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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: 'Edelblut bill' aims to restrain commissioners

By DAVE SOLOMON
December 23. 2017 5:54PM
FRANK EDELBLUT (File photo)



Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a controversial figure since his appointment by Gov. Chris Sununu, is now the target of legislation designed to forbid commissioners from engaging in any partisan political activity.

Senate Bill 466 is sponsored by nine of the 10 Senate Democrats, with only Manchester Sen. Lou D'Allesandro's name left off the list.

It states that "during their term of appointment, a commissioner may not hold or campaign for elective office, serve as the officer of a political party or political committee, use his or her name in support of or in opposition to a candidate, participate in or contribute to political campaigns or act as a lobbyist."

The legislation doesn't name the commissioner, but it might as well be called the Edelblut Bill.

The two Democrats on the Executive Council, Andru Volinsky of Concord and Chris Pappas of Manchester, voted against Edelblut's confirmation in February, citing his political activities. Edelblut came within 1,000 votes of winning the Republican nomination for governor in a primary race against Sununu and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas in 2016.

The state Democratic Party issued a statement on Friday accusing Edelblut of "systematically transforming the New Hampshire Department of Education into a political weapon."

They cite, among other things, speaking appearances at the Mount Washington Valley Republicans, the Hancock Republicans and the New Boston Republicans "Right of Center" meeting, as well as attending a 603 Alliance event headlined by Trump strategist Steve Bannon.

What may have been the last straw for some came on Dec. 19, when Eldelbut used his official government Twitter account to respond to a tweet from Pappas, now a candidate for Congress in the First District.

At 4:05 p.m., Pappas, alluding to the passage of the tax reform bill in Congress, tweeted: "We need investments in our future and a level playing field for the middle class, but Congress gives us the #TaxScam. 2018 starts now."

Within minutes, Edelblut tweeted: "Hey @ChrisPappasNH, how about this investment in our future. 2600 NH students participating in a coding competition." The tweet included a photo of students from the Cyber Robotics Coding Competition taking place at the time.

The State House website shows that SB 466 was filed the next day, on Dec. 20.

For his part, Edelblut has defended all of his activities as appropriate to his role, and sees the tweet to Pappas as no big deal.

"Councilor Pappas had tweeted a rhetorical question about the need to make investments in New Hampshire's future, and I thought at the time, 'I'm at an event with 2,600 students learning coding, and that is a great investment,'" Edelblut said. "I was trying to emphasize the fact that this is a good investment in our future."

Pappas doesn't quite see it that way.

"The only thing I tweeted was about the tax bill that got approved by Congress. His tweet was in response to that. I used the word investment, but it had nothing to do with the Department of Education," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate for a commissioner to be using an official account to tweet about an issue in the political arena. I've been on the record before about his activities."

Volinsky said he plans to raise the matter with the other four executive councilors.

"Other commissioners, once they got confirmed, stayed as far away from political activities as they could, and I continue to be troubled by the commissioner's overtly political activities and his use of state resources to further his personal political ambitions," Volinsky said. "I trust that if the commissioner's supervisors, which is what the councilors are in a respect, ask him to dial back his overtly political activities, that might happen."

Edelblut says the concern is misplaced, as he has no plans to run for office at this time, including the 2nd Congressional District.

"I am having a great time as Commissioner of Education working with some wonderful people creating lots of opportunity for students across New Hampshire," he said.

Sununu, who hadn't seen the tweet when first asked about it, expressed confidence in his former rival.

"Overall I'm happy with his performance," the governor said. "But I understand the concerns and we'll take a serious look at it."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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