Sununu vs. Sherman for NH governor: These 3 major policy differences could guide your vote


Tom Sherman, left, and Chris Sununu, right

Steven Porter, GSNC

Immediately after nominees were chosen in last month’s Republican and Democratic primaries, New Hampshire voters overwhelmingly said they had already decided which candidate they plan to pick in the general election for governor.

Republican incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu had backing from 55% of likely voters, putting him well ahead of his Democratic challenger, Dr. Tom Sherman, a state senator from Rye, who trailed with 37%, according to a UNH Survey Center poll conducted in the days after. Just 8% of likely voters said they were undecided, suggesting Sherman may have an especially tough time finding enough votes to overtake Sununu, a Newfields resident. (The poll included 870 likely voters with a margin of sampling error of 3.3%.)

Even so, Sununu said he’s not taking his reelection for granted.

“This is New Hampshire, so no race is ever determined until Election Day. I try to run like I’m three votes down,” Sununu said in an interview, borrowing a campaign trail adage from the late Ray Burton, who served for decades on the Executive Council.

Sherman, meanwhile, said one of his campaign’s biggest challenges is the fact that his name is still unfamiliar to many Granite Staters. To fix that, he said he’s been ramping up his television ad buy and crisscrossing the state.

“People need to know who I am, so they can feel comfortable voting for me. I know that,” Sherman said in an interview.

“The more interaction I have with the public … the better chance I have to show that contrast with Sununu,” he added.

For those who still haven’t decided whether to pick Sununu or Sherman in the Nov. 8 general election — or those who are thinking about changing their minds — here are three key policy areas where the two major-party candidates differ.

Housing affordability

Sununu and Sherman agree that rising housing costs present a challenge, but they disagree on how exactly state leaders should respond. While the incumbent touts a big-ticket program that was approved earlier this year, the challenger emphasizes his plan to bake recurring investments into the state budget.

Sherman said his housing plan calls for the state to spend $35 million per year, a recurring investment that will fit easily in the budget since the state has been seeing budget surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sherman’s plan includes $500,000 annually for a new grant fund to help municipalities update their zoning regulations. It also adds $5 million per year to double the capacity of the existing Affordable Housing Fund, which gives low-interest loans and grants to support affordable housing projects. And it adds another $10 million per year to triple the existing Community Tax Credit Program, which invites businesses to buy credits that help fund local initiatives, including housing projects.

“When I talk about an investment, I’m talking about this complex interconnected system that supports our businesses and our workforce,” Sherman said. “You start providing housing for people who want to come to New Hampshire, you start making it possible for businesses to actually recruit and retain employees, and that return on investment will be several fold.”

Sununu said one key issue with Sherman’s housing plan is its scale.

“He’s proposing a fraction of what I’m actually doing,” Sununu said. “I have a $100 million InvestNH affordable housing fund. It’s not an idea. It’s not something we’re batting around. We’re doing it. The grants are going to be released in a couple of weeks. It’s really exciting stuff. The state has never done anything like that before.”

Sherman’s campaign says he would continue Sununu’s $100 million InvestNH plan and add to it with the recurring $35 million annual budget investments in his plan.

Sununu was referring to the $100 million housing fund his administration established with federal cash from the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package Congress passed last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New Hampshire officials have received a flood of applications for the InvestNH grants, which are expected to go before the Executive Council on Nov. 2.

The InvestNH program includes $60 million in matching grants for developers and owners of multi-family rental housing units to boost the availability of rental units affordable to people who make less than 80% of the area median income. The program also includes $40 million in municipal grants to incentivize new affordable housing units, help cities and towns demolish dilapidated buildings and update their zoning rules.

Sherman said one key issue with the InvestNH program is that it’s based on a one-off injection of federal cash, not a recurring investment at the state level. Sherman said Sununu is touting the benefits of “a Band-Aid” made possible by Democrats in Congress.

“That is one-time funding,” Sherman said. “There’s no long-term strategic plan.”

When asked how he plans to derive sustainable long-term benefits from the InvestNH program, Sununu said this is part of a strategy to support the strength of New Hampshire’s economy. That, in turn, leads to healthy budget surpluses and gives leaders flexibility in future years, he said.

“I’ve created record surpluses every year to invest in projects, whether they be housing or hospitals or mental health or (confronting) the opioid crisis,” he said. “We’ve been able to do that every single year I’ve been governor because we have such a strong economy, we balance our budgets and we have never created or increased a tax in the state.”

Sherman, however, said the fact that New Hampshire has run such large surpluses for three budgets in a row, including more than $400 million in the most recent fiscal year, suggests priorities may be a bit off kilter.

“To me, what that means is we are under-budgeting and we need to be reinvesting in New Hampshire,” he said, arguing that his $35 million housing plan represents “a tiny fraction” of the annual budget surplus.

The median cost of a single-family home in New Hampshire rose to $440,000 in March, according to the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute. And the monthly median cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment rose last year to about $1,500 with utilities, an increase of 24% since 2016 – an increase that came before this year’s rise in fuel and energy costs.

Energy policy

In response to steeply rising energy costs, state leaders this month finalized their approval of $35 million in state funds to help Granite Staters pay their electricity and heating bills this winter. The short-term solution, which will distribute $650 in credits to moderate-income households, won the support of both Sununu and Sherman, though the two candidates have differing views on the factors that led to current problems.

Sherman claims Sununu has resisted efforts to diversify New Hampshire’s energy sources, leaving the state overly reliant on natural gas. Sununu, meanwhile, claims Democrats are pursuing expensive ideas too aggressively while also fumbling on worthwhile efforts to bring relatively clean hydropower to the region.

Sununu said policymakers must look at energy-related topics from the perspective of ratepayers. “That’s why I vetoed a lot of legislation that might have sounded good on paper but was clearly going to drive up costs and rates well over and above what we’re seeing today,” he said.

As one example, Sununu cited the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a multistate collaboration to reduce carbon emissions and improve transportation. Sununu announced in late 2019 that New Hampshire would not participate. The initiative, he argued, would add a gas tax of up to 17 cents per gallon, with minimal positive results for the state.

“At the end of the day, it really would have just been subsidizing public transportation in Boston and costing our taxpayers a lot of money every time they fill up gas,” Sununu said.

Sununu said leaders need to push toward renewable energy sources. “But you don’t just drop everything and do it,” he said, “because the costs can be enormous.” There need to be feasibility studies and public input to find a cost-effective path forward, he said.

Calling himself a “big believer in hydro,” Sununu said liberals erred when they campaigned against the Northern Pass project, which had sought to build a 192-mile electrical transmission line for hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England.

Sherman, however, said it’s wrong for Sununu to claim that bringing alternative energy sources online will send rates through the roof.

“Our neighboring states have already done a great job of starting to expand their energy options,” Sherman said. “We haven’t because he’s blocked every effort we’ve had to do that.”

Sherman supports lifting the caps on net metering. Sununu does not.

Education policy

Sununu and Sherman have also disagreed heartily on matters related to publicly funded education, including the state’s Education Freedom Accounts, which allow eligible families to send their kids to nonpublic schools and take public funding with them.

Sununu, who supports the EFAs, said Democrats have been amping unfounded fears that this program will “defund” public education or “bankrupt” classrooms. “That was a lot of fearmongering on the Democrats’ part because they didn’t want lower-income families to have the same opportunities as everyone else,” he said.

Sherman, who has said he would sign legislation to eliminate the EFAs program, said he doesn’t believe they are a good or appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, especially since private and religious schools can discriminate on the basis of disability.

“Our public schools need as much resources as they can get,” he said.

Sherman acknowledged that his children have attended public and private schools. That has no bearing, he said, on his assessment of whether the EFAs program is good public policy.

“My responsibility is to all of the kids of New Hampshire,” he said. “My responsibility, no matter what I’ve done personally, is to make sure public dollars are being spent as wisely and as accountably as they possibly can be.”

Participation in the program has grown faster than expected. When it launched last year, there were 1,572 students participating. As of last month, there were 3,025 students, which will cost the state’s Education Trust Fund about $14.7 million this year, as the New Hampshire Bulletin reported.

Aside from ongoing conversations about public education funding, next year will likely bring renewed attention in Concord to fundamental questions about the relationship between educators and parents. New Hampshire House Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, signaled his intent to explore legislation to establish a parental bill of rights.

When such a bill came up earlier this year, Sununu vowed to veto it, citing concerns about the challenges it could pose for children. The bill would have required schools to enact policies to tell parents “promptly” about any action the child takes related to “gender expression or identity,” a provision that drew concern from advocates for LGBTQ rights.

This type of policy proposal could make waves next year in Washington, too. Karoline Leavitt, the GOP nominee challenging Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District, held a press conference late last month in Manchester to call for a federal parental bill of rights. Leavitt criticized Manchester schools for a policy that directed teachers not to notify parents if a student updates their gender pronouns.

Sununu, who endorsed Leavitt’s candidacy, declined to comment on her position. Speaking generally, he said parents and teachers should view each other as partners in a child’s journey through the education system.

“If there is an issue in a child’s school that can affect the health and safety of that child, then the teachers and administration have a responsibility to communicate with the parents if something is potentially affecting the health and safety of the child,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”

Sherman similarly said parents and teachers should work together as a team. When a child discloses personal information to their teachers, the teachers need to work with the child to help the child talk to their parents, he said.

“I think that it’s really important that that relationship between the teacher and the parent be as strong as possible, so they can collaborate in helping to raise that child,” he said.

More issues: abortion and marijuana

In addition to their differences on housing, energy and education policy, Sununu and Sherman have struck notably different tones on abortion and marijuana.

Sununu, who describes himself as “pro-choice,” has expressed support for New Hampshire’s 24-week abortion ban that he signed last year as part of the state budget, though he has also said he would love to sign legislation that would remove criminal penalties for doctors who violate it.

Sherman, who argues Sununu doesn’t actually support abortion rights, said New Hampshire’s current law, which took effect this year, “puts women’s health care in the third trimester at extreme risk.” Sherman has said decisions on whether to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks should be left to women in consultation with their doctors.

Last week, President Joe Biden announced pardons for thousands of people with prior federal convictions for simple marijuana possession, and he called on all governors to follow suit. Sununu has recently said now still isn’t the right time for New Hampshire to legalize marijuana, though he signed a bill in 2017 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug, expanded access to medical marijuana, and gave people a way to have their old marijuana possession convictions annulled, according to his office.

Sherman, meanwhile, said he would seek to “expedite” pardons for state-level marijuana possession charges and move forward with legalization right away.

Steven Porter is founder and editor of Granite Memo.

Photo Courtesy of Deb Cram/Seacoastonline