End of an era in New Hampshire?

I grew up in northern New Hampshire, and a fixture on the political scene was a guy named Ray Burton. Almost 30 years ago, Ray got himself elected to the Executive Council (sort of a “lieutenant governor” role, with five members elected by their districts). Ray was Mr. Constitutent Service. Everyone knew that if you had any kind of problem with any part of state government, you could go to Ray and he’d get it squared away. You wouldn’t always get the solution you wanted, but you knew that Ray had done his best for you.

As Ray built up more and more seniority, his prestige grew. People became to think of him as “Councilor Ray.” Every two years some Democrat or another would run against him, but it was always half-hearted, and no one ever gave Ray a serious run for his money. Regardless, though, Ray never took the seat for granted. He always campaigned vigorously, raising money, having events, and going door-to-door in the North Country (where doors can sometimes be quite a ways apart), always asking for people’s votes.

Ray built up a huge storehouse of good will. Everyone knew him, and liked him. He’s a lifetime “confirmed bachelor,” as I recall, but even in the rock-ribbed conservative North Country, people just shrugged and ignored it. As long as Ray didn’t make a spectacle of it, the voters were content to look the other way. They might have snickered at him in private, but they always voted for him in public.

And I was one of them. I cast a couple of votes for him before I moved out of his district, and don’t regret it a bit.

But Ray’s looking like he might be in trouble. As I’ve said, he’s always been good about helping his constituents. He’s run a college intern program out of his office for about two decades, and over a hundred New Hampshire college students have had a chance to see and work with government up close. And a lot of local people have found work either in or through his office.

Including one convicted child molester.

Burton hired one Mark Seidensticker to work on his campaigns, despite Mr. Seidensticker’s repeated convictions on charges of sexually misusing children and failing to register as a sex offender.

But Burton’s power and store of good will are proving potent forces. None of the other four Executive Councilors are calling for his resignation. Other Republican officials are deferring to comment. No one, it seems, wants to challenge Ray, even when he’s weakened.

Come November, Ray’s future will be determined by the only people who have any real say in the matter — those people whom he represents in Concord. The voters will decide if they wish to continue to be represented by Ray, or if it’s time to send someone else south to represent their interests.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that Ray will be re-elected. But he’ll be “damaged goods,” and in 2008 I suspect Ray will not run again. He won’t want to be driven out under scandal; he’ll want to win one last term, and then end his career on his own terms.

And when he leaves public service, a great era in New Hampshire politics will come to a close.

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