Former N.H. Gov. Stephen Merrill dies at age 74

  • New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill gives the republican response to President Bill Clinton’s radio address inside the studio of WGIR radio in Manchester in 1996. AP file photograph — JOE MARQUETTE

Published: 9/6/2020 4:10:47 PM

CONCORD — Former New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill, who served two terms in office during the 1990s and coined the phrase “New Hampshire Advantage,” died early Saturday morning, according to a statement from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and the Merrill family. He was 74.

“With regret, we share the news with the State of New Hampshire, that former Attorney General and Governor Stephen Merrill passed away peacefully at his home with his family today,” the Merrill family said in a statement released by Sununu’s office.

His cause of death was not released.

Merrill, who was first elected in 1992 after serving as the state’s attorney general, was considered one of New Hampshire’s most popular politicians.

Known for his humor and conservative stances, he opposed broad-based taxes while also championing smaller government and fewer regulations. He coined the phrase, “New Hampshire Advantage,” which is still used by state Republican leaders to describe their governing philosophy.

Merrill also was the first New Hampshire governor to sign an executive order celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The occasion was previously called Civil Rights Day because of conservatives’ displeasure that King opposed the Vietnam War.

“Martin Luther King has said it’s always the right time to do the right thing,” Merrill told the Associated Press after signing the order in 1993.

Merrill signed similar proclamations in 1994, 1995 and 1996. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Legislature formally changed the holiday’s name, the last state to do so.

As an attorney general — a post he held from 1984 to 1989 — he had a much higher profile than predecessors, personally trying several cases and making public appearances. In that role, he helped tighten child abuse laws, spoke in favor of more stringent environmental regulations and formed a task force to combat addiction.

Merrill was also an outspoken advocate for lowering the age at which juveniles could be tried as adults in murder cases in New Hampshire to 13.

“I hope people will say ‘He tried awfully hard for New Hampshire,’ ” Merrill said as he prepared to leave the Attorney General’s Office and enter private practice. “Most important to me would be to be remembered as honest and fair and accessible.”

Merrill was “a proud New Hampshire native” who served Granite Staters through “a life of public service,” U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who succeeded him in the governor’s office, tweeted Saturday.

“When I succeeded him, Steve was a reliable confidant who offered insight and advice — one Governor to another.,” she wrote.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who served as the state’s attorney general from 2004 to 2009, called Merrill a “friend and mentor” in a tweet Saturday.

“I will miss Steve’s brilliance, his way with words and wonderful sense of humor,” she wrote.

Merrill, who Democratic opponents once called “the best politician I’ve ever seen” was a formidable campaigner.

He garnered nearly 70% of the vote to defeat former state Sen. Wayne King, D-Rumney, and was favored to win a third term before opting to not seek reelection in 1996.

Merrill had earlier served as legal counsel and chief of staff to former Republican Gov. John Sununu, the father of the current governor.

Gov. Chris Sununu directed all flags on public buildings and grounds in New Hampshire to fly at half-staff.

“Governor Steve Merrill was a dear friend who had an incredibly positive impact on the citizens of our state. He will be missed by everyone who knew him,” Sununu said in a written statement.

The family said additional information about remembrance services will be forthcoming and asked for privacy.

Valley News staff writer Tim Camerato contributed to this story.

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