Dems seek Edelblut's resignation after speaking to anti-mask group

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut spoke on Sunday to a parenting conference sponsored by the Government Integrity Project, a conservative group opposed to mask mandates in public schools. Gov. Chris Sununu said given past actions of what he called a “fringe group,” it was “inappropriate” for Edelblut to be there in his role as the state’s top education official.

Democratic leaders called on Gov. Chris Sununu to seek Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s resignation, saying his speech to a conservative group that opposes mask mandates in public schools encourages parents to continue mounting vocal protests at local school board meetings.

“By his own words, he clearly supports the efforts of parents to be disruptive and not make decisions based on science and public health,” Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester said Tuesday.

Edelblut spoke about 45 minutes last Sunday to a parenting conference in Windham, hosted and posted on YouTube by the Government Integrity Project, a group that has condemned Sununu’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and lent support to protests against vaccine mandates in the state.

Sununu issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Edelblut’s decision: “Given this fringe group’s history and support of anti-government actions, the commissioner’s decision to attend in his official capacity was inappropriate,” Sununu said. “He has given me his assurances that he will use better discretion going forward.”

In his address, Edelblut urged parents to assert their parental rights, but said they should be respectful if they want to be effective.

“You can either make noise or you can make change, and truly there is a role for both of those,” Edelblut said.

He released a statement Tuesday saying he was at the forum to speak to parents, and not to endorse any group’s agenda.

“As the commissioner of education, I strive to make myself available to parents throughout New Hampshire as often as possible, and to the best of my ability,” Edelblut said.

The Government Integrity Project’s leader, Ken Eyring, was a major critic of a discrepancy in the race for state representative in Windham which fueled suspicions of fraud, and led to a state law that required a forensic audit be done. The audit uncovered no fraud. Eyring said he never alleged fraud, but had wanted to get to the bottom of the source of the discrepancy between hand and machine-counted ballots.

The group also embraced the protests by anti-vaccine mandate activists.  Those protests forced the Executive Council to cancel one meeting. At a second meeting last week, which was again disrupted by protests, the council voted, 4-1, against accepting $27 million in federal immunization grants.

During his speech Sunday, Edelbut said he shared the frustration some parents have when their complaints about local policies fall on deaf ears.

“Oftentimes we’re in shock because the people on our school boards, those representing us — these are our friends and our neighbors — they generally are people who knocked on our door and said, ‘Hey, come vote for me and I’ll do good things in the school,’” Edelblut said.

“And now they’re not willing to listen to us. They’re not willing to take that input.”

Edelblut told parents school boards can require face mask wearing, both inside schools and at their public meetings.

If the local board permits public comment, however, Edelblut said it must allow citizens who aren’t wearing masks to speak at those meetings.

Attorney General John Formella’s office has advised him in writing of this public comment requirement, he said.

The swift condemnation from Democrats came as Edelblut hasn’t ruled out a GOP run for governor in 2022 should Sununu decide not to seek re-election. Sununu said he may decide to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Edelblut ran for governor in 2016, and nearly defeated Sununu in his first GOP primary for the corner office.

Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, said Edelblut should support universal mask wearing in public schools.

“While authorization for vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds is expected soon, masks are the most important tool we have to combat the spread of COVID-19 in our elementary schools,” Warmington said. “The actions of Frank Edelblut directly contradict the recommendations of public health officials and put our school children in harm’s way.”

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton urged Sununu to seek Edelblut’s resignation as the governor did when the then-chairman of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee two weeks ago shared conspiracy theory information regarding the risk of COVID-19 vaccines with committee members.

In response, Kingston Republican Rep. Kenneth Weyler stepped down as chair of that panel and the House Finance Committee.

“Commissioner Edelblut has inappropriately used his office to meet with fringe groups on multiple occasions, and it is past time for the governor to demand his resignation,” Cushing said.

Both Sununu and Edelblut have said local control permits local school boards to adopt a mask mandate.

Last week, Sununu said there have only been about 28 children across the state hospitalized with the virus over the past 20 months, but he looks forward to the Biden administration approving vaccines for younger children.

“It is very true that children do not face nearly as serious of an illness as adults, but we all know that kids can still very much get sick, albeit at a lower risk,” Sununu said.

As of Tuesday, there were 244 active cases of the infection in schools.

This included 74 clusters — at least three confirmed cases of the virus among a related school group.

There are currently nine outbreaks in schools. Outbreaks are defined as at least two unrelated clusters in the same building within a two-week period.

Sununu and Edelblut have both said a local school district’s decision to revert to all-remote instruction should be limited to the source of an outbreak, and that in-person schooling should resume as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Edelblut got support from conservatives on social media. Some condemned Sununu for calling him to task for the speech.

“Commissioner Edelblut is only allowed to talk to ‘certain people’ now? How is it that Gov Sununu would define the type of people the commissioner is allowed to speak to versus the type he is not allowed to speak to?” said state Rep. Melissa Blasek, R-Merrimack.

Andrew Manuse is chairman of RebuildNH, a group opposed to many of the executive actions Sununu has taken during the pandemic and one which helped organize the anti-vaccine mandate protests at the two council meetings.

“Is Cinde (Warmington) willing to publicly release a list of all the people and organizations she’s spoken with and resign over all of the groups that her political opponents disagree with? What kind of nonsense is this Tweet?” Manuse said.

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