Ray Burton, the state’s longest serving Executive Councilor, and a political force in the Northern part of the state for more than 30 years, has died at the age of 74. Burton had kidney cancer. Across the state leaders on both side of the aisle remember Burton as a consummate public servant.
Before Ray Burton became a councilor in 1977 he was a school teacher and principal. And he brought a small town principal's pragmatism to the tens of thousands of votes he cast on state contracts and judicial and executive branch appointments
During high profile confirmation hearings, Burton was fond of saying he saw the Council’s role as being the board of directors of state government. But get Burton away from the hearing room, and north of Concord, and he tended to talk about his job as if he were as much pastor as politician.
"I am always going to be there and be available for someone in their time of need. When someone calls and they have a problem -- I want to be there in their dark hour and I want to be their in their bright hour, their celebrating hour as well."
And for decades, that was the Ray Burton approach. It kept him very busy. Here he is in 2005, talking up a typical schedule.
"We got the Bath fireman’s supper tomorrow night. I am spending all day Friday with Commissioner Stephen – you should come up and cover that -- we are meeting with the dream team in North Conway, a very interesting group of people. Then, Saturday, Sandwich Fair. I am going to have my 57 DeSoto in the parade. I’ve got things to do."
All that showing up, along with his attention to detail, made Burton a coveted ally for anybody who wanted to get things done in the North Country. Presidential hopefuls came calling. So would people looking to get a business off the ground or finagle a placement in a county nursing home. Burton gave all an audience and tended to downplay the power he had to fix things in his district or in Concord.
"I am just a chore boy on the side, just a country boy from way up North.”
But Burton’s ability to get things done, or at least seem as if he was always giving it his best, won him loyalty from voters any politician would envy. And that came in handy during a brief hiccup in Burton’s career.
In 2005, then-Governor John Lynch and the entire congressional delegation demanded Burton resign after it was reported that he knowingly employed a sex offender as a driver and campaign aide. Burton acknowledged that was a mistake, but said he’d let his constituents decide if he’d keep his job. They did, returning him to Concord in a landslide. And soon enough, the same politicians who said Burton needed to go, where again singing his praises.
Some of them of them were even there to honor Burton at his final public appearance, a dedication of a new scenic overlook.
At that event, Burton joked he was holding court for the last time. And when he spoke, he said he had no regrets, but also said what many politicians say, but too few really mean, that it wasn’t really about him.
"I really had loved being in public office and public life, and the bottom line is it’s about public service for the people of New Hampshire."
Governor Maggie Hassan has ordered flags to half staff across the state. A black ribbon adorns Ray Burton’s council chair in Concord.
His successor will be chosen via special election, likely in March.