Aug 31, 2016 10:28 PM
NH1 News Political Director
CONCORD – New Hampshire's race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination is contentious and so was first televised prime time debate in the GOP showdown for the Corner Office.
Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, and state Rep. Frank Edelblut traded fire on Wednesday evening in an NH1 News debate.
The four leading candidates in the GOP nomination race argued the state’s war against the heroin and opioid epidemic, decriminalizing marijuana, state funding for Planned Parenthood, the Common Core educational standards, the proposed commuter rail line in the Granite State, and the Northern Pass transmission hydroelectric lines.
The debate kicked off with a question regarding a story that's dominated the race in recent days.
The story, first reported late last week by Politico, put the Virginia-based SAFA trust, which has an investment in the Sununu owned Waterville Valley Resort, in the spotlight due to a years old government investigation into whether the charity was funneling money to Islamic terrorists. The charity’s executive, Yacub Mirza, has also donated to Sununu’s gubernatorial campaign.
Earlier this week Sununu told reporters that the story's "been completely discredited. Even the government got involved and completely discredited it. So there’s absolutely nothing there.”
In the NH1 News debate, Sununu charged that "these are sleazy slanderous allegations."
Then, without pointing a finger towards a specific rival, Sununu added "when these things try to get brought up by my political opponents, I call it the politics of fear. That’s the lowest level of politics. My campaign is about running on issues. Talking about things that matter to the people of New Hampshire."
The story also brought into question Sununu's claim that the ski resort is locally owned.
Gatsas criticized Sununu, saying "Chris, this is all about being honest with the voters in this great state. You’ve said many times that your investors are New Hampshire people. All you’ve got to do is release your investor list and we can put this to bed."
Sununu responded, saying that "we are 100% local controlled. The Sununu family owns 100% controlling stake in the business. All of our investors are friends, are family, are locals, with ties to the valley."
Sparks over drug crisis
The candidates also sparred over the Granite State's acute heroin and opioid epidemic.
A fight over some comments Sununu made in June resumed.
"We heard from Councilor Sununu that state and local government have done nothing on this issue. He said it. He said it. Yes you did. And he has yet to apologize to state and local leaders and law enforcement on the ground," charged Forrester.
Sununu fired back, saying "that’s an absolute mischaracterization. I said we need better local leadership with this issue. In every city and down."
"You absolutely did not say that," Forrester jabbed.
"Nobody can stand forward and say we can’t all do more. There are small programs that are working in this state and that’s great, but we all have to do more. We all have to do more. We do," Sununu responded.
Gatsas jumped into the fray, asking "Chris when have you come to Manchester to talk to the chief of police, when has that happened. When have you talked to the chief of police?"
After Sununu said that he hadn't talked with Manchester's police chief, Gatsas said "I know you haven’t. So you’re not leading this drug crisis. To say that there’s no local leadership, that’s just wrong."
Firing back at Gatsas, Sununu said "there isn’t local leadership, and you would know. You’re sitting in the city that’s absolutely fraught with the heroin crisis."
Minutes later Edelbut and Forrester clashed over the issue of marijuana decriminalization.
Edelblut, who supports the idea, said "so Jeanie, you know that the research on gateway drugs is up in the air. It is not settled science. You also know Jeanie that we have to make sure that we don’t stigmatize young people and if individuals are picked up for small amounts of marijuana then end up with a misdemeanor a or misdemeanor b criminal record. 25:04 and those individuals with a criminal record have a difficult time accessing the employment opportunities."
Forrester, who's vehemently against the idea, returned the favor, calling Edleblut by his first name.
"Well Frank we don’t know that. And let me tell you again. I’ve worked with law enforcement and the county attorneys and I would ask you, have you had that conversation with law enforcement and county attorneys on this issue," She charged.
Edleblut jumped in, saying "in fact Jeanie, I have."
Forrester quickly shut off Edleblut, saying "let me just finish my point, right. In one of our earlier debates you said that we’re putting people in jail. Young people on small amounts of marijuana. Well we know that’s not true. You said that our crime lab is being backed up because of small amounts of marijuana. Well we know that’s not true. So Frank you’re just not telling the truth."
Edeblut disagreed, saying "I am telling the truth on these issues."
Clash over commuter rail
Late in the debate, Sununu and Gatsas tangled again.
Asked if they would follow in Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan's footsteps in supporting the proposed commuter rail line from Boston through Nashua to Manchester, Gatsas explained "let’s first understand that I don’t support commuter rail. I think it’s important that we look at all plans. I think it’s important that we understand what’s before us. And how it works. But I don’t support using state funds to pay for it."
Moments later Sununu said "I’m flabbergasted. First I heard eight months ago that Mayor Gatsas was against the rail. Then we all hear that Mayor Gatsas was for the rail. And now we’re hearing that Mayor Gatsas is against the rail. For a guy who says he gives straight answers all the time, those clearly aren’t his forte."
"We’re not going to flip-flop every which way like Mayor Gatsas is doing. Flip-flopping every which way for political reasons. It’s actually embarrassing, Sununu added.
Gatsas fired back, saying "what’s embarrassing Chris is that you took $550,000 and pre-paid a Planned Parenthood contract when that line item in the budget was in the red."
Sununu was the key swing vote on the Executive Council in June to resume state funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. He's come under fire from his rivals for that vote.
After Sununu asked Gatsas "that’s your response to flip-flopping on the train," the mayor charged Sununu with flip-flopping.
"You flip-flopped on the planned parenthood vote. That’s what you flip-flopped on. That’s what people in the state of New Hampshire recognize you for," Gatsas claimed.
The face-off ended with some breaking news. Forrester announced in her closing statement on the NH1 News debate that she’s landed the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper.
The NH1 News debate came with just 13 days to go until the September 13th primary.
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