On the issues: Rail shows differences between candidates for governor

  • 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: 11/1/2016 1:35:39 AM

In the race for governor, opponents Colin Van Ostern and Chris Sununu don’t hesitate to outline their differences on one key issue: bringing passenger rail to Nashua and Manchester.

Van Ostern, a Democrat, often says he envisions a New Hampshire “powered by rail,” while Republican Sununu likes to refer to a potential passenger rail project as a “$300 million boondoggle.” At first glance, it may seem the candidates are just arguing over a train, but there’s a lot more packed into interstate transportation.

New Hampshire is the most rapidly aging state in the nation, leading Van Ostern and other Democratic politicians in the state to argue passenger rail will bring more young people and businesses into the state up from Massachusetts. An economic feasibility study conducted by the state estimated a rail line will create 5,600 new jobs, and Van Ostern frequently quotes the project’s price tag between $3 million and $4 million.

Sununu and Republicans disagree, saying rail is a “want” rather than a “need” for the state and questioning the motives of the people who conducted the study.

“When we have real infrastructure priorities and needs that can help the 700,000 people a day that drive on those roads, why should we be spending $300 million for a train so maybe we can send a couple thousand people to work in Boston?” Sununu said in an interview with the Monitor editorial board.

The issue shows the difference between the candidates’ vision for the future of New Hampshire. Van Ostern talks about leveraging federal money to improve the health of the state’s residents and its infrastructure through programs like Medicaid expansion, clean energy and rail. Sununu preaches fiscal restraint, saying lower taxes and less government waste lead to a more prosperous future for the state and its people.

What’s in a name

Van Ostern and Sununu interact with each other more than most political rivals; for the past four years, they have sat next to each other at the Executive Council table, approving state contracts with the governor.

The two joked with each other last week at their last council meeting before the election. At the same time, Sununu’s campaign was sending out an email accusing Van Ostern of improperly accepting campaign contributions from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees.

When the meeting recessed for a few minutes, the two men withdrew to opposite sides of the marble hallway outside the governor’s office with reporters and proceeded to attack each other’s records.

The race between Van Ostern and Sununu has been close throughout the political season. A recent Monmouth University poll shows Van Ostern edging past his opponent, 48 to 43 percent. Another one from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Van Ostern ahead 41 to 35 percent.

Low name recognition has been a persistent problem for both candidates, who have vastly different connections to New Hampshire politics. Sununu comes from one of the most recognizable political families in the state, while Van Ostern came here in 2001 to take a job with then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s Senate campaign, and he has stayed ever since.

While Van Ostern’s name recognition is lower than that of his opponent, polling shows Sununu is more unpopular.

The two men will face off in a WMUR debate tonight. Here’s a look at some of the main issues of the campaign and how the candidates distinguish themselves.

K-12 education

Van Ostern is a vocal proponent of the state paying for full-day kindergarten in all communities. He has proposed increasing the state’s cigarette tax to pay for the program, which he estimates will cost between $13 million and $14 million.

Sununu also supports the idea of full-state kindergarten, but disagrees that the state should mandate the program. He has promised that funding from a state budget surplus will be made available for communities that want it.

Higher education

Van Ostern has proposed restoring state spending on higher education to pre-recession levels, about $200 million. He has called for increased spending to be tied to measurable outcomes in high-skill job growth for students at public colleges.

Sununu also supports increasing state funding to the university system, but he has not outlined a number. He supports directing state funds toward student debt reduction for teachers, nurses and recovery clinicians.

Environment and energy

Sununu, an environmental engineer by trade, has frequently said the jury is out on whether climate change is caused by man. He has called for “smart environmental decisions” that aren’t bogged down by governmental regulation on the environment. While he says he is open to renewable energy, Sununu has voted against some large solar array projects in Manchester and Peterborough, saying they weren’t smart projects and didn’t do enough to lower electricity rates.

Van Ostern says climate change is man-made and is an avid supporter of renewable energy projects. He has supported many solar array projects that have come before the Executive Council and has called for New Hampshire to join neighboring states to explore opportunities in offshore wind.

Northern Pass

Sununu supports Northern Pass and opposes burying the line in rural areas, saying it would make the project too costly.

Van Ostern doesn’t support the Northern Pass project in its current form, citing the fierce local opposition in communities in the North Country and negative effect to tourism.


Sununu has promised to gradually cut the Business Profits and Business Enterprise taxes if elected. He also plans to implement a 90-day moratorium on new business regulations and have any new rules after that be subject to scrutiny from business leaders. Sununu is also opposed to establishing a state minimum wage and said he would advocate for right-to-work legislation if elected.

Van Ostern supports the Gateway to Work program passed by Gov. Maggie Hassan and opposes right-to-work legislation. His economic plan calls for keeping business taxes low and preventing a sales or income tax. He also supports establishing a state minimum wage, and he has said $12 an hour would be a good starting point.

State budget

Both candidates have promised not to introduce a broad-based sales or income tax to raise revenue. But they have different ideas on where additional source of revenue will come from; Van Ostern identifies federal money coming to the state from expanded Medicaid as a financial boon, while Sununu argues that cutting business taxes further will bring more businesses and, therefore, more revenue into state coffers.

Neither candidate has presented a specific budget proposal yet.

Transportation and infrastructure

The candidates differ on a passenger rail project, but they agree on the need to repair the state’s aging roads and bridges. Both support expanding fiber optic cable throughout the state to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.


Van Ostern often says he is a gun owner and occasionally goes hunting. While he says he respects the Second Amendment, he wants the state to continue licensing people who carry concealed guns. He also supports sending mental health records to the federal background check system.

Sununu is not a gun owner but said he would sign a bill doing away with the need for concealed carry permits. He has said he’s concerned with the attorney general’s order to send New Hampshire’s mental health records to the federal background check system.

Health care and Medicaid

Van Ostern supports making Medicaid expansion permanent, arguing it would bring millions of federal tax dollars into the state and save New Hampshire money in health costs. He touts the program as one of the main ways to combat the state’s opioid crisis.

Sununu supports gradually repealing the Affordable Care Act. Though he is opposed to making Medicaid expansion permanent, he said he would not cut the program immediately. He supports the program having a work requirement and gradually moving people off the program if there are private insurance alternatives available.

Both candidates have advocated for increased health cost transparency from insurance companies and expanding the current insurance networks to prioritize competition among carriers.

Opioid crisis

Sununu has called for continuing to expand treatment and prevention programs in the state. Specifically, he has advocated giving business tax credits to businesses that invest in job training for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

He supports expanding resources to law enforcement by tightening penalties against drug dealers. Sununu has also been critical of the attorney general’s investigation into opioid companies’ deceptive marketing practices in the state, saying he doesn’t believe in “demonizing” pharmaceutical companies.

Van Ostern supports fully funding the state’s alcohol fund for treatment and prevention programs, which has not been fully funded since its start in 2003. He supports insurance parity for substance misuse treatment.

Van Ostern supports the state law enforcement’s drug fighting effort Operation Granite Hammer and has also voiced support for the attorney general’s investigation into the deceptive marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies who make prescription opioids.


Van Ostern split with Hassan’s call for a temporary ban on Syrian refugees. He has advocated for expanding the current screening process for refugees coming into the country, but he has said that does not mean a blanket ban on people coming into the country.

Sununu said he would consider accepting refugees from Syria and other countries if the national vetting process is strengthened and the federal government provides more money to states to help them resettle refugees. Like Hassan, he has repeatedly said his first priority is keeping New Hampshire safe and lobbied for strengthened background checks.

Marijuana policy

Both candidates said they would support a bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, and both are opposed to full-blown legalization.

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood is one of the main reasons Van Ostern said he ran for Executive Council and has been a central issue throughout his campaign. He is a staunch defender of the organization and supports abortion rights.

Van Ostern released a plan for women during the primary that included restoring state matching funds for domestic violence services and expanding collection of data on sexual assault in the state.

Sununu is also pro-abortion rights but does not support taxpayer funding of abortion (no state funds in New Hampshire go to funding abortions). Sununu has supported two out of three Planned Parenthood contracts coming before the Executive Council in the past few years. His vote against funding Planned Parenthood came during the national investigation of the organization, which has since been cleared of any wrongdoing.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter

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