Colin Van Ostern represents District 2 on New Hampshire’s Executive Council, which holds many of its meetings in a large room at the statehouse next to the governor’s office. He’s hoping to move into that corner office – he’s one of three Democrats running for governor.
Colin Van Ostern joined Weekend Edition to talk about his campaign as part of our ongoing series of candidate conversations.
You’re calling for an economy where “everyone has the chance to succeed, not just those at the top.” Who’s being left out and what can the state do about it?
The future I see for our state is one where, no matter what town you’re from, no matter what family you’re from, you and your kids can go to a great school, graduate and go to college without being crushed by debt, and can get a good job that pays fair wages and that you can be treated with dignity and equality and respect. The reality is that, in too many of our towns around our state, sometimes you might not have that opportunity, whether it’s because of the cost of student debt – we’re the highest in the nation right now – or the fact that most of our high school students actually leave for other states at a rate higher than almost any other state in the country – or the fact that too many kids don’t have access to full day kindergarten.
This is a great place to live and work and raise a family and grow a business, and there’s a lot of opportunity ahead as well. But there are also some challenges we need to take on. I think we do that by continuing to move forward.
The differences between, say, a Manchester or a Nashua, where you see the emerging tech sector, or what’s happening in Portsmouth vs. other parts of the state – Claremont, or Jackson, or Berlin. How do you, as someone who’s been involved in incubators like Alpha Loft or institutions like SNHU, look at economic growth in the other parts of the state that may not have those economic drivers?
We’re living in a more connected world, so if we make the right investments, particularly around infrastructure – online infrastructure, digital, but also physical infrastructure – that allows us to be more connected, both within the state of New Hampshire but also connected to the Boston regional economy, which is a huge source of growth and money for us. I’ve been a big advocate for something like passenger rail, not just because it helps people in Nashua – though having two stops there, one at the Millyard in Manchester, one at the airport would be fantastic. But people all across the state are excited about having a train that stops at the Manchester Airport.
We need to do more to expand broadband across our state, and that affects rural areas in particular. And I was just touring a solar project in Durham the day before Earth Day, this week. This is a great example of something that can lower energy costs, create some local jobs with a local company that’s working on the development – that’s happening in Plymouth and Peterborough and Durham and Portsmouth. That can happen anywhere in our state. We have good renewable energy projects in places like Berlin. That’s the sort of investment I want to see in our future.
Some of these investments do come with price tags – often a large share of the price tags can be covered by federal funds or public-private partnerships, but there is still a state cost. As someone who’s stood against a sales or income tax in the campaign, where do you see that money coming from?
One of the biggest successes we’ve had in New Hampshire in the last few years as a public policy has been the expansion of Medicaid in our state. Fifty thousand people now have access to health care coverage; most of them didn’t a few years ago. The reality is, we didn’t have to pass some new state tax to get that done. We did a better job of getting our own tax dollars out of Washington and putting them to work here in New Hampshire. Our hospitals are now helping support that program. They also spent $143 million less in uncompensated care last year.
We cannot be pennywise and pound-foolish. The plan I’ve put forward with Executive Councilor Chris Pappas and others would show that you can basically pay for getting rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester for a total general fund cost of $3-4 million a year, about the funding we required to increase our R&D tax credit a few years ago, which has been a big success. By doing that, you can tap into $150 million of federal grants that will pay to construct most of the cost of the rail line, and create literally thousands – most projections, the most recent is 5600 new permanent jobs when you build that up. That’s the sort of opportunity where I see some reasonably funded investments can make a big impact for our economy.
Before your terms on the Executive Council and your business career, you’d worked for a number of Democratic political campaigns. These are, by nature, very partisan jobs. If we should see, if we have often seen in recent decades, a Democratic governor and a Republican-majority legislature, what do you do to convince people that partisanship is not necessarily what people might see from you as governor?
That was true for John Lynch as well, who was probably the most nonpartisan governor the state has ever had, and yet, early in his career, like me, he’d worked in politics. We’ve been doing house parties all across the state, and the issues they’re asking about are the things that affect their lives. Like the waitress I met outside of Keene, in Winchester, who’s spending her weekends at the county jail talking with other women about what life without heroin is like. She, frankly, doesn’t care what the letter that comes after the politician’s name is when it’s printed up in a news story, whether it’s a D or an R. She just wants to have state leaders who are listening, who understand the challenge we’re facing, and who are committed to working together to fight to make a difference to do it.
On the issue of opioids, what, if anything, would you change about the state’s approach to the issue?
I think it needs to be faster. I’m glad some of the steps we’re taking are in the right direction, things like strengthening our prescription drug monitoring program, because a lot of the problem on the prevention side can be addressed in part by making sure we have less abuse of prescription opioids, not necessarily one’s own prescription but sometimes diverted or stolen. We need more treatment capacity – that’s why expanding Medicaid is so important. We just did it, but only for two more years, which means it’s up to our next governor to decide whether this is going to continue or not.
And finally, on the recovery side, I think we need to have more acknowledgment – and we have some good movement on this direction – that folks who have been through this before are equipped to help others who are dealing with it. That waitress who I mentioned, she told me that if you’re two days sober, you can help someone who’s one day sober. The fact that she’s spending her time counseling others, when she’s just a year sober herself, is an extraordinary commitment of what we can do in a state where we care about community and care about each other. I just think we need to be tackling the issue faster and I’d like to see less politics involved in Concord in it.
A couple of other issues that have come up recently at the statehouse: would you support a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in New Hampshire?
I think that possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal use should not disrupt your entire life and career. The other states in New England have made progress towards that in a way that New Hampshire should have and hasn’t yet. In concept, I think decriminalization makes some sense. I think we need to do it in a way that’s careful and takes law enforcement’s opinions and those who are on the front lines of the opioid and fentanyl crisis into account in how it gets done. But I think we spend a lot of money in our state prison system that could be better routed to things like treatment and recovery and prevention.
Would you support any efforts to expand gambling in New Hampshire – if so, in what forms and under what conditions?
I don’t have any particular moral objection to gambling; I play poker with friends a couple times a year. I don’t think bringing casinos to New Hampshire is the solution to revenue challenges we face. They’re building a $1.5 billion resort not too far over our border. I think what past proposals might have made sense at the time are just having less validity today, and so that’s not what I’m going to be pushing as governor.
The State Senate recently voted to repeal the requirement to obtain a concealed carry permit. Sign? Veto?
I would veto that. I think we need to trust our local law enforcement to be involved in those decisions. I’m a proud gun owner myself; I have a 12-gauge shotgun with a trigger lock and a gun safe in my house. I go bird hunting a couple times a year. I promise you, the Second Amendment rights that I not just support but I personally exercise are completely consistent with basic common-sense ways to prevent gun violence.
Something I learned from your Facebook page is that you once worked at the Canterbury Shaker Village restaurant and learned to make a chilled blueberry soup.
I worked in the kitchen at two restaurants in New Hampshire, one was at the Canterbury Shaker Village – got to know the chef who worked there and he told me that if I came in and worked for free on the weekends, he’d teach me how to cook. I’m the main cook in our household still – probably don’t do it as many nights a week as I used to, but I have two young kids and, frankly, cooking for them is easy because usually they just want hot dogs and mac and cheese anyway.