CONCORD — Amid a crossfire of accusations about questionable timing, the Democratic-led Executive Council on Wednesday rejected Gov. Chris Sununu’s historic choice of a black businessman for the state Board of Education.
Sununu said the 3-2 vote against Ryan Terrell of Nashua “shocked” him.
“Of all times to now potentially reject a candidate like this, I am shocked ... I don’t know a better way to say it,” Sununu said. “For someone with this person’s background, I am shocked someone in these times would not support a candidate with his qualifications.”
Terrell would have been the first black to serve on the board, according to a number of veteran officials.
Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, and a primary candidate for governor, accused Sununu of pursuing “tokenism” with the choice. He said his selection to the four-year term would be “demeaning” to the board.
Volinsky said Terrell did not have enough community experience or knowledge about issues to be a good choice.
“As willing as he is to contribute his time, he has absolutely no qualifications for the job,” Volinsky said
“This is an exceedingly inappropriate appointment to a very important board and I can only vote against him.”
During a telephone interview after the vote, Terrell said he found the debate on his nomination “truly upsetting” and said his opponents made it about race rather than his qualifications as a successful businessman.
“The councilors made this about race in a way that was truly upsetting and alarming,” said Terrell, 29, a project manager with Evolve Salon Systems, a company owned by Manchester developer Dick Anagnost that supplies hair styling products to salons in 13 states.
All three Democrats on the five-member panel voted against Terrell. The two Republican councilors supported him.
Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, said he’s seen Terrell immerse himself in issues and believes his youth and energy would be an asset.
”This is an opportunity to give someone who is not an elected official a chance,” Gatsas said. “I would think we would give Ryan Terrell an opportunity to bring forward ideas he has for education.”
Sununu nominated Terrell on May 20, before the controversy in Minneapolis, Minn., over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Terrell would have replaced Helen Honorow, a Nashua Democrat and lawyer who has served since 2007 and cannot be reappointed because of term limits.
Sununu said Terrell’s is an inspiring story. He is a New Orleans native whose family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Terrell moved to New Hampshire in 2011 to attend and graduate from Southern New Hampshire University.
“It’s all the better we have someone with an outside perspective to education. That is exactly what we need to be striving for,” Sununu said.
Rogers Johnson, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and president of the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP, called the council’s vote “tone deaf.”
“They want to nominate who they want. That’s what it comes down to,” said Johnson, a former Republican state lawmaker and an official in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush.
“It doesn’t matter what the governor wants, they’re voting him down, which is pure politics.”
Terrell said he first approached state Board of Education Chairman Drew Cline about serving after the two met while Terrell was in a class of Leadership Manchester.
“I’m deeply disappointed in the inappropriate personal attack on a Board of Education nominee that occurred in the Executive Council meeting today,” Cline said in a statement. “Ryan Terrell is an exceptionally bright, thoughtful person who would’ve served with distinction on the Board of Education.”
”He didn’t deserve to be personally belittled by an executive councilor and told, amazingly, to get in the back of the line, just for volunteering to serve his state,” Cline said.
Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, said she would recommend Terrell to serve on a business board to get volunteer experience and told Sununu she would offer three other “persons of color” who would be qualified to serve on the education panel.
Terrell took offense at that statement.
“For me it is really disheartening of a person of any race, creed, color or age to want to serve New Hampshire citizens and to be met with personal feedback on my character,” Terrell said.
“I am saddened by the fact that my wanting to be on the board has translated into a conversation about race.”
Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley defended the council’s decision.
”Elections have consequences,” Buckley tweeted. “Democrats want qualified people making education decisions, Republicans want right-wing political activists.”
The governor’s spokesman lashed out at the decision.
”Now, more than ever, we must celebrate and empower individuals from different backgrounds with different perspectives to serve in state government,” said Benjamin Vihstadt in a statement.
”For the Democrats on the Executive Council to call this appointment of Ryan Terrell ‘tokenism’ and ‘demeaning’ is an affront to anyone looking to give back to their community and utterly inappropriate.”