Since taking office in February, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has drawn criticism that he’s politicizing what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan office — by speaking at Republican party meetings, for example, or using his official Twitter account to take a jab at Democratic executive councilor Chris Pappas.
In response, Senate Democrats now plan to introduce a bill to limit state commissioners’ politicking — though it’s not immediately clear that Edelblut has engaged in any activity that would be outlawed under the new bill.
“The commissioner of education has wandered into the political arena,” says Sen. Jeff Woodburn, the bill’s lead sponsor. “And we just feel it’s important that state employees ought to be focusing on their job, not on politics.”
Woodburn said commissioners might need to advocate certain positions that are in the interest of the administration they’re part of, but it should be in the context of “pursuing a policy, not a partisan political agenda.”
The Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Edelblut’s role.
Woodburn described his bill as a state version of the Hatch Act — a federal law that stops public officials from campaigning on public time.
New Hampshire law already says a public employee cannot “electioneer while in the performance of his or her official duties,” where “electioneer” means “to act in any way specifically designed to influence the vote of a voter on any question or office.”
Woodburn’s bill would take that a step further: banning commissioners from holding office in a political party, lending their name to political causes, contributing to state or local campaigns, and engaging in or assisting with lobbying activities.
In the last year, Edelblut has attended Republican Party events and was slated to headline one party meeting earlier this year but bowed out, citing scheduling issues.
He also faced criticism for not disclosing that he donated $1,000 toward a legal battle against the Department of Education before becoming commissioner. When questioned about the payments several months after he took office, Edelblut said he didn't believe they compromised his ability to carry out his duties as commissioner.
More recently, an educator who interviewed for a charter school position with the Department of Education wrote an op-ed for the Concord Monitor saying she was “disturbed” by her job interview with Edelblut. She said the commissioner sought her position on Senate Bill 193, and suggested that the person selected for the job would need to advocate for school choice.
“Politicization of the charter school office – and of the department, if my interview is any indication – can only be harmful to our schools and the state,” the educator wrote. “So I have withdrawn my application to DOE.”