Editorial: In Burton’s long tenure, lessons for other would-be politicians
Longtime Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who died yesterday after a long battle with kidney cancer, wasn’t known for one particular accomplishment or one particular ideological cause. He wasn’t overtly partisan in his approach to the issues that came before him. He was more about index cards than the internet. He worried about small issues that weren’t even on the radar of other politicians. He appeared to have no ambitions beyond the job that he held . . . and held and held.
That strange, old-fashioned mix might not seem like a winning recipe for a politician, but in fact Burton was in many ways a role model for his colleagues and the scores of students who served as his interns. Among the lessons he taught by example:
∎ Be a champion for your constituents. Burton’s North Country district was geographically enormous, but he seemed to be all over it, all the time, for nearly four decades. He knew thousands of local voters by name. He knew their parents and their children. And when they asked for his help untangling a governmental headache, he could often get quick action for them from a state agency head or two – bureaucrats who knew the contracts that kept their offices humming would sooner or later require Burton’s approval. As a result, he became the very face of New Hampshire state government for those up north and beyond. Because individuals could count on Burton, he could also count on them on Election Day.
∎ Resist partisanship when possible. The Executive Council can thwart or assist the ambitions of a governor. It can hold up state contracts. It can make or break the careers of would-be judges or agency chiefs. Burton was a Republican, but more than most of his colleagues over the years, he could also be a nonpartisan player – thinking more broadly about the state and his constituents than the needs of his party. In a state which has seen dramatic swings from blue to red and back, that was also good politics.
∎ Sweat the details. Do you know who serves on the New Hampshire Board of Accountancy or the Board of Barbering, Cosmetology and Esthetics? Do you know how long members can serve on the state Board for Licensing and Regulating Plumbers? Or how many judges sit in courtrooms north of the Notches? Of course you don’t. But Burton surely did. He made it his business to understand the minutia of state government and, in doing so, made sure his own constituents got their piece of the pie.
∎ Resist demagoguery. Politicians with big mouths and big egos tend to wear thin after a while, a lesson Burton seemed to understand from the get-go. His style was understated and courtly. He wasn’t a grandstander. And while others came and went from the political stage, Burton’s act played on.
Burton’s political career wasn’t without missteps. In 2005, in fact, he faced significant pressure to resign from the state’s highest-ranking office holders after a longtime campaign aide and convicted sex-offender was arrested for having prohibited contact with teenage boys. But Burton apologized, persevered and was easily re-elected again and again, in large part because of the goodwill he had built up over decades of looking out for his neighbors.
That sort of goodwill for an elected official is rare, especially in an age when every gaffe and goof is captured on film and online. As New Hampshire gears up for yet another long campaign season, would-be officeholders would do well to study Burton’s example.