Sununu under fire for heroin crisis comments

  • Executive Councilor Chris Sununu is seen during a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Concord, N.H. With Gov. Maggia Hassan's announcement that she will seek the U.S. Senate and two other sitting Councilors on the Executive Council Sununu, and Colin Van Ostern, running for governor, leaves three out of six seats in the Executive Council up for grabs next election. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) AP /—Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 6/9/2016 12:20:17 AM

Executive Councilor and Republican candidate for governor Chris Sununu came under fire Wednesday for statements he made about the state and local responses to New Hampshire’s heroin and opioid crisis.

After filing to run for governor Wednesday morning, Sununu told reporters he thinks the state needs more money and better leadership to deal with the drug epidemic.

“This is an absolute crisis across the state, and we have had no leadership in Concord and no leadership at the local level,” he said. “We need a completely different mindset to tackle this and take it head-on. There’s not going to be a golden answer out of Concord, but you need leadership to change the culture.”

That statement rankled Manchester police Chief Nick Willard, an advocate for drug treatment and prevention.

“I can’t believe this candidate would make such an idiotic statement,” Willard tweeted. “We, in Manchester have lead from the beginning!”

Law enforcement officials often refer to Manchester as the “epicenter” of the state’s drug crisis.

Sununu campaign spokesman David Abrams later issued a statement saying ineffective leadership on the drug crisis comes from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan rather than police and first responders. Hassan is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte for her seat.

“The problems associated with the drug crisis are not about police officers and firefighters and those who are the front lines of this issue every day and are working hard to save lives,” Abrams said. “The ineffectiveness in which this epidemic has been managed stems from a lack of leadership in the governor’s office.”

Sununu’s remarks were the second time this week that the state’s heroin and opioid crisis has become a hot-button political issue.

On Tuesday, Ayotte called on an independent super PAC supporting her to pull a $4.6 million ad buy criticizing Hassan on her response to the state’s drug problem.

“As I’ve said before: No one should be playing politics with the heroin epidemic. One Nation should take down their ad,” Ayotte tweeted.

After Sununu’s statements Wednesday, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas quickly jumped into the political fray. Gatsas is also seeking the GOP nomination for governor this fall.

The Gatsas campaign released a statement calling on Sununu to apologize to police officers, firefighters and first responders.

“Anybody who criticizes the efforts of those who keep us safe and combat this devastating epidemic should be called out,” Gatsas said in a statement. “Councilor Sununu’s comments were unfortunate and failed to recognize the heroic efforts that take place at the local level on a daily basis.”

Abrams didn’t say whether Sununu would apologize.

“Those elected to lead our cities and state have the ultimate responsibility to exert leadership on this issue,” he said in a statement. “Denying you have a problem, hiding behind others and deferring responsibility are the actions of career politicians who have failed our families again and again on the scourge of opioids in New Hampshire.”

In interviews with the Monitor on Tuesday, Gatsas and Sununu said the drug crisis is one of the most important issues facing the state.

Sununu called state officials “completely absent at the wheel” dealing with the drug crisis, not providing resources until drug deaths from heroin and fentanyl started to skyrocket.

Last year, 438 people died of drug overdoses in New Hampshire. Health and law enforcement officials have attributed those deaths to a combination of deadly heroin and synthetic fentanyl flooding the state, as well as a lack of treatment capacity.

Gatsas said local leadership in Manchester has made a dent in the drug crisis, touting programs including the city’s Safe Station program. Like Sununu, he also criticized what he characterized as a lack of action from state lawmakers on the issue.

“There’s no question that we have a fentanyl epidemic across this state,” he said. “The problem in Concord is people talk and talk and talk and we don’t see a lot of action.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)


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