Sununu and Van Ostern pressed on drug policy at No Labels gubernatorial forum

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu and Democratic challenger Colin Van Ostern shake hands following a televised debate at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 10/7/2016 2:24:02 AM

With a little over a month to go until the election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu is maintaining a slight edge over Democratic opponent Colin Van Ostern, according to a new poll.

A Suffolk University poll released Thursday shows Sununu leading Van Ostern 40 to 36 percent, with 20 percent of voters still undecided. The two men were tied among voters who had heard about both of them.

Fresh off the first televised debate of the general election on Wednesday night, the two men sat down separately with nonpartisan group No Labels in Manchester on Thursday.

Rather than attacking each other, the executive councilors instead answered policy questions posed by audience members and moderators including former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman.

Many of the questions Van Ostern and Sununu faced revolved around the state’s heroin and opioid crisis, which claimed over 400 lives last year and is on track to exceed that number in 2016.

Nationwide, the Granite State has been one of the hardest hit by the drug epidemic; New Hampshire ranks third in the nation for per capita drug overdose deaths.

Sitting down with the No Labels panel first, Van Ostern, 37, of Concord, recounted how he recently went out on a ride-along with members of the Manchester Police Department that included three different heroin overdose calls in one night.

“One of them, I walked into an apartment and there was a woman dead on the floor,” Van Ostern said. “I watched the great officers – the Manchester PD and the paramedics with the fire department provide her with Narcan and bring her back to life.”

The Democratic candidate added that the officer knew the woman by name and recognized her face; it was not her first overdose.

“That’s reality of the opioid crisis we are dealing with,” Van Ostern said.

Van Ostern said he believes Medicaid Expansion is a crucial tool to get more people into treatment. He is proposing the state make the program permanent and fully fund its Alcohol Fund to boost treatment and prevention in New Hampshire.

When it was Sununu’s turn to take the stage, the 41-year-old from Newfields said he was surprised at how bad the state’s heroin epidemic has become.

“Never in my lifetime, did I think we would be standing in our state, in New Hampshire, talking about the things that we have to deal with this drug crisis,” Sununu said.

Noting the state’s overdose numbers, Sununu called the issue “unbelievable” and called for more treatment.

“I can’t tell you the number of parents I have spoken to, some of which have lost children, that said, ‘even if I knew what was going on with my son or daughter, we wouldn’t have known where to go,’ ” Sununu said. “We don’t do a good enough job in this state of getting them that information out.”

The Republican called for more treatment beds to be made available for those dealing with addiction and talked about a job training plan he’s proposed for people in recovery to get back into the workforce.

Sununu also addressed his past controversial comment that “no one has led at the state or local level” when it comes to the heroin crisis.

“I got criticized for that comment, but I stand by it 110 percent,” Sununu said. “We all have to do better about talking about this issue, making sure we have the resources, getting the money, getting the tools. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it does take real leadership and some real programs and initiatives to start tackling, and slowly we will start turning this around.”

On Wednesday, Van Ostern picked up the endorsement of Manchester police Chief Nick Willard, a prominent figure in the fight against drugs in the state. Willard was a vocal critic of Sununu’s comment about state and local leadership on the drug problem during the Republican primary, calling his statement “idiotic.”

In his endorsement of Van Ostern, Willard cited the Democrat’s willingness to meet with local law enforcement and learn more about how they are dealing with the rising toll from drugs.

“As I’ve gotten to know Colin, I’ve been impressed by his concern for every community within our state,” Willard wrote in a Facebook post. “He met with me well over a year ago to wrap his head around what we have been experiencing as a community with the drug crisis and he did so long before it became politically expedient.”

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

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