Primary Conversation: GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Chris Sununu

Sep 9, 2016

Chris Sununu is one of four Republicans running for New Hampshire governor this week.
Credit Michael Brindley

All this week on Morning Edition, we've been talking with the Republican candidates for governor.

Chris Sununu of Newfields has been a member of the state's Executive Council since 2011. 

He's also CEO of Waterville Valley Ski Resort.

As head of Waterville Valley Ski Resort, you have a unique perspective on issues facing the economy in the northern part of the state.

But the North Country continues to stagnate and people there will be looking to the next governor to help turn things around.

So what’s missing in the North Country? What needs to be done?

Snow, snow is missing in the North Country. Look, you’re absolutely right. We’ve had a tough year up there. One of the reasons I’m running for governor is I believe you need a governor with a true regional perspective. It’s not just about what happens in the southern part of the state, Manchester, the western part of the state, or the Seacoast, over where I live. And my business is up in the North Country. If you’re on the Seacoast, things are going pretty well, there’s a lot of development going on. North of Concord, it’s a whole different story. I have 800 employees at Waterville Valley, that’s a big responsibility that I take. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had a great management team. We’re the only mountain expanding our mountain on the entire east coast. We’re going to have a new lift and 10 new trails. But not everyone was as fortunate. You can look at the snowmobiling groups, the cross country groups, the mom and pops. Those guys had to expend all their savings and capital this past winter, which has really caused stagnation. Now, this summer’s been OK. But all of our available capital was used on operations last year in terms of the North Country as a whole. It’s not just about driving more tourism dollars; I mean that’s obviously a big part of it. But we need a governor that understands the dynamics in the North Country, what people are facing, and how to turn it around. There has to be an emphasis on it, to be sure.

How do you attract businesses up there?

Look, we’ve got to attract businesses to the entire state. A big thing for me is infrastructure. We’ve got to make sure our roads and bridges are where they need to be. When you have I-93 unfinished, 2,000 miles of roads primarily in the North Country classified as being in poor or very poor condition, 153 red-listed bridges, even on the Seacoast, the Sarah Long Bridge broke last week, literally broke. Infrastructure is really the heart of making sure we can get people to the North Country. And then providing them opportunities, breaking down some of the regulatory barriers some of those businesses have. So when they do want to expand, when they do want to invest their capital, they’re not caught in a legal quagmire for 18 months. They can do it quickly, they can do it easily. I’m a big believer, and maybe it’s because of my business experience, that we’ve lost a sense of quality customer service. We’ve made things very difficult for people, whether it’s trying to get signed up for Medicaid, or whether it’s trying to break down the regulatory barriers of expanding your business or doing something with permitting. We’ve made it so even small businesses have to hire $30,000 in lawyers to figure out how to do the paperwork. That’s not the New Hampshire way. I’m trying to bring good New Hampshire values and reinstate that sense of local control so we can be nimble, we can be quick, we can make good decisions, and allow the businesses and individuals to make the best decisions for themselves and really move forward.

I hear you saying get rid of a lot of the red tape, but when you talk about some of the jobs you could create now, you talk about having 800 employees, but a lot of those jobs are seasonal, that’s a real issue for a lot of tourist areas is good, year-round jobs.

We have a workforce problem in this state, especially in the North Country. We have a tough time hiring good people because of a lot of the young folks are moving out of state. They’re looking for and finding better economic opportunity out of state. We need workforce investment programs, for example, even if you take it out of tourism, look at nursing, we have a massive nursing shortage. We’re going to have a teacher shortage in the next couple years. We have a shortage in psychiatry, clinicians that work at our recovery centers, which are really important. My program looks at creating business tax incentives, for example, on the back end of a recovery center. We have folks we deal with at Waterville within our employee base who have substance abuse issues, and we try to do our own peer-to-peer recovery and things like that. We need to make investments to get a lot of the able-bodies working adults who are out there, but not currently in the workforce back into the workforce. So the state has to help provide that gateway, if you will. My program also looks at if you go to a university here in New Hampshire, we have very high student debt. A lot of folks are leaving the state because they have to pay off this debt. My program says if you stay and work in this state in one of those high-demand areas, we’ll help pay down that student debt. Let’s help retain our workforce, create an incentive, provide businesses with more of a workforce to tap into, help students pay down student debt, and help people stay here in New Hampshire so they can establish those roots and start raising a family here.

You’ve said you believe the Northern Pass project should happen, but there’s been criticism about a lack of transparency. Are those concerns valid?

I think there were (transparency issues) early on, without a doubt. When HydroQuebec was driving that project, I had a lot of concern about it. I could never get a straight story out of them. In the past couple years, Eversource has taken a more direct and lead role on it. I give them credit in that I think they’ve been working more closely with the individual towns, with the individual businesses, explaining what the benefits. The fact that they were willing to bury 60 more miles of lines last year, the fact that they agreed to a 10 percent purchase of power agreement. Frankly, we use less than 10 percent of the New England power here in New Hampshire, so I think that was a very fair and reasonable expectation of theirs. They’re clearly doing things on their part to try and get this thing done. I think that as it moves through what we call the Site Evaluation Committee at the Public Utilities Commission, as we go through that, the plan may change a little more, which is fine, but it really should get done. I’m one of the highest energy users in the state. Two years ago, my electric bill was $1.2 million just to make snow. That is unsustainable. So when I see manufacturers doing expansion projects, and even leaving the state all together, I understand. I’m on the front lines of those issues just like they are. I’m a stakeholder in energy. I’m a stakeholder in our high health care costs. I’m a stakeholder in our high business taxes and regulatory environment. I live and breathe those issues every single day like those businesses are. That’s what we need in the corner office. Someone who understands these issues from a first-order perspective, so when we’re making those policy decisions, we have an understanding of how it’s going to impact people’s lives. At the end of the day, you have to understand whatever we do in Concord, it’s about the people, it’s about the individuals, it’s about the families, what are the unintended consequences coming upon them. The only way to make those best decisions is to have a stakeholder in the corner office.

Let’s talk about the future of the state’s Medicaid expansion program. You’ve said you don’t want to kick the nearly 50,000 people now enrolled off those health care services, but you also don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars to keep it going. So what’s your plan?

Right now, we’ve extended the program two years without providing additional burden to the state’s taxpayers. We have a delta, I think it’s 5 or 7 percent, that the private sector is picking up to defer those costs. As we move forward, the federal government is going to pay less and less, which is going to put more pressure on the state to pay more and more. At some point, we can’t expect the private sector to be picking up that cost. Maybe a portion of it to be sure, but whatever we do, it has to be long term, it has to be sustainable. One of the frustrations I have in my experience as an Executive Councilor is we do a lot of things in the state in two-year chunks because that’s the election cycle. That’s not long-term planning. That isn’t making the best decisions for the state in the long-term. In my business and my family, we think long term.

When it comes to expanded Medicaid, I have said yes, I wouldn’t just kick 45,000 to 50,000 people off the rolls day one, that’s not a good idea. My plan is to what I call grandfather them out. Bring the eligibility requirements more in line with the traditional Medicaid program. And as people get back into the workforce on private plans, you don’t necessarily let them back in under the same eligibility requirements. We don’t kick them out; they just kind of grandfather themselves out. As they get out of the system, we change those requirements so the same people can’t come right back into it. So it’s not kicking them out of the system, it’s getting them back into the private sector health care, which is a good thing. The fundamental problem with all of this is that in our state over the past four, five, six years, we’ve incentive people to go to public plans, whether it’s health care exchange, expanded Medicaid, so we have high health care costs here because we don’t have a lot of competition. How are we going to drive competition in health care in a state that is constantly incentivizing more people into public plans, it doesn’t make sense. So we need to fundamentally change how we do it. We need a governor who understands what drives health care costs and create a more competitive market for private health care.

Moving on to the heroin and opioid crisis, you’ve been vocal in your criticism of state and local leaders on this issue. So what are you going to do differently?

You received criticism from members of your own party for your vote earlier this year in favor of a state contract with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

This was a contract that you voted against last year, so how do you explain your change of heart to Republican primary voters?

Let’s be clear: I have voted for that contract in the past. I would never support taxpayer funding of abortion; no Republicans and I think very few Democrats support that. And I don’t support that. This is about health care for women and families. In my district, this contract came before us, it was the absolute only choice that we had this year. I called other facilities, other health care providers to bid, they wouldn’t do it for a variety of different reasons.

Last year, they were under investigation by 10 separate state investigations because of those videos that we saw. And I thought those videos were disgusting, deplorable. There were legal investigations going on in states, I think one even in the federal government, that were outstanding. To date, all those investigations over those videos are gone. They’ve been debunked. There was nothing illegal. So there’s no reason to move forward. I don’t care if you’re a snow plow driver or a health care provider, if you have ten pending legal investigations against you, I don’t think we should be doing business. I said let’s take a pause and find out what the real story is. We did, that was prudent and right. It’s been cleared up, now we’re moving forward. In my district, it’s the only option. I took a lot of heat from some other Republicans about it, but when you’re an elected official in the state, there’s a matter of public trust. And the public trust says I’m going to cast my vote with my constituents in mind every single time. It doesn’t matter how it affects me, my political future. My job is to take care of my constituents. It’s how I’ve cast every single vote as an Executive Councilor, and it’s exactly what I’m going to do as governor.

Many Republicans though, you could say the vast majority in many places, are against Planned Parenthood in principle. Do you think those criticisms are unfounded?

I’m not going to challenge people’s belief or agreement with a group or what they do. This contract is not about Planned Parenthood, it’s about health care. It’s a health care contract, and keep in mind, this is the exact same contract every conservative governor over the last 40 years has approved. Governor Sununu approved it three times, Governor Merrill twice, Governor Gregg twice, Governor Benson, they all approved the exact same contract with Planned Parenthood for the exact same services. Why? Because it’s about people, not politics. It’s about the services they provide. We might not agree with the abortion aspect of their business, a lot of people might not, and that’s fine. But this is about health care and I’m not going to put my politics in the way of getting my constituents the best services they can. These are low-income women that do not have other insurance options right now. They’re not on the exchange, they’ve kind of fallen through the cracks of expanded Medicaid. And it’s not just women. It’s families, it’s men. I’ve been to the center, I’ve talked to the people who participate in these funds. It’s a good program. Planned Parenthood was the only option and that’s what we did.

On the issue of Syrian refugees, you’ve said the U.S. should halt resettlement until the government can 100 percent guarantee they aren’t terrorists – how do you do that?

It’s not how we do it; it’s how the federal government does it. If Barack Obama and Homeland Security is just going to let immigrants flood into the country, let’s have a vetting process, let’s know what’s coming in. It’s a safety issue, and we’ve seen what happened in Europe when they let that happen in Europe. There are a lot of problems over there.

But to be clear, our vetting process is not like what’s been happening in Europe. We have a vetting process that can take up to two years for refugees to come in.

Yeah, but there’s still a lot we don’t know. There have been refugees that have come into this country where we know very little more than their name. That’s a fact. So I’ve said look, we don’t get to pick and choose which ones come to the state of New Hampshire. They literally get put on a plane somewhere and sent up here with a few bucks to take care of them.

You’re saying the federal government only knows their name?

There are times when the federal government knows very little about their background, what their motives are, what their intentions are. The vetting process at the federal level is weak. And we’re talking about a safety issue for the people of New Hampshire. I’m not just going to sick back and say thank you very much to the federal government until they start doing their job.

You were endorsed recently by Ohio Governor John Kasich, someone who’s been openly critical of Donald Trump. You’ve said you support Trump, but when Republicans like Kasich say they can’t get behind the nominee, does that give you any pause?

Gov. Kasich has his own relationship with Mr. Trump. I’m hopeful Gov. Kasich will come around and get on board. I think it’s important. The alternative to me, with Hillary Clinton, is disastrous. There are two words: public trust. You may not like some of the things Donald Trump says. I’ve taken exception with some of the things he’s said. But when you look at Hillary Clinton, when you look at the alternative, there is no public trust. And growing up in New Hampshire, where public service is important to all of us, whether you’re helping out on the planning board of running for governor, we all participate in public service. And I grew up in a family where public trust is first and foremost. You have to be transparent, you have to be accessible. There have to checks and balances. You can’t be abusing the power of your office for personal gain. And there are a lot of issues, whether you talk about Benghazi or the emails or using her office to raise money for her own foundation; that is all an issue of pure public trust. I have no trust in her; I’m absolutely going to support Donald Trump.

When you talk about trust, there have been many contradictory statements by Donald Trump during the campaign. You have no trust issues when it comes to Trump?

No, not in terms of the public discord. Has Donald Trump said certain things here and certain things there that kind of have to be arranged in terms of where the policy really is? We’re not talking about policy issues with Hillary Clinton. We’re talking about character. We’re talking about principles. These are things that are critical parts of leadership. She would be a terrible example for the children, for the businesses, and individuals of this country in terms of being trustworthy, in terms of being transparent, and knowing where we’re going.