Sununu and Sherman spar over abortion, school funding, energy policy
Dr. Tom Sherman (left) and Gov. Chris Sununu during their gubernatorial debate in Concord on Tuesday. (Zoey Knox | NHPR)
Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican from Newfields, and his Democratic challenger, Sen. Tom Sherman of Rye, sparred over abortion, energy policy, and education during an occasionally heated gubernatorial debate hosted by the Bulletin, NHPR, and NHPBS on Tuesday.
The two candidates found common ground on some issues, including support for law enforcement and enthusiasm for offshore wind as a future power source. But on others, such as the state’s 24-week abortion ban, the divide was clear – and tense.
Throughout the debate, Sununu, who is now running for his fourth term as governor, frequently touted his management of the state’s economy. Sherman, facing an uphill battle against the popular incumbent, missed no opportunity to take aim at Sununu’s record. Before running for governor, Sherman served as a state senator for two terms.
Here are five takeaways from the debate.
Agreement on offshore wind
While Sununu and Sherman don’t see eye to eye on energy policy, they both said offshore wind would play a role in their approach.
Sherman believes the state should procure offshore wind, pointing to a recent Rhode Island procurement for 7.9 cents per kilowatt hour. Sununu called himself a champion of offshore wind, pointing to a partnership with Maine, but said procurement was off the table because it falls under federal control.
With energy prices skyrocketing, Sherman and Sununu disagree over whether renewables will bring prices down. Sherman said the benefits of renewables go to the ratepayer, while Sununu said it’s the cost that does.
The abortion ban
Sununu has billed himself as a pro-choice governor, but he signed a budget including the state’s first ban on many abortions after 24 weeks. He defended the budget’s passage as he has in the past, saying he was unwilling to shut down state government over a single issue and tried instead to highlight common ground with Sherman.
“My opponent and I agree on a lot of stuff,” he said, citing not jailing doctors and providing more exemptions from the ban as two examples. But Sherman took issue with that, pointing to an ultrasound requirement Sununu had signed off on that was later removed.
“Under no circumstances would I force a woman or a man to go to any medical procedure just because I or the state say so,” he said.
Sununu said he would support a law requiring doctors to report how many abortions they perform.
School funding and education freedom accounts
School funding is a perennial issue in New Hampshire, with the state now facing two lawsuits over a property-tax system that charges some residents as much as 20 times more, proportionately, than others. Both candidates agreed it was an issue worth addressing, but Sununu said he doesn’t plan on leading the effort and would instead defer to the Legislature to create a plan.
Sherman said he’d use a plan put together by a legislative committee tasked with addressing the issue before the pandemic.
The two were also divided on the “education freedom account” program. Sununu tried to frame the program, which has far surpassed its initial budget, as giving low-income families the same educational opportunities afforded to affluent families in the state who can pay to send their children to private school. Sherman sees it as a financial boondoggle.
“It’s appalling to me that in the state of New Hampshire, right now, in Berlin, they can’t afford a high school chemistry teacher. That’s wrong,” Sherman said.
State of democracy
Declining trust in elections – including Republican candidates who say the 2020 presidential election was stolen – has become a big issue in campaigns throughout the nation. Sununu defended his endorsements of candidates who deny the 2020 presidential election results, saying, “You don’t endorse a candidate or support individuals based on one issue.”
Sherman called that irresponsible and said he would never endorse a candidate who says the upcoming election will be stolen. He played up his past work with former Secretary of State Bill Gardner during the 2020 elections and said he believes paper ballots do a lot to instill confidence in the election process.
Time to legalize marijuana?
The push for marijuana legalization in New Hampshire has become a perennial issue, with lawmakers last session floating a proposal that would’ve given the state a monopoly over the industry. But Sununu said the timing is still not right, given the opioid crisis.
But Sherman said there are strong arguments for moving ahead and pointed to Massachusetts and Illinois as models for what legalization could look like in New Hampshire. Opioid use has not increased in those states, he said, and he argued that it would provide safety and quality assurance. “We are currently outsourcing all of that revenue to every one of our neighboring states,” he said. “We can do this properly.”
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