When It Comes To Working With N.H. Lawmakers, Sununu's No Natural

Mar 6, 2017

A governor’s ability to work with the legislature can make, or in some cases, break his or her political legacy. Chris Sununu has now been in office for two months, and once thing that’s become clear – to him and to lawmakers – is that he’s no natural when it comes to dealing with the legislature. 

Take, for instance, his appearance last week at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Asked what surprised him about his new job, Sununu named one thing: divining the motivations of lawmakers.

"So I think learning how to work with the legislators, both Republican and Democrat trying to understand the dynamics, the underlying tones and the pushes and pulls, understanding how something that happens in their communities on sometimes a personal and indirect level affects how they are voting at the state level."

Sununu didn’t say it directly, but he seems to be to be alluding to his biggest political defeat, the GOP-controlled house’s recent rejection of right-to-work. Sununu made the issue a top priority. He mentioned it in his inaugural address even though the policy has been repeatedly rejected in Concord going back decades.

House speaker Shawn Jasper says he warned Governor Sununu that a right to work bill would be a tough tell in the N.H. Legislature
Credit NHPR

House Speaker Shawn Jasper predicted the bill would fail and warned Sununu against it.

“He knew it was a tough climb, I told him that, and regardless this was something that the governor felt that he was willing to put his political capital in.”

Political capital is there to be spent; and deciding to pursue a clear, if risky, political goal is one thing, but a governor’s capital can also be wasted on smaller matters. 

Senator John Reagan is chairman of the joint legislative rules committee, which rejected another priority Sununu cited in his inaugural address, a moratorium on new state regulations.

Reagan says Sununu’s order that agencies to stop all new rules - which aren’t generated by agencies alone and must be adopted by legislature - betrayed an ignorance of the process.

"The governor had very good intentions when he did it. I just wish he had consulted with me. I mean I know him personally. He could have, or someone from his staff could have said, let’s find out how we do rules here."

Gov. Walter Peterson (center) at Governor John Lynch's inauguration, January 2011.
Credit Cheryl Senter for NHPR

Reagan, a Republican, also chairs the senate education committee. If the Governor hopes to directly shape education policy, Reagan’s help could be crucial. Even so, Reagan says his committee’s received no guidance from the corner office on what the Governor wants.

“We don’t get any feedback, and I don’t think it would be improper for them to tell the committee or the chairman, you know, the governor looks favorably upon this. Because you especially like to know if the governor really doesn’t like something, then you are kind of wasting your time legislating it because he can veto it.”

Democrat Lou D’Allesandro is the dean of the state senate. He started at the statehouse in 1973 as a Republican state rep.  “You know very few governors know how to work this building and you got to work it, you got to work it every day and that hasn’t happened for a long time.”

D'Allesandro says it’s been years since governor’s regularly forged close relationships with legislatures. But thinks there are models this Governor could follow. One he may not be too familiar with:

John H. Sununu attends his son Chris Sununu's inauguration in January.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

“Nobody worked this building better than Walter Peterson. He had been speaker of the house. He worked the building in a very appropriate way. “

And one Sununu knows quite well.

“This guy’s father was a tyrant, and as a tyrant he ran the place.  He was a hands-on guy and as a result he had success around here. Governor Sununu, the new Governor Sununu, you know it still remains an open question, but I would say he’s still got a lot of work to do.”  

After only two months in office, Sununu also has a lot of time to do it. But before it happens, if it is to happen, the Governor will need to get over what seems to be a real aversion.

“I’ve never been a legislator, I don’t fit that mold. I don’t work that way.”

Or at least work to downplay it.