In what some were calling an unprecedented event, three former Republican governors came together for a “fireside chat” of sorts to support the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy on Dec. 4.
John Sununu, Steve Merrill, and Craig Benson, three of the last four Republican governors, talked about the last election cycle, some of their successes while holding the corner office, and even some regrets at the second annual fundraiser dinner.
While there wasn’t an actual fire to be chatting beside, there were a lot of burning comments, with Sununu announcing, right out of the gate, that he was going to be “very partisan” in his comments.
Sununu said it was important to continue funding and support for the Bartlett Center because the organization made available all kinds of budget information to counter some of the factually incorrect statements made by politicians.
“The Democrats quite often like to pretend that they have not created deficits in a budget,” he said, “and there are huge deficits because they play games with the books … it is so important for people to understand that we are living in a world of politics and policies where it is easier than ever to snow the public.”
Sununu, who Benson bet would spend the most time talking, offered an overview of the last election not unlike some of the private comments that Republican nominee Mitt Romney made recently to some of his top fundraisers, that the election was won by the Democrats because they had more gifts to offer the voters.
“Give the devils their due,” Sununu said of the Democrats, “they aggressively got out the base of their base … that depended, to a great extent, economically, on government policy and government programs.”
Sununu said the Republican message wasn’t the problem; it was the Democrats’ big tent and organization, while presenting a perception of what they were going to do for that base. He suggested that Republicans needed to understand that “some of our best friends are stupid,” to giggles in the hall. Sununu suggested that conservatives in New Hampshire who were obsessed with taking over the party should learn how to solve problems. He said these friends saw their role in life to make the Republican Party “miserable because it was not far over” to the right wing.
“This state has to go back to understanding that its strength comes from a frugality that is focused on the good things and the necessities rather than the wants,” he said, “it is focused on local control … without allowing power to be concentrated in Concord.”
Merrill agreed with Sununu and added that he thought the national election was “the idiosyncratic factor; this one to me was the cult of personality.” He said even some liberal Democrats admitted that President Obama’s programs were a failure but people admired and liked him and that transcended other aspects of the campaign. Merrill said each election is “brand new and different,” so the personality factor might not be a factor in the future.
“So what we need to do is get back to Republican values, the Granite State values that make this state what it is, before we become Massachusetts,” Merrill said.
Benson said Republicans had good elections when they connected with voters and when they didn’t stress the differences, they didn’t win. He said the Democrats supported “a nanny state” and many people were “addicted, some cases,” to believing that they couldn’t succeed on their own and didn’t need to go our and make their own futures.
“There’s no worse fate for anybody in this world to think that they can’t do something magnificent with their life,” Benson said.
All three governors, moderator Kevin Smith noted, came into office facing difficult economic times.
Merrill said when he came into office in 1993, it was believed to be the worst recession since World War II. People were quietly pressing him to implement a state income tax, a policy he didn’t support and one of the main reasons he beat opponent Arnie Arnesen by about 16 points in 1992. He said, however, he didn’t implement an income tax and the voters believed he could solve the problems without one. Gaining the trust of the voters was key, Merrill said.
Benson said he looked toward Sununu and Merrill and “got creative to solve problems and live within our means.” He said he cut the state’s workforce by 800 people through attrition to cut costs.
“And guess what?,” he said, “nobody missed a beat … and we didn’t lay anybody off.”
Benson also commended John Stephen, his former head of Health and Human Services, who also came up with other ideas to save money and balance the budget, like allowing seniors to live in their homes, with assistance, instead of going into nursing homes they didn’t want to live in.
Sununu said he inherited “a huge deficit” but wasn’t happy that many people outside of New Hampshire didn’t believe that the state was taking care of its residents. He said he worked to create a 10-year infrastructure plan after balancing the budget. Sununu said a rainy day fund was also created to set aside money for the future.
Former Executive Councilor Ray Weiczorek, “a great public servant,” as noted by Charles Arlinghaus, the director of the center, was given the organization's Libertas Award.