After 20 years trying, state lawmakers repealed capital punishment in 2019, one of the biggest political stories in a year filled with them.
This time, the governor couldn’t block it, which made New Hampshire the 21st state to outlaw it.
For decades most of the state’s chief executives have been in lockstep with law enforcement groups that opposed all attempts to rescind the death penalty. The last time the cause made it to the corner office since Gov. Chris Sununu's tenure as governor was in 2000, when then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen issued her veto.
Repeal had strong support at that time, but nowhere close to the two-thirds super-majority needed to override a governor’s veto.
This didn’t stop the unique coalition from trying every two years to get the issue closer and closer to reality.
Sununu vetoed a death penalty bill back in 2018 but Republicans controlled the Legislature and he won that fight to sustain the veto.
The breakthrough finally happened, principally as a result of the 2018 election. Voters flipped both houses of the Legislature from Republican to Democrat, but more than a few dozen GOP members in the minority had a libertarian bent.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed the repeal, but the Legislature overrode the veto in May.
The biggest winner was state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. Though his father was murdered when he answered his front door in 1988, Cushing became an advocate for repeal as he worked as an activist for the Massachusetts-based Murder Victims Families for Human Rights and as a New Hampshire lawmaker.
The debate here has long been a theoretical one. New Hampshire has no death row and has executed no one since 1939.
But then Michael Addison was convicted of capital murder in the 2006 slaying of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs.
Legal experts have said Addison is likely not to be put to death. His lawyers surely will argue that Addison can’t be executed now that the punishment is outlawed in New Hampshire.
Former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who prosecuted Addison, said death penalty foes were trying to mislead wavering legislators by suggesting the new law would not affect the Addison case.
It will probably take years for the legal fight over Addison’s fate to play out.
Aside from the governorship, the 2018 elections left Democrats holding every other lever of power in Concord — control of the House and Senate, as well as a majority on the five-person Executive Council.
It was clear early on that the two-term Republican chief executive and Democratic legislative leaders were going to have their differences. But few would have expected so many.
Sununu put his veto stamp on 57 bills during the 2019 session, shattering modern-day records.
In 2012, the last of Democrat John Lynch’s eight years in office, he vetoed 15 bills and lost more than half of the override fights thanks to the GOP’s 3-1 majority in both the House and the Senate.
Things were different this time.
Sununu knew he had enough votes in both the House and Senate to win many of those battles. And he did.
Lawmakers overrode only two of the 57 vetoes — the repeal of capital punishment and a much less dramatic measure that allowed patients to get quicker access to medical marijuana with a doctor’s approval.
More than a third of the bills Sununu vetoed had at least one Republican co-sponsor.
NH shutdown averted
Sununu’s biggest veto by far was of the two-year state budget in June.
In the veto message, Sununu said the budget passed by the Legislature spent too much money and didn’t cut business taxes.
Sununu said House and Senate budget writers proposed using too much of a past budget surplus on existing or new state programs. He charged this would lead to a budget deficit of nearly $100 million a year down the road.
Before lawmakers voted on that veto, Democratic leaders passed a 90-day continuing resolution that kept state government operating at current spending levels from last July 1 to Sept. 30, if necessary.
After a failed override effort, both sides went on the offensive.
Sununu spent much of last summer giving speeches to Rotary Club groups and visiting businesses to promote a third round of business tax cuts that lawmakers had blocked.
In turn, House and Senate Democratic leader hosted public information sessions across the state about popular spending items in the budget that Sununu had vetoed.
Last August, the governor and key lawmakers began meeting behind closed doors. After several weeks of talks they reached a compromise. Democratic budget writers agreed to give Sununu his business tax cut, but with a catch.
The tax cut kicks in only if taxes and fees over the next year come in 6 percent over forecast.
Sununu agreed to give Democrats some of the spending priorities they wanted, but in several cases not in permanent money.
For example, Sununu met the Democratic target to increase state aid to education about $130 million over the next two years.
But more than $60 million of the increase was in one-time spending rather than in changes to the aid formula that would have to be paid for year after year.
The new deal was adopted overwhelmingly.
The 1st Congressional District race in 2018 was bound to be historic, whoever won it.
In January, Manchester Democrat and restaurant co-owner Chris Pappas became the first openly gay person to be sworn into federal office from New Hampshire.
A former Executive Councilor and state representative, Pappas, 39, decisively won a crowded Democratic primary.
He defeated Republican nominee Eddie Edwards of Dover, a former local and state liquor law enforcement chief, who would have become the first African-American elected to major office here.
A month earlier, the state’s first transgender legislators — Gerri Cannon of Somersworth and Lisa Bunker of Exeter — took their seats in the New Hampshire House.
During his three-year tenure, Sununu has appointed three new justices to the five-member Supreme Court.
Sununu was able to elevate Robert Lynn to chief justice upon the departure of Linda Dalianis. Sununu’s choices of Patrick Donovan and Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi sailed through.
Then the 2018 election happened. Democrats took over the Executive Council, and Sununu’s judicial momentum screeched to a stop.
On a 3-2 party line vote, the council rejected Sununu’s appointment of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to replace the retired Lynn as chief justice.
MacDonald’s nomination had bipartisan support in the legal community.
But all three Democrats on the council opposed him, partly because of his time as a top staffer to former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-NH.
They said MacDonald supported Humphrey’s views on abortion and other social issues.
The councilors also pointed out Sununu’s three previous appointees to the court all had past activism in the Republican Party.
Sununu lashed out at the decision, calling it a “disgrace” in view of MacDonald’s legal career.
At year’s end, Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, urged the council to reconsider the rejection. Sununu said he would not nominate a replacement until the councilors apologize for their actions.
This raises the potential that the four-person high court could remain in place until after the 2020 elections.
One thing you can say about Donald Trump is he hasn’t worn out his welcome in New Hampshire.
Since narrowly losing the state’s four electoral votes to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2016, Trump had only returned to the Granite State once before appearing at a campaign rally at the SNHU Arena on Aug. 15.
He packed them in. The line waiting to get into the Manchester arena snaked around the downtown for a couple of miles. The final attendance count was 11,500 — 100 more than saw Elton John at the arena in November 2001.
Just as impressive was the throng of several thousand supporters who couldn’t get into the arena but watched the two-hour event outside on a giant screen.
Peaceful primary date
Through his 43 years on the job, Secretary of State Bill Gardner has faced every kind of challenge to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation position.
Once Gardner, 71, decides to move on, he may regard this 11th primary as the most peaceful of his tenure.
To be sure, there have been a few rumblings, notably about the state’s relative lack of racial diversity, but compared to primaries past, it’s been sweetness and light as the political leadership in one state after the next fell in line with the desire of national party leaders to let Iowa and New Hampshire remain first.
Only a few weeks ago Gardner made it official that the primary will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 11. But the date had been a foregone conclusion for months.The clincher for an uneventful setting of the date was a decision by Democratic officials in California and Iowa to drop their earlier plans to let votes cast mail be counted before the dates of the actual contests.
That could have posed a threat under New Hampshire’s law that prevents any “similar election” within seven days of ours.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s flirtation with a U.S. Senate run in 2020 has significantly affected Republican Party dynamics in the selection of an opponent for U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Lewandowski said most recently he’s edging closer to a run, but the Windham resident has at various times blown hot and cold about trying to unseat the state’s top Democrat.
Trump has not endorsed Lewandowski, but he has declared he would be a formidable candidate should he get in.
Meanwhile, three Republicans announced they are running: former state House Speaker Bill O’Brien of Nashua, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc of Stratham and wealthy trial lawyer Bryant “Corky” Messner of Wolfeboro.
Obviously, the campaign advisers to those three would all prefer that Lewandowski not run, but they want him to make a decision soon as it’s harder for anyone else to raise big money until that’s known.
While Shaheen remains popular, New Hampshire is seen as one of only a few states where an incumbent Democrat will face a strong challenge next year.