scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Dear Governor Sununu, visit Lawrence before you speak

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press

Dear Governor Sununu,

You’re new at all this. You’re our nation’s youngest governor. You’ve still got a lot to learn. And, boy, does it show.

When you maligned the city of Lawrence, asserting — without any evidence — that it is funneling nearly all of the powerful opioid fentanyl that is poisoning the streets of your state, you come across — and I’m sorry to say this, sir — as an opportunistic lightweight. All sound bite. No substance.

May I offer an unsolicited but I hope polite piece of advice? Think before you speak. Words matter. Words can wound. In the era of Google, words last forever. Those scars fade slowly.


And may I suggest something that should have been obvious to you before you shot your mouth off last week, ridiculously threatening to send people with guns and badges to invade Massachusetts? Lawrence is not causing your drug problem. Cities don’t do that. Cultures do. Your culture. Our culture. There’s an opioid epidemic out there. And it’s everywhere.

Perhaps you don’t realize that the megaphone you now hold in your hand is exponentially more powerful than the one you held when you ran that ski resort in Waterville Valley.

But for you to point your finger from your office in Concord at Lawrence, the poor former mill town that does not pretend it’s become some urban utopia, is a public policy embarrassment. It’s also a disservice to hard-working people you should take the time to get to know.

I talked to them this week. They want to meet you. They want to show you the city you’ve reduced to cruel caricature.

You may remember the Lawrence whose city hall was befouled by dysfunction and corruption. You may have an image of a school system in free fall, of a demoralized police department, and blighted buildings adorned with red X’s, the scarlet letter of economic decay.


They want to tell you a different story. They wear no rose-colored glasses. Yes, there’s a drug problem in Lawrence. There’s crime in the streets. There’s too much poverty. There’s also a new spirit of optimism.

Do yourself a favor, stop by the office of schools Superintendent Jeff Riley. He was a deputy superintendent in Boston until five years ago when he was chosen to revive a school system placed in receivership.

“It was like a black cloud hanging over the city,’’ said Riley, who works out of a basement office in the old Lawrence High School. “But we had great teachers and families committed to the school system and I felt Lawrence had been unfairly maligned.’’

Unfairly maligned. Sound familiar, governor?

Riley went to work. He invited parents, who felt alienated from the system, to work with him. Ineffective teachers were let go. More than a third of the district’s principals were replaced. School days were lengthened. And, gradually, something amazing happened.

A school system ranked second from the bottom in the state leapfrogged dozens of districts. The dropout rate was halved. The graduation rate rose nearly 20 percentage points. Test scores are on the rise.

“Nobody’s claiming victory,’’ Riley said. “We have a long way to go.’’

The kids in Lawrence are smart enough to know a scapegoating politician when then see one. “Our students are acutely aware what people are saying and writing about them and their community,’’ Riley said. “This is a cheap shot. It’s unfortunate. It’s just people trying to score political points. It’s offensive.’’


Governor, you might also want to spend some time with Abel Vargas. He’s the city’s director of business and economic development. He’s a product of Lawrence High School, class of 2000. And he’s trying to rebuild his hometown brick by brick.

He’s a good tour guide, too. He’s an angular guy with a soft-spoken confidence. He’ll show you around the old hulking, red-brick factory buildings that are being repurposed into housing units and retail space. There’s been $200 million in private investments in Lawrence over the last three years. That’s $10 million more than the previous eight years put together.

“Lawrence was and is a place where people come to pursue the American dream,’’ Vargas told me as we rode through construction sites. “It doesn’t make them bad people.’’

But your words, governor, have made them mad people. There’s anger in Lawrence about the unfair stereotyping of which they find you guilty. Some see seeds of racism. Some hear echoes of Maine Governor Paul LePage, who lodged a similar charge in August.

“This is a majority-minority community,’’ said Lane A. Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College. “Mostly Hispanic. Mostly Dominican. And it’s very easy to stigmatize the other. It’s very easy to point to the other and say: That’s the problem.’’

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

At City Hall, across the conference table in his third-floor office, Mayor Dan Rivera wishes he was talking about something else. The falling crime rate. The 23 new police officers. Those new housing units downtown he cut the ribbon for this week. Rising proficiency rates in math, English, and science.


Instead, he’s talking about you, governor. He’s talking about the words you used to describe his city – words that, at first, he didn’t believe.

“Sometimes people take things out of context,’’ he told me when I sat with him this week. “I was shocked that he said it in the manner in which he said it. With the effervescence, with the drama. I’ve been in those situations where I get myself worked up to a point in a speech where I feel myself crossing the line. And he didn’t do anything to pull himself back.’’

Massachusetts State Police have called Lawrence and its surrounding areas a significant source of heroin and fentanyl that enter the United States from Central America. But it’s hardly the sole source.

The mayor simply doesn’t believe your “85 percent’’ number. You said: “Eighty-five percent of the fentanyl in this state is coming straight out of Lawrence, Massachusetts.’’ But the mayor thinks it was some anecdotal, throwaway figure you got from some state trooper somewhere. But the damage has been done.

“He’s not just anybody,’’ the mayor said. “If Chris Sununu, private citizen, said it, people would be like, OK, whatever. But he’s the governor. He’s in charge of the National Guard. He’s in charge of the State Police. So it gives credence to a brand that isn’t true anymore. We have a problem with drug selling in Lawrence. And it’s gotten bigger because the demand had gotten bigger. So we’re working on that.’’


Governor, if Mayor Rivera wanted to act like you have, he could make political hay by railing against your permissive gun laws that help fuel the violence on his streets.

Instead, he’s taking the high road, asking for your help to curb the epidemic. Let’s start by funding more treatment beds, he suggests.

How does that sound to you? I’d like to know. I contacted your office a couple of times this week. I was told if you wanted to talk to me, you’d call. You haven’t.

If you had, I would have told you this: People like you, people of wealth and privilege, should know better. When you’re born on third base, don’t act like you hit a triple.

Count your blessings. Go visit Lawrence. You’ll find better hosts than you deserve.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at