The coronavirus pandemic that has shaken New Hampshire to its core also offers a path to both individual and collective transformation, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday as he officially began his third term.
"The challenges of 2020, tough as they were, they actually unknowingly created opportunity to allow the best of Granite Staters to shine through," he said in his inaugural address.
Sununu, who defeated Democrat Dan Feltes in November, repeatedly invoked the state's "Live Free or Die" motto in arguing that a responsibility to the greater good can coexist with personal freedoms and independence. He described speaking to a young girl who told him she doesn't like wearing a mask at school but wears one because she doesn't want to let down "everybody else."
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"Everybody else. That's what it's all about. It's the woman in the cereal aisle that you pass in the grocery store or the postal worker you pass in the hallway of your apartment building," he said. "Live Free or Die is all about our responsibility not just to ourselves, but to them."
"It is said that as individuals, we need to seek less to be consoled than to console. And we must seek less to be understood than to understand," he said. "This is the freedom I envision for New Hampshire. A freedom enveloped in neighborly caring."
Sununu's evening speech followed a small, private swearing-in ceremony that was shaped by concerns about both the coronavirus and potential violence. The original plan called for an outdoor ceremony and speech to allow for social distancing and avoid spread of the coronavirus.
"Then unfortunately, public safety concerns over the past month and unfortunately really culminating with the tragedy that we saw yesterday in Washington, D.C., brought yet another change," he said at the noontime Statehouse ceremony attended by a handful of legislative leaders.
Opponents of restrictions imposed by Sununu during the pandemic have been protesting outside his home in Newfields, where one person was arrested last week carrying two dozen rounds of ammunition, Sununu said. On social media, some participants urged one another to bring weapons to future protests.
The inauguration also came a day after a violent mob of President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers were meeting to confirm Joe Biden's presidential win. Sununu, a Trump supporter who at times has distanced himself from the president, didn't mention him Thursday, though he offered general criticism of those who show too much deference to political leaders and politicians who forget they are elected to serve.
He also criticized those who use the state's motto to "promote an agenda of discord" as naïve and selfish, and said the nation's founders, including the Revolutionary War general who first used the phrase, often asked individuals to make temporary sacrifices.
"It doesn't mean you have to agree with it, it doesn't mean you have to believe in it, or sometimes you don't even have to like it, of course. But those sacrifices have to be made," he said. "We don't live alone. We are a community. We must make living together in relative harmony a priority."
That will require a transformational approach that starts with individuals examining their own roles in building a more positive atmosphere, he said.
"That is what will lead us into the next step," he said. "Our growth, our evolution, our development, it can only start within our own hearts and minds."
About 100 protesters, most not wearing masks and a few of them armed, gathered outside the Statehouse before and during the inauguration, along with a significant number of state and local police officers. Protesters carried both pro-Trump and anti-Sununu signs, some of which read: "No more mandates," "Shut down Sununu" and "Masks Are Conditioning Us Into Slavery."
Ruth Marvin, 59, of Franklin, didn't wear a mask and carried a sign that said, "I will not wear someone else's fear." She said she believes her sister died of pancreatitis in a hospital because she wasn't allowed to have visitors. Hospital visits have been restricted because of the pandemic.
"My sister died because of his restraints," she said. "She went into the hospital for something very curable, and because of his restraints, my sister died all alone in the hospital within 24 hours."