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Ray Burton, N.H. political icon and North Country champion, dead at 74

Last modified: 11/13/2013 11:59:24 PM
Ray Burton, first citizen of the North Country and the dean of New Hampshire’s Executive Council, died yesterday at the age of 74.

He announced in February that he was battling kidney cancer, and in late October, said his cancer had returned and he wouldn’t seek a 19th term on the council in 2014. He died shortly before 2 a.m. at his home in Bath, said spokesman B.J. Perry.

Burton, who also long served as a Grafton County commissioner, was a New Hampshire political icon. He dedicated himself to the minutiae of constituent service, drove an array of classic cars in parades, handed out his business card and trademark combs at every stop and never tired of boosting his beloved North Country.

“For the people Ray represented, he was more than an executive councilor or county commissioner – he was a member of the family,” said Gov. Maggie Hassan in a statement. “If a challenge or problem ever arose, you could call Ray Burton and he would do everything in his power to help. If a business, a student, a community leader was being honored, Ray Burton would be the first to applaud. If there was a parade, a potluck dinner, a public meeting, you knew that Ray Burton would be there.”

His 35 years on the Executive Council – he was elected in 1976, lost his seat in 1978 and returned for good in 1980 – made him one of New Hampshire’s longest-serving political leaders, working alongside 10 governors.

He certainly was one of the state’s best-traveled officials, representing a huge swath of northern New Hampshire. In its current configuration, his District 1 encompasses 108 towns, four cities and all or parts of seven counties.

He was a Republican but rarely hewed to any party line. During his first term in the late 1970s, he helped block then-Gov. Mel Thomson from placing former congressman Louis Wyman on the state Supreme Court, prompting the Republican governor to back a conservative challenger who knocked Burton off the council in 1978.

And as recently as last month, Burton joined three Democratic colleagues to endorse Hassan’s call for a special legislative session dedicated to Medicaid expansion. The special session got under way last week.

Tributes yesterday to Burton were many, bipartisan and effusive. Hassan, a Democrat, ordered flags to half-staff. Former Democratic governor John Lynch called Burton “an outstanding public servant who understood that public officials serve the people rather than the other way around,” while former Republican governor John H. Sununu called his death “an enormous loss for New Hampshire, and he will never be replaced.”

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Dalton Democrat and former Burton intern, described Burton as “a combination benevolent king and parochial ward politician” for northern New Hampshire, and a “person of immense kindness, decency, optimism and humor.”

His death, Woodburn said in a statement, marks the end of an era for the North Country and the state as a whole.

“In a sense, he has not died, he’s been redistricted and we can rest assured that he’s lobbying the good Lord to look north,” Woodburn said.

‘Burton for Certain’

Raymond S. Burton was born Aug. 13, 1939, to Stephen and Natalie Burton. His father died in 1964, and his mother died in February at the age of 95.

Burton, who never married and had no children, lived almost his entire life in Bath, a small town outside Littleton. He attended Bath Village School and Woodsville High School and then went to Plymouth State College, graduating in 1962.

Now known as Plymouth State University, his alma mater last week gave Burton its highest honor, the Henry W. Blair Award for Distinguished Public Service.

“At his core, Ray values New Hampshire and, by his presence, he makes it a better place. He is a true native son of the Granite State, and Plymouth State University is proud to honor him,” said President Sara Jayne Steen at the time.

After stints as a teaching principal in Warren and Andover, Burton entered politics in the late 1960s. He ran a political consulting firm, served as sergeant-at-arms for the state House and Senate and won his seat on the Executive Council in 1976.

A relic of the colonial era, the five-member council rarely grabs headlines. But it wields considerable power as a check on the governor by confirming appointments (including judges), approving pardons and signing off on all state contracts worth more than $10,000.

Burton was a relentless campaigner, usually under the slogan “Burton for Certain.” He was a mentor to many budding politicians, including more than 140 interns he employed over the years. And he turned his seat on the council into a platform to advocate for the northern half of New Hampshire, especially the economically distressed North Country.

“As long as I’m around down in Concord, there’s not going to be any forgetting the North Country,” he told the Monitor in 1985.

There was little danger of that, as long as Burton was in office.

“A hole has been left in the North Country that can never truly be filled,” said House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican. “Ray is one who is simply irreplaceable, and he will be profoundly missed by all.”

In addition to the Executive Council, Burton was a longtime member of Grafton County’s three-member commission. He was first elected in 1990, took office in January 1991 and was most recently re-elected last year, without opposition.

Burton’s political career wasn’t unblemished. In 2005, then-Gov. Lynch and the entire New Hampshire congressional delegation called for Burton to resign after one of his longtime campaign workers was arrested for approaching teenage boys in Concord; Burton had been aware the man was a convicted sex offender but continued to employ him.

He refused to resign, and come 2006, Burton won re-election with 58 percent of the vote.

Even as he battled cancer, Burton maintained an active schedule. In August, he made a flying tour of 10 airports around – and beyond – his district. In recent months, he had participated in the process of crafting the Department of Transportation’s next 10-year construction plan. While undergoing treatment, he continued to attend Executive Council meetings and hearings, sometimes by phone.

Plaudits came his way as his health declined, including the announcement last week that a new fire training center in Bethlehem will be named the “Raymond S. Burton North Country Fire and EMS Training Facility.”

On Nov. 1, the state’s political elite converged on Bretton Woods to pay tribute to Burton. A marker at a new scenic overlook near the Mount Washington Hotel was dedicated to him, and the Executive Council voted to accept a portrait of Burton that soon will hang in the council’s second-floor office at the State House.

For his part, Burton said he was satisfied with his record and accomplishments.

“The bottom line is, it’s for public service to the people of New Hampshire,” he said that day.

Burton is survived by a sister, Perry said. Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately announced.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)


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