Leadership, loyalty at issue in NH gubernatorial debate

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The second of two New Hampshire gubernatorial debates within 13 hours explored one candidate’s lack of leadership experience and the other’s loyalty to the nation’s leader.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and Democrat Dan Feltes debated each other Tuesday morning on New Hampshire Public Radio after appearing on WMUR-TV the night before. In both debates, Feltes frequently repeated Sununu’s 2019 comment about being a “Trump guy through and through” and asked him if he’d be proud to cast his vote for the president.

“Are you better off after four years of Trump and Sununu? I don’t think so,” he said Tuesday. “Working people and working families are taking it on the chin.”

Sununu ignored the questions Monday night but was asked more directly by moderators Tuesday about his support for Trump.

“Dan wants to be governor but he talks more about Donald Trump than he does about ideas for the state of New Hampshire,” he said. “I’m the head of the party, the Republican Party, in New Hampshire. I support the ticket. I support the president, I’m going to vote for him. I don’t think that’s a shock to anyone.”

Sununu insisted, however, that he stands up to and speaks out against Trump when he disagrees with him, and would work with either Trump or Democrat Joe Biden.

“I’m New Hampshire through and through,” he said.

Feltes, meanwhile, was asked about his ability to manage the state after working as a legal aid lawyer and state senator. He said he has shown leadership skills as majority leader and chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and as an attorney managed projects and other lawyers.

“I was never, frankly, gifted a ski resort like my opponent,” he said. “I managed to help people save their homes during that same time he was gifted that ski resort. It’s a difference of background and perspective. I’m always going to look out for workers.”

Feltes often contrasts his upbringing in a blue-collar family with Sununu, whose father served as governor in the 1980s. The Sununu family owns Waterville Valley ski area, where Sununu worked as general manager.

Responding to Feltes’ comments, Sununu bristled at what he called the “constant shots” at his family.

“I was proud to run my family business. It wasn’t easy, it was a struggle. I had 800 employees to worry about every day,” he said. “Look, my mom was on the school board. My dad was on the planning board and became governor. My brother was a senator. I had brothers on town committees, my sister runs a museum, my other sister was a teacher. That’s service, not career politicians.”

Both debates focused heavily on the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, both candidates misstated the pandemic’s toll on New Hampshire nursing homes.

Of the state’s 468 deaths from the coronavirus, 81% have been among residents or staff at long-term care facilities. Asked whether the state should have moved more quickly to protect that vulnerable population, Sununu said while even one death is too many, New Hampshire has fared better than many other states.

“In terms of the number of fatalities we’ve had in long-term care, compared to beds we have in our population, we’re one of the lowest numbers on the East Coast,” he said. “I think we are the lowest in New England.”

That is not true, however, according to the latest data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which covers through the week of Oct. 4.

Eighteen states, including neighboring Maine and Vermont, had lower rates than New Hampshire’s 38 deaths per 1,000 nursing home residents. Several nearby states did have significantly higher rates, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Feltes also mischaracterized the situation, saying, “We have, as ranked by the New York Times, the worst COVID situation in long term care.” While nursing home deaths do account for a larger share of overall virus deaths in New Hampshire than they do in any other state, that does not mean the state’s nursing home residents are dying at a faster rate than elsewhere.

Also on Monday, Feltes accused Sununu of flip-flopping on the Affordable Care Act, though at Sununu's direction, New Hampshire has joined a multi-state effort to defend the Obama-era health law from a federal court challenge.

Sununu later said Feltes has changes his position on whether the state’s only inmate on death row should be executed after the Legislature eliminated the death penalty last year.

Asked to clarify his position Monday, Feltes said, “I’ve been consistent in supporting a commutation process moving forward, but I don’t support a commutation petition right now."