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Old-School Politics

Ray Burton’s Long, Mixed History

Any person who has held public office as long as Ray Burton has — for the better part of four decades on the New Hampshire Executive Council and more than 20 years as a Grafton County commissioner — is all but certain to compile a mixed record. A striking feature of Burton’s public service is just how uneven that record is, not to mention the magnitude of the gap between his high and low points.

Burton announced last Sunday that his impressively lengthy run will come to an end at the same time as his current two-year Executive Council term. Not surprisingly, his departure is the result of forces beyond his control: Kidney cancer that was treated earlier this year and that he had hoped would be behind him by now has returned. His health demands his attention, and we, along with many in his sprawling North Country district, wish him the best.

Burton is an old-school politician in every sense of the word. For starters, he’s a throwback New England Republican, which is to say that his party affiliation seems to have been determined at birth rather than by ideological preference. To that extent that Burton’s politics can be discerned by his actions on the Executive Council — a five-member board that reviews all but the most insignificant state contracts — they generally seem to have less influence on the way he votes than his innate common sense and moderation.

His conception of public service also seems to be rooted in a different era — one in which elected officials were unabashedly parochial. If nothing else, Burton is an unflagging champion of his district. If there’s a chance he can wield his influence to secure a project or a contract that will benefit a town or residents in his district, there isn’t the slightest question that he will exercise it. And his constituent service is legendary. Burton has a reputation for quickly returning calls and extending whatever assistance he can, whether his help is sought by a prominent town official or an unknown member of the public. Come election time, Burton has been able to count on the support of the many he has assisted.

And there have been several occasions when he has needed that support because, in truth, his ethical sensibilities are old-school as well, which is to say that he seems to assume that an elected official who demonstrates his usefulness will be cut a considerable amount of slack. Some of Burton’s ethical shortcomings merely reflect the state’s political culture. Executive councilors find themselves in the enviable position of exercising veto power over every contract with the state that exceeds $10,000 and numerous gubernatorial appointments. That means that many companies and individuals have a serious stake in staying on the good side of councilors, an interest that can’t be hurt by contributing to executive councilors’ campaigns. Burton has not been shy about accepting such donations or about campaigning so continuously that it sometimes seems to be a way of life.

Typical was his response to Valley News staff writer John Gregg when asked about donations he had received for his 2010 campaign — he amassed a campaign war chest that surpassed $120,000 despite having no primary opposition and no real threat in the general election — from contractors who had multi-million-dollar contracts with the state.

“You would have to call them and ask them. But I perceive their donations to be that they want me to win and continue to serve all the people.”

He could not be so glib in 2005 when it was reported that a paid campaign worker was a convicted sex offender who had been prohibited from contact with minors. The executive councilor acknowledged knowing about the aide’s criminal past and offered the unconvincing assurance that he had kept a close eye on him whenever they hit the campaign trail together. That weak explanation, offered after the aide was accused of trying to lure a teenage boy with alcohol and tobacco, did not mute the widespread call for Burton’s resignation, including from this newspaper.

Ultimately, though, Burton’s exemplary advocacy of his district’s interests bailed him out. In fact, his basic calculation that voters would reward him for his unstinting service proved correct. There aren’t many politicians left like Ray Burton — for better and worse.