, but really bring outside perspective from folks who have some association or area of expertise,” Sununu, a Republican, told the Associated Press.

Sununu’s immediate predecessor, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, often reappointed choices of the governor before her, also a Democrat, and occasionally conducted formal searches. Critics say Sununu has failed to cast a wide net to find the best people for the job, although the Executive Council has confirmed three of four nominees so far. Arlinghaus had a public hearing Wednesday and is up for a confirmation vote later this month.

“There’s been a dearth of documented experience and competence in the area they’re being asked to manage,” said Democratic Councilor Andru Volinksy, a critic of some choices.

Supporters, meanwhile, say Sununu’s nominees are well-qualified and note Sununu has inherited a government largely built by members of the opposing political party. Before Sununu, Democrats held the corner office since 1996, with the exception of Republican Gov. Craig Benson’s single term.

“You’ve had 18 years of Democrats, so there is not a ready corps of experienced Republican nominees to throw into these things,” said Tom Rath, a former Republican attorney general and member of Benson’s transition team. “The bureaucracy he’s dealing with is one that’s been picked by Democrats.”

Commissioners are appointed for terms typically of four to five years, meaning many of Hassan’s picks will stay on through much of Sununu’s term. All gubernatorial nominees must be approved by the five-member Executive Council, a unique check on executive power. For half of Hassan’s four years in office, she dealt with a council led by the opposite party.

Of Sununu’s five picks so far, all have been well-known in Republican political circles, whether as donors or operatives. Hassan, for her part, made several political picks, including her attorney general. Sununu has nominated no women, and conducted no formal search committees. Instead, he’s largely chosen people who have come to him offering to serve.

His most widely praised choice was Gordon MacDonald, who was confirmed 5-0 as attorney general. Unlike the other nominees, MacDonald has a long history in the field, working as a prominent attorney in Manchester and leading several legal organizations. Republicans and Democrats alike lauded his nomination.

But two others – Edelblut and environmental services nominee Peter Kujawski – were highly contested. Edelblut’s nomination prompted hundreds of calls and emails to councilors from teachers and others concerned he would undermine public education. Kujawski, meanwhile, was dropped before the council even took a vote after he showed a lack of knowledge of environmental projects and regulations during his confirmation hearing. Kujawski acknowledged he offered to join the administration, but hadn’t specifically sought the environmental job.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily finding a person that fits into the job, it’s almost like finding a job that fits the person,” said Jay Ward, political organizer for the state employees union.

Even Republican Councilor Joe Kenney said he’d appreciate a more thorough approach. He’d like to see more search committees, like the one Hassan created to find a new transportation head. That job went to Victoria Sheehan, a former Massachusetts transportation official. Still, Kenney has backed each of Sununu’s nominees and says they are well-qualified.

“I think the governor has come in as a change agent, he wants his people in place that are going to carry out his policies,” Kenney said.

Sununu, for his part, said he was elected to bring fresh voices to Concord.

“We’ve just had a dozen or so years of a lot of the same people churning through government,” he said.

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