When the owner of Coed Sportswear in Newfields introduced Chris Sununu during a tour of the business a few weeks back, he included a line Sununu’s probably used to hearing by now.
“He comes from a political family that has a long history of, from my perspective, making the right decisions for our country,” Mark Lane told his staff at the sportswear company, listing off one of several reasons he wanted Sununu to speak to them.
It is true — Sununu’s immediate family does include a former governor and White House chief of staff, not to mention a former U.S. Senator. But you won’t hear Chris Sununu making much of all of that.
He’d much rather introduce himself as the local guy whose kids go to the neighborhood school.
“Me and my family, we just live up the street,” Sununu told the group. “Come knock on my door, if need be. That’s just the New Hampshire way, I really believe in that.”
And this everyman pitch, above all, is what Sununu’s really trying to sell as he runs for governor: As a dad, as an employer, as your neighbor, he gets what you’re dealing with, and he’ll carry that with him to the corner office.
“I do come from a bit of a family with a political background, but it’s really about having someone in Concord, someone in the governor’s office — which we just haven’t had — that really understands this stuff from a grassroots level, from a ground level,” Sununu said at the sportswear company. “You want to talk about Obamacare? I live and breathe it every day with my staff, day in and day out. Over-regulation? Lack of an energy policy? I’m with my staff every day, making sure that we are managing those issues.”
That day in, day out business experience comes mainly from his job running the Waterville Valley Ski Resort, which his family took over in 2010.
As Sununu swapped stories with the Coed Sportswear manager about running a company, he stressed that the state needs to step up the customer service it’s providing to residents.
“We don’t treat people in this state like customers,” Sununu said. “We need to. Right? My worry at Waterville Valley: How do I keep my lines short, how do I keep my cheeseburgers warm, how do I make it a good experience?”
Just a few moments later, almost on cue, those customer service chops were put to the test. Nicole DeSilva, who works at the sportswear factory, approached Sununu to let him know about her frustrations as a single mother struggling to find affordable childcare during the summer for her two kids in Dover. She was frustrated because, to her, it didn’t seem like the city was doing much to help out families like hers.
“Have you ever talked to folks on the city council?” Sununu asked.
“I don’t even know how to,” DeSilva responded.
“Really? I will send you a list of everyone’s phone number if you want,” Sununu replied. “That’s the best place to go.”
“Look,” he added. “I’m a big believer: If you have a problem, you’ve got to be able to pick up the phone and call someone. And you don’t even know who to call. How frustrating... Do you mind if I give you a call later? Send you an email?”
So, Sununu thinks the state could do a better job on the small things — like connecting people to the right government services. But, as an engineer by training, he also wants policymakers to think bigger and to do a better job of mapping out long-term plans – instead of governing in two-year chunks.
“We’re always reacting in this state to problems,” Sununu said. “I want to provide leadership that is proactive. That is pre-identifying issues. That is out there talking to the community and identifying these molehills before they become mountains, if you will.”
Some of the mountains Sununu’s most concerned about are a stagnant business climate, and a lack of incentives keeping young people in the state. Like a lot of other candidates, he’s also worried about the drug crisis.
He’s had an up-close look at some of those issues in his role on the executive council, the five-member board that acts as kind of a check on the governor.
Since he was elected in 2010, Sununu’s tried to carve out a reputation as a more middle-of-the-road Republican — and caught flak from both parties in the process.
Look no further than last week’s vote on a state contract with Planned Parenthood for an example of that. Sununu voted in favor of the Planned Parenthood contract last week, but he’d voted both for and against similar ones in the past – earning attacks from Democrats and fellow Republicans along the way.
As former New Hampshire House Speaker Donna Sytek summed up that particular issue: "This is a no win for him.”
But Sytek, a longtime ally of the Sununu family, says she respects how Sununu's handled himself amid all of the criticism.
“I think he’s tried to be thoughtful about the way he approaches things,” she said. “It’s just not a knee-jerk reaction. ‘Oh it’s Planned Parenthood, I’m against it.’ No, this is health care for a lot of people.”
If anything, Sytek says Sununu might have some work to do to overcome his age — at 41, he’s one of the youngest candidates in the field.
Of course, like his last name, that’s also a factor beyond his control. And for now, at least, Sununu’s not really that eager to talk about his family’s political legacy. Even when asked about it head on.
When I caught up with the candidate after he toured that sportswear company in Newfields, I wondered what kind of advice his brother and father gave him about running for higher office. Instead, he turned to something he learned from his mother.
“Most, the vast majority of folks in my family, people in my family, are not involved in politics,” Sununu recalled. “But she said, look, you’ve got to give back to your community — become a teacher, donate at the food bank, participate in public service. And in New Hampshire, it truly is a public service. And when you do so, A, it is not a career, and B, you earn it on your own.”
His brother and father have been supportive, Sununu says, but he’s trying to earn this one on his own.