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Sununu: Facts can force a flip-flop

State House Bureau

January 27. 2018 9:41PM
Gov. Chris Sununu at work in his State House office. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)
The governor's changing views
Some issues on which Gov. Chris Sununu’s thinking has changed include:

Commuter rail study: During the campaign called it a “boondoggle” and “bad leadership,” only to support it as part of an Amazon sales pitch. Now says “it’s in the Legislature’s hands.”

Voter fraud: During the campaign said, “No doubt there’s election fraud in New Hampshire,” but in 2017 tells NHPR, “I’ve always said we have no evidence of voter fraud in this state.”

Planned Parenthood: Voted against the contract in 2015 and then voted for it in 2016.

Obamacare repeal: Praised the Graham-Cassidy repeal bill in September, but a week later distanced himself from huge Medicaid cuts in the ill-fated proposal.

Defining residency for voting: Opposed controversial House bill defining residency in a YouTube video in December, but in January signaled he’s open-minded to the idea of better defining what it means to be an eligible voter.

Medicaid expansion: Voted against it as an executive councilor, but now supports a “New Hampshire solution” for maintaining the program.

Turnpike toll hikes: Said for weeks he would allow an Executive Council vote, only to refuse to bring the measure forward.

FirstNet emergency responder contract: Announces choice of Rivada, then days later switches to AT&T.

CONCORD - When Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson was asked about inconsistencies in his economic theory by a reporter in 1970, he replied, "Well when events change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

Gov. Chris Sununu could well make the same statement about his first year in office - a year that has seen his positions change on several key issues, from commuter rail to turnpike tolls.

"As new information comes to light, you have to put that into your equation as to what is driving you," the governor said during an interview last week in his State House office. "It's a very powerful thing in leadership to be willing to make what is sometimes viewed as a courageous move."

Courageous move or political suicide? There was a time when switching positions earned politicians the dreaded tag of flip-flopper, which helped torpedo the presidential candidacies of Democrat John Kerry and Republican Mitt Romney.

But times have changed.

"President Trump is changing politics in this country, deliberately or inadvertently," says Fergus Cullen, a former state Republican Party chairman and now a public affairs consultant.

"He has no compass on any issue whatsoever. He contradicts himself many times a day on issues large and small, and the public has accepted that. People who don't like him complain, but his base doesn't care. So I don't think these changes in position are hurting the governor politically. It's a big difference from the days of flip-flop Mitt or 'I voted for it before I voted against it' John Kerry."

Shifting positions

In the past year, Sununu has changed positions on a $4 million study of commuter rail, voter fraud and verification, Medicaid expansion, Obamacare repeal, turnpike toll hikes and participation in a national network for emergency responders (FirstNet).

Christopher Galdieri, associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College, said none of that appears to have hurt Sununu with voters, given recent poll results.

"Sununu is in a position where he has some latitude to change his mind," he said. "Most polls show him with high approval ratings. He is sitting on a sizeable campaign treasury for his reelection bid, and doesn't seem to have much in the way of opposition in his campaign for a second term, so I think these are circumstances where a politician has more room for flexibility."

But there does come a tipping point, warns Galdieri, when too many changes risk alienating the base.

"You start to look like you are trying to be all things to all people," he says. "So I think the question for the governor is, where's the line? Is there a point at which you do get tagged with the flip-flopper label?"

During his first year, the governor said he consulted with Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and former House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, whom Sununu later nominated to take over as agriculture commissioner. He also sought counsel from state department heads at regular "cabinet meetings," including them in discussions about personnel decisions, regulations and how the state has historically dealt with issues.

Sununu said every change of heart was based on new information that altered his perception of "what's best for the people of New Hampshire."

"The train is a great example," he says. "There was a huge change when Amazon was looking to invest $5 billion and they very much wanted to see a train. So I thought it makes sense to do that study now. That was a new variable that came into play."

Now, he says, it's up to the Legislature.

The FirstNet flip

The same logic applied in the FirstNet contract for a nationwide communication system for emergency personnel, according to Sununu, who at first supported upstart bidder Rivada before going with AT&T.

"Rivada is a great company. . best choice for the state no matter what," said the governor. "But we always knew we couldn't go it alone. When we realized we were going to be the only state, that was the barrier we couldn't overcome, so we defaulted to the second best plan, which is still a really good plan."

On the turnpike tolls, Sununu says the last round of public hearings swayed his opinion.

"It became clear to me that people really didn't want these tolls, so I thought that bringing it to the council for a vote only to have me negate it would have been political theatrics," he said.

On Planned Parenthood contracts, he points out that he voted in favor of the contracts four times as an executive councilor, and voted against them only once, in 2015, after controversial videos prompted an investigation into whether the organization was selling fetal body parts. "There was new information, and once that cleared, I supported (the contracts) again," he says.

Strength or weakness

Some see Sununu's willingness to revisit issues as a strength, but critics will eventually seize upon it as a weakness.

"I've been surprised that Democrats have not made a bigger deal of these changes," says Cullen. "That suggests they have made the calculation that it doesn't hurt him politically, but it could be coming in the campaign season."

Wyatt Ronan, communications director for the state Democratic Party, says Sununu tries to straddle both sides of an issue until he can land on the winning side. "As long as anyone can remember, we've been able to hold politicians to their word," Ronan says. "The fact that Sununu changes his position as often as he does means his word isn't reliable."

Pragmatism or politics

In New Hampshire, where independent voters are the majority, the prescription for political success in recent decades has been pragmatism over ideological purity, and Sununu is reflecting that tradition.

Most of his pivots have been on a practical, not ideological basis, and as long as a majority of voters are happy with the outcome, the fact that he once held an opposing point of view will not matter, says Galdieri.

"In both parties there's a tendency for candidates to avoid looking ideological," he says, alluding to Sununu's Democratic predecessors. "(Jeanne) Shaheen and (John) Lynch also found success by presenting themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers rather than ideological warriors."

Sununu's critics have called him many things, but never "ideological warrior."

"I don't think of the politics," said Sununu, who again swore off any interest in seeking higher office beyond governor. "Some people would tell you some of those votes or decisions were politically dangerous. I really don't care. I care about what's in the best interests of the citizens of New Hampshire."

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