The Bulletin Board

Diversity council formed by Sununu drafting letter in opposition to ‘divisive concepts’ language

By: - June 2, 2021 1:39 pm
A view of the NH Senate chamber

Nearly 3,000 people registered opposition to the bill on the Legislature’s website.  (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A week after the New Hampshire Senate Republicans unveiled the latest version of the “divisive concepts” bill, some prominent state officials are speaking out against it – including Gov. Chris Sununu’s Department of Safety commissioner.

During a last-minute meeting Tuesday, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion agreed to send a letter to Sununu’s office expressing deep concerns with the legislation, which would bar public school teachers and state agencies from teaching certain concepts related to implicit bias, racial privilege, and the existence of structural racism. 

Formed by executive order in 2017 – months into Sununu’s first term – the council is an advisory body of representatives of the state’s university system, community college system, Police Chiefs Association, Sheriff’s Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, as well as the Departments of Safety, Education, Health and Human Services, Administrative Services, and Labor. The body is tasked with identifying ways “to advance diversity and inclusion” and to review legislation that might help or hurt that aim.

The letter, which was being drafted by the council Wednesday, intends to advocate that Sununu push to have the “divisive concepts” language removed from the budget. On May 28, the Senate Finance Committee voted to include the updated “divisive concepts” language into the budget; on Thursday, the full Senate is set to vote on whether to pass the budget with the language included. 

Among the members who voted in favor of sending the letter was Department of Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn, who oversees the state’s Divisions of State Police, Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Fire Safety, Emergency Services, and others. 

Quinn’s department sits in the middle of a fierce debate over what the proposed law does. Critics of the legislation have argued that by banning state officials from teaching that a member of any race, gender, or other identifier is inherently oppressive “whether consciously or unconsciously,” the proposed law would hobble implicit bias training programs. Those training programs can help teach New Hampshire police officers how to improve reactions with people of color, an increasing focus after widespread protests in 2020 about police treatment of Black Americans and minorities. 

Supporters of the new law have disputed that analysis, arguing that diversity and sensitivity training would still be allowed under the new law – but that law would prevent state employees from being singled out for their race during the training.

Quinn did not comment on the bill – or his decision to support the letter – ahead of the vote Tuesday evening. But the opposition by Quinn, a member of Sununu’s government, as well the letter from the council, adds a new complication to what is already a delicate balancing act for Sununu. 

Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate are poised to pass a budget that includes the divisive concepts bill, forcing Sununu to veto the entire spending bill should he disagree with the language. Sununu has spoken out against an earlier version of the bill in the House and vowed to veto it, but has not weighed in on the amendment to the budget.

Another member of the council, Sean Locke, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice, recused himself from the vote to send the letter, citing his position in the department, which has provided guidance to Republican senators on how to craft the bill.

Other members of the commission were more upfront about their views. 

The council had previously sent a letter in March expressing opposition to an earlier version of the bill. 

With the Senate’s new language, Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera said that the new language from the Senate deserved more pushback. 

“I think we need to reaffirm our initial position even stronger,” he said. The council’s letter, Rivera added, needed to explain “that even though there was an attempt to bypass the process by inserting it into the budget, we still feel stronger now than before with opposition to this bill and this attempt at censorship, which is what it is. You can paint it any color you want; it’s still censorship.”

The letter will include a request that Sununu meet with the council in the coming days to discuss their concerns with the bill. 

Sununu’s office was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.