New Hampshire’s Executive Council has always been quietly powerful: The five-member board has the final say on most major state contracts and nominations to state agencies, among other critical responsibilities that keep the state running.
But it was never a required stop for someone looking to rise the political ranks in New Hampshire.
And, until recently, it was an afterthought even for New Hampshire’s political insiders.
“Over the years we’ve recruited candidates for the executive council, and we’ve begged them to run,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said at a recent party event. “But there’s always one or two or three or four of them that really were just kind of placeholders.”
Now, this little-known, little-understood body is becoming a kind of launching pad. For the first time in (perhaps) ever, the two candidates facing off for governor — Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern — are both sitting executive councilors.
Sununu’s been on for three terms, Van Ostern for two, and neither has ever held any other elected office before joining the council. Contrast that with, say, the icon most people associate with the Executive Council: The late Ray Burton, who died in 2013 while serving his 18th term (that’s more than three decades) representing New Hampshire’s North Country.
"If you think of the premiere person on the council, you think of Ray Burton," says State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, who served alongside Burton on the council in the late 1970s. “You would say he was the prototype of the councilor — never thought of going to the next step. But I think that’s interesting, because no councilor has the visibility of Ray Burton. Nobody. And he chose to stay on the council.”
In fact, recent history shows it was not unusual for a councilor to hang onto a seat for decades, as Burton did. For a long time, the council was a place without a whole lot of turnover, where most of the seats were filled with people rounding out — not starting out — their political careers.
There have been a few councilors who broken that tradition, who’ve used the council as a stepping stone — including D’Allessandro himself. When he was still just starting out his political career four decades ago, he jumped on an open council seat after serving in the New Hampshire House.
“I was young and aggressive and it also seemed like a good thing to do,” D’Allesandro says now.
That move helped propel him to where he is now, one of the most senior members of the New Hampshire Senate.
And in the late 1970s, Judd Gregg also served a term on the executive council before winning election to Congress, then the governor’s office, then the U.S. Senate.
But careers like Gregg’s and D’Allesandro's have been the exception, not the rule.
Even so, veterans of past Executive Councils — like Dudley Dudley, who became the first woman to serve on the council — could understand why it might make sense that up-and-coming candidates would try to start their political careers there.
“Serving on the council puts you in touch, in very close touch, with every department and agency in the state,” Dudley says. “If they have any need for a budget, that budget has to be approved by the council, and there are many instances where there’s an enormous amount of reading and study. I think being on the council would be a very good preparation for running for governor and for being governor.”
Ruth Griffin, another longtime councilor, says she, too, learned a lot about the mechanics of state government by working on the council. But she says her two decades on the council taught her a lot about listening to constituents.
“People knew they could call me. You’d be amazed at the number of people who call on the councilors, rather than the senators or the House,” Griffin says. “The councilors, really, if they’re doing their job, will hear from the people in the state of New Hampshire.”
These days, though, veteran councilors like Griffin could be becoming less of the norm. This year’s crop of council candidates includes some seasoned legislators with long political resumes, but also a handful of ambitious first-time office seekers mixed into the field.
In the governor’s race, meanwhile, the humdrum dealings of the council agenda has already sparked fiery back and forths on the campaign trail. In fact, the first time Sununu and Van Ostern met as gubernatorial opponents, it only took a few minutes for their council records to become part of the conversation.
“That contract would have failed, if three people, not two people, voted against it,” Van Ostern said, referencing a vote Sununu took on a contract related to the state’s Medicaid expansion in 2014.
“What vote?” Sununu replied. “What vote?”
“It was in July, two years ago. It was in the Hanover Inn, when we had a governor and council meeting,” Van Ostern countered. “And it was the last opportunity we had to ensure that the New Hampshire Health Protection Plan actually took place.”
The council has two more meetings lined up before voters head to the polls in November, with one coming up just this Wednesday.
And, at least until the next election, it’s probably safe to assume those meetings will attract more buzz than ever before.