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Portrait of N.H.’s first female executive councilor hanging in the balance

  • Noted political activist, former state representative and first female executive councilor Dudley Dudley attends her portrait unveiling event in the Executive Council chamber at the State House in December of 2016. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • A portrait of Dudley Dudley, the first female executive councilor, was unveiled during an event in the Executive Council chamber at the State House in Concord on Monday, Dec. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A portrait of Dudley Dudley, the first female executive councilor, was unveiled during an event in the Executive Council chamber at the State House in Concord on Monday, Dec. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A portrait of Dudley Dudley, the first female executive councilor, was unveiled during an event in the Executive Council chamber at the State House in Concord on Monday, Dec. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A portrait of Dudley Dudley, the first female executive councilor, was unveiled during an event in the Executive Council chamber at the State House in Concord on Monday, Dec. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz



Monitor staff
Saturday, March 03, 2018

Once, she knew her odd name, barrier-breaking behavior and strong moral fiber would mean press clippings and curiosity.

She didn’t want it initially, but she realized she couldn’t avoid it.

This time, though, Dudley Dudley had nothing to do with the story that’s swept through the State House halls like Friday’s wind.

She was an innocent bystander after a pair of Democrats – Hampton
State Rep. Renny Cushing and state Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley – invited her to lunch two years ago and asked what she thought of their idea to hang her portrait in the Executive Council Chambers.

Since then, the portrait of the first female on the Executive Council in its then 297-year history, a woman who told a billionaire connected to the Kennedy Dynasty to go home, a woman who began championing civil and women’s rights when the Beatles sported mop tops, sat on an easel in the artist’s Portsmouth gallery for months.

According John Formella, Gov. Chris Sununu’s legal counsel, the painting was given back to the state on Friday, after the artist, Alastair Dacey, had “requested that the portrait be returned so enhancements could be made.”

Meanwhile, the process by which portraits of famous people make it onto the State House walls has turned cloudy, with questions and accusations flying. Is the Republican-led state government dragging its feet in protest of hanging a portrait of a liberal woman on the wall? Are Democrats using the portrait for political grandstanding just because of a simple oversight?

The Executive Council will vote Wednesday at its next meeting, but that happened only after Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky came aboard in January and wondered what the heck was taking so long.

“I’m concerned that this may have been political,” Volinsky told me. “But people have taken a little time and come to the right point, so I will give them credit for eventually coming around.”

Meanwhile, an obviously uncomfortable Dudley (on second reference it’s her last name) downplayed the whole ordeal, telling me, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t see that this is such a big deal that it would be political. It’s putting a painting on the wall.”

When her parents gave her the first name of Dudley, she was born to be a story, and it only got better from there. She married an attorney named Tom Dudley in the 1950s. That in itself is sort of interesting, but other ingredients were added to the mix, turning that sort-of-interesting story into a really great story.

Dudley’s liberal leanings surfaced during Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gloria Steinem. Now 81, she emerged politically at a time when it was okay for writers to call her “The good-looking blond woman,” as the Washington Post described her in 1979.

The beauty of this story, however, goes back farther than that. In 1969, for example, two black Marines, William Harvey and George Daniels, were imprisoned in Portsmouth for speaking out against the Vietnam War.

Dudley and her husband sailed past the naval prison in Portsmouth Harbor holding a sign that read, “Free Harvey and Daniels,” and the two Marines were freed later that year.

And then there was her fight in 1973 against Aristotle Onassis, the billionaire Greek shipping magnate who at the time was married to Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s widow.

Onassis sought to build a monstrous oil refinery near Dudley’s beloved hometown of Durham. So Dudley guarded our seacoast like a cannon, aiming her barrel toward the Atlantic Ocean and basically telling the international giant, “Not on my watch.”

She gathered 4,000 signatures and pushed for a bill that led to “home rule,” a concept she said she learned from her father that left it up to towns and cities to decide the fate of massive industrial projects.

“It was scary,” Dudley told me. “There were a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of anxiety and insecurity and worry. It was a huge deal, and I think of how this state – and I’m not just exaggerating when talking about the whole state – would have been transformed into the worst parts of Texas and New Jersey.”

Elsewhere, Dudley was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention for George McGovern. She made headlines when she pushed for Sen. Edward Kennedy to run for president in 1980, but has since backtracked on that when reflecting on the Chappaquiddick episode.

“Looking back,” Dudley said,
“maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did.”

She was a target of right-wing Union Leader publisher William Loeb, which only added to her cachet. She broke the gender barrier in the Executive Council, and was the first Democrat from Durham in 50 years to win a seat in the state’s House of Representatives.

By now, it should be clear that Dudley never subscribed to many conservative principles. But her leadership and achievements led to that lunch two years ago in Concord. The one about Dudley’s portrait joining the approximately 200 portraits of men (and a few women) on those State House walls.

Dudley would be the ninth woman once the picture goes up. If it ever goes up.

Dudley said she wasn’t thrilled with the idea originally, saying, “I am a New Englander and it’s weird to be appearing as self promoting. That is what you do as a politician, but I was not a politician when the portrait was proposed.”

As a public and historical figure, however, Dudley knew she had a responsibility to motivate a new generation of girls, which is really what she signed up for as soon as her passion for social justice sprang to life.

“In my lifetime I will probably see the painting twice more,” Dudley said. “It does not hugely matter to me, other than the fact that it could inspire little girls during tours.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, governor in 2016, approved the portrait, as was required, and private donations were raised. The painting by Dacey, who did not return phone and email messages seeking comment, was unveiled at a packed ceremony in the Council Chamber.

That was 15 months ago.

“No one seems to know what happened since then,” Volinsky said. “I took office and started asking questions. I’m sitting in the Council Chambers as time passes and I’m looking around and all I see is old men looking down on me, old men wearing wigs, and I knew the portrait was done.”

Then the clouds rolled in.

Volinsky said he searched for answers. He said he got the run-around, calling it a “wild goose chase,” that lasted months.

He said he asked Gov. Sununu, who told him he needed permission from the director of the Division of Cultural Affairs, who told him he needed to speak with leaders from the House and Senate, who told him the Council controls whose portrait goes up on the Chamber walls.

Volinsky says he went back to Sununu, who tried to start the wild goose chase over again. Volinsky said he’d had enough, and asked Sununu to seek help from Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who mentioned a three-step process.

The first step – approval by then-governor Hassan – is old news.

Next is the March 7 meeting, at which time “the governor and Council must vote to ‘consent’ to the portrait’s display,” according to a memo written by Volinsky.

Then the Division of Cultural Affairs will choose the location.

If all goes well.

Dudley said she thought a final decision had been made when Buckley and Cushing invited her to lunch two years ago.

“I’m not mad at them and I’m not mad at the governor,” Volinsky said. “I just thought the plan was further along than it was.”

It was.

And then it wasn’t.