Primary Source: MacDonald to face grilling in N.H. confirmation hearing

  • John P. Gregg. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

  • Manchester attorney Gordon MacDonald sits with his daughter, Nellie, 8, and his wife, Jennifer Eder, as they listen during a public hearing in the executive council chambers, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, N.H. MacDonald is Republican Gov. Chris Sununu's nominee to be the state's next attorney general. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2019 10:04:59 PM
Modified: 6/19/2019 10:04:51 PM

Look for an intense Executive Council hearing next week as Attorney General Gordon MacDonald faces questions about his nomination to be the next chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

While MacDonald has won praise for his legal work and character — he argued some big cases on behalf of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and other hospitals involving the Medicaid Enhancement Tax — abortion-rights supporters are also raising concerns on where he might stand on that issue.

Decades ago, the 57-year-old MacDonald worked as legislative director and chief of staff for then-U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., and in 2016 was a delegate at the Republican National Convention for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Both are abortion opponents.

But many lawyers in the state say MacDonald, a 1979 Hanover High School graduate who went on to Dartmouth and worked as a lifeguard in the Upper Valley in the summers, is highly qualified for the job.

MacDonald on Wednesday declined comment when asked to outline his position on abortion rights, referring a reporter to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s office.

Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt said, “Governor Sununu nominated Attorney General MacDonald, who is highly regarded in the legal community, based on his extensive experience. As with any potential nominee, Governor Sununu does not believe in single-issue litmus tests and will always choose the best individual for the job.”

More than 120 prominent attorneys in the state signed a letter backing MacDonald, and it is being heavily promoted by Jay Surdukowski, a Concord-based attorney who has been active in New Hampshire Democratic politics.

But ultimately, MacDonald’s nomination will be up to the five-member Executive Council, which has three Democrats and two Republicans. Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, a Concord Democrat and himself an established lawyer in the state, made clear Wednesday that he had questions on MacDonald’s stances on a range of issues, from abortion rights to voting rights to immigration, including why New Hampshire opted not to join other attorneys general in some cases of national interest.

Volinsky, a possible gubernatorial candidate next year, also echoed concerns raised by some opponents to the nomination that MacDonald has no judicial experience, and yet, as chief justice, would be running the court system. And Volinsky said he was unimpressed by the list of attorneys supporting MacDonald, saying it creates a “dangerous” precedent of people possibly trying to curry favor with a future chief justice.

“This isn’t a beauty contest,” Volinsky said.

Executive Councilor Mike Cryans, a Hanover Democrat, said he has heard from both opponents and supporters of MacDonald and wants to learn more at the hearing next Wednesday in Concord before deciding how he would vote.

Looking at Vermont run

Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, a Norwich resident, isn’t the only Democrat with Upper Valley ties looking at a potential gubernatorial run against Republican Gov. Phil Scott next year.

Kevin Ellis, a former South Strafford resident and ex-newspaper reporter who has been one of Montpelier’s top lobbyists and public affairs strategists, posted a piece this week on his website, calling for a transformation in Vermont, titled “If I Were Governor.”

“At the core of this transformation is resiliency. The climate crisis is real. In everything we do, we must build in resiliency — in our buildings, in our systems of transportation, education, natural resources, energy and agriculture. We can no longer afford to throw up buildings along strip highways in Barre-Montpelier or Williston Road. These are failures of planning and community building,” Ellis wrote.

The 60-year-old Ellis, who lives in East Montpelier and calls himself a “Robert Kennedy Democrat,” said he would gladly defer to Holcombe if she decides to run. He also said that Vermont needs to be more hard-eyed toward large dairy farms that may be contributing to water-quality problems in Lake Champlain. Ellis suggested the state “Reckon with large dairy farms and the damage they do. If we are going to subsidize dairy farms, let’s pay them to stop polluting and stop producing a product fewer people want.”

Dartmouth protest

Morgan Curtis, a 2014 Dartmouth graduate who has been campaigning for the college to divest itself of fossil fuel stocks fox six years, waged an impromptu protest at an alumni reunion weekend event on Saturday. She and a colleague took the stage with a “Divest” banner as Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon and college deans led a discussion on “Disrupted or Disruptor: Dartmouth in a Changing World.”

“In an hour-and-a-half event, they did not talk about climate change once,” said Curtis, who has collected about 200 signatures from alumni since last weekend on a letter calling for divestment. (She has more than 1,200 signatures on a broader effort that has been ongoing).

Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said the panel discussion was focused on the future of higher education and the liberal arts, not global warming, and that Dartmouth has no plans to change its investment policies.

“President Hanlon meets regularly with Divest students and agrees that meeting the energy needs of our planet going forward is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” Lawrence said via email. She also noted that Dartmouth has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, in part through a new biomass heating system.

Staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at

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