CONCORD, N.H. —
Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday that New Hampshire already “does a very good job” in addressing discrimination directed toward its citizens and in promoting diversity and human rights. But he said the state is not immune to the nationwide problem, and can do more to combat it.
At a State House news conference, with Attorney General Gordon MacDonald at his side, the governor said “an accumulation” of issues and cases both nationally and locally prompted him to order the creation of an 18-member Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.
The two officials also announced the creation of a new civil rights unit in the state Department of Justice.
“If we really want to live by those words, ‘Live Free or Die,’ we must ensure New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, receives an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and make a better life for themselves and their families,” Sununu said.
While the governor said no single case was the impetus for the initiative, he and MacDonald cited a nationally publicized incident that occurred in Claremont on Aug. 28, in which an 8-year-old biracial boy was hung by the neck from a rope by other juveniles after they directed racial slurs at him. The boy was able to free himself.
MacDonald said the investigation into that incident is now complete but the case remains open. He said he could make no further comment, citing legal restrictions and the fact that juveniles were involved. But he said the office will eventually release a detailed report.
“We intend to be as transparent as the law will allow,” MacDonald said.
The attorney general said the new civil rights unit “is something I wanted to do before I became attorney general,” noting that Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have such units in place. Sununu said the “vast majority” of states across the country have civil rights units in their justice departments, “and it’s time we do the same.”
MacDonald announced that the new unit will be headed by Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Lahey, a four-year veteran of his department, but he also said there will be no new staffing involved.
“We are redeploying existing personnel within the office,” he said.
Heading the new diversity and inclusion council is Rogers Johnson of Stratham, a longtime Republican activist and former state representative and U.S. Department of Education official who is the current coordinator of the New Hampshire NAACP.
Johnson said that while no council members have yet been appointed, other than himself, he hopes to have the council up and running shortly after Jan. 1.
Sununu’s executive order, which can be viewed here, requires the diversity and inclusion council to recommend ways to “combat discrimination” through possible changes in state laws and regulation, by recommending educational initiatives at the local level, by recommending ways the state can join with private organizations to quell discrimination and by recommending changes to the state law that outlines the duties of the State Commission for Human Rights.
The executive order requires the council to host community forums next year, meet monthly and submit its first report by June 1. Subsequent annual reports are due by Dec. 1 of each year.
“Our goal is to hear from everyone and to start a conversation that truly includes all of you,” Sununu said.
The council’s membership – detailed in the executive order — will include representatives of eight state agencies, the human rights commission, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state police chiefs and sheriffs associations, the municipal association and several members of the public.
Sununu said one of the first tasks of the new Department of Justice Civil Rights Unit will be to “develop training programs for state and local public officials” to address implicit bias.
“This isn’t just about race,” the governor said. “This is about issues of sexual discrimination, issues of transgender.”
“It’s the whole variety of issues,” Sununu said. “The whole umbrella really comes under making sure that we have the tools in place to deal from a legal aspect, to make sure that the community and citizens have an avenue to pursue from the attorney general’s standpoint as well as the council that can really engage the community, engage the business community, integrate with the civil rights commission, so that all of these issues are really dealt with.”
Johnson said the council’s job will be to “bring the idea of diversity and inclusion across New Hampshire, and it will not be simple. But the result will have a profound effect on the continued economic growth of our state.”
He said the council will prompt “people and corporations to look at New Hampshire as a destination for growth and prosperity.”
MacDonald, meanwhile, noted that his job entails ensuring that prosecutors in his office and in county attorneys’ offices enforce New Hampshire’s hate crimes statute when warranted. The attorney general must also ensure that the state’s civil anti-discrimination laws are enforced, he said.
The creation of the new unit “is an opportunity to improve our very important role with respect to ensuring the civil rights of our residents and visitors,” MacDonald said. He said the unit will lead the department’s effort to enforce anti-discrimination and civil rights law, to educate the public about their rights and responsibilities and to develop training programs for state and local officials.
The civil rights unit “will continue to ensure that, in New Hampshire, equitable treatment of all of our residents and businesses will be the norm and not the exception,” the attorney general said.
The new unit, he said, “focuses those efforts in one central place.”
“New Hampshire has done a very good job when it comes to addressing these issues,” Sununu said. “Unfortunately, we know there are always going to be issues like that.”
He said the new initiatives are “making sure and reaffirming what we’ve been able to do up to this date. We’re going to take a proactive approach. This is 2017. What we do today in terms of designing a system and having tools and resources for the long term is going to be vitally important in terms of the next 10 and 20 years.”
Sununu: ‘We’re not immune’
“We’ve had an issue of race in a variety of areas across the state,” the governor said. “We’re not immune to any of that,” he said.
Johnson said a key part of the council’s activities will be to work with local law enforcement agencies.
“I think some police may treat some minorities differently,” he said. “Having said that, our main goal is to eliminate it as much as possible.”
“In some instances, police may not know that they‘re treating minorities differently because they don’t understand,” Johnson said. “More than anything else, we need to start the conversation so that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
He said the council will “open up a line of communication between the people, law enforcement and the government. The more of that you do, the less likely you’re going to have racism and implicit bias.”
“This isn’t about a report that will sit in somebody’s desk,” Sununu added. “This is about having real action and really building for the long term.”
A Trump effect?
After observing the news conference, a veteran New Hampshire lawmaker said that the racial discrimination issue has been exacerbated since Donald Trump became president.
“I’ve been discussing this issue with people around this State House for a long period of time,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat.
“It’s a key issue, and it seems to me that with the ascendancy of the president, the racial situation has once again risen to the top. And we’re seeing a racial divide.”
“He’s made it almost OK and the veneer is gone,” D’Allesandro said. “And I’ve talked to many about how we’re going to react to this, how we should react to it and how we put a damper on it because many people thought this was done with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
“Well, it isn’t done and it’s something that we have to face up to.”
“Everybody keeps saying that,” council chairman Johnson said when asked whether Trump has fueled a racial divide. “And I think it depends on where you fall. If you don’t like this president, anything he says is bad. If you do like this president, very he says is egregious.”
“I’m trying to look at this from the standpoint of my need to do a specific job,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to project what my feelings are about what’s happening in the country. I’m concerned with New Hampshire. I’m trying to get things solved here.”
He said that even if Trump has exacerbated the racial divide, “I’m working around it.”
“It’s not that I don’t see a connection, but I work around it,” Johnson said. “I don’t have time to worry about what the President of the United States has said, or didn’t say, or what somebody thinks that he said.”
“What I care about is how do we solve our problems here and now, and not care about what the president has or has not said.”