Ray Burton, 1939-2013
N.H. Loses True Public Servant: Champion of the North Country Served Generations of Constituents
Executive Councilor Ray Burton talks to Gov. John Lynch at the Barge Inn Restaurant in Woodsville, N.H., on Oct. 16, 2006. (Valley News - Channing Johnson)
Executive Councilor Ray Burton waves goodbye following a ceremony to honor his career of public service on Nov. 1, 2013, with a presentation of the new Mount Washington Scenic Overlook. Governor Maggie Hassan was joined by New Hampshire officials who spoke of their connection to Burton. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)
Executive Councilor Ray Burton answers a question during an interview at the Valley News in 1981. (Valley News - Linda A. May)
Ray Burton, whose zest for campaigning and zeal in collaring state officials on behalf of his constituents helped him become the longest-serving executive councilor in state history, died early Tuesday at his home in Bath, N.H.
The 74-year-old Republican died just before 2 a.m. in the company of friends while under hospice care at his River Road home, according to his campaign aide, BJ Perry. Burton suffered from kidney cancer that went into remission earlier this year, but it recently returned in his lower abdomen, Perry said.
After serving 35 years on the Executive Council, which approves gubernatorial appointees and all state contracts over $10,000, Burton had announced late last month he would not seek re-election next year because of his failing health.
Lawmakers from both parties gathered in Bretton Woods, N.H., on Nov. 1 to dedicate a new scenic overlook in the White Mountains that is named for Burton.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, issued a statement Tuesday that said Burton’s constituents regarded him as “a member of the family.”
“Today we have lost one of the most dedicated, caring and unwavering public servants that the state of New Hampshire has ever known. For nearly 40 years, Ray Burton stood up and fought for the people and communities of the North Country with a passion that can never be matched,” she said.
“He absolutely loved that job,” said his sister, Joan Day, a Concord resident. “That was his life.”
Burton was also in his 23rd year as a Grafton County commissioner, and his colleagues and county staff Tuesday morning talked about “the life lessons he taught us” during what was a regularly scheduled commissioners meeting, according to County Commissioner Chairman Mike Cryans, a Hanover Democrat.
Cryans, who had challenged Burton for Executive Council in 1996 but later became a close ally and friend through county politics, recalled that the pair had together visited a mutual friend in the hospital, and Burton, known for his one-liners, said on the way out, “You made a mistake. When you take your coat off, people think you are going to stay for awhile.”
County Executive Director Julie Clough, who started as a young accounts payable clerk at the county complex in Grafton County the same year Burton began serving as county commissioner, said he had served as a mentor about government and politics, and always answered a long list of phone messages left for him by county residents needing help or a favor.
“Whatever your problem was, whether he could help you or not, he always took the time to call you back and listened to your problems,” Clough said. “I’ve always admired that about him.”
As a youngster, Burton grew up in the 1824 farmhouse in which he died, the eldest of four children on a dairy farm. Burton helped his father in the barn, and also attended Bath Village School; his mother, who died earlier this year at 95, was active with her church and grange.
A member of the Woodsville High class of 1958, Burton showed an early flair for politics.
Jimmy Walker, owner of Walker Motor Sales, recalled Tuesday that friends urged him to run for “mayor” of the high school, and that as a baseball and basketball player, he thought he’d have an easy time against Burton, who was not athletic.
“I thought, boy, this should be a walk in the park,” Walker recalled. “He got up and played the piano and all this other stuff, and he crushed me. That’s when I decided I would absolutely support Raymond Burton whatever he did.”
Burton earned an education degree from Plymouth State College in 1962, and served as a teaching principal in Warren and Andover, N.H. He also worked for a short stint in a patronage job as sergeant at arms for the New Hampshire Legislature in the late 1960s.
He ran and lost for register of probate in Grafton County, but won the Executive Council seat in 1976. A fiscal and social moderate, Burton, who never married and for a time shared the Bath home with his mother, was defeated two years later after a conservative candidate ran ads casting himself as a “family man.”
But Burton regained his seat in 1980 and became a tireless traveler across his District 1 seat, seeming to show up at every government meeting or poltical event from Plainfield to Pittsburg, not to mention regular council meetings in Concord.
He passed out campaign combs with his name on them, baseball hats with the slogan “Burton for Certain,” and potholders with the promise “No issue too hot to handle.”
He arrived in classic convertibles, camera at the ready, and also held annual campaign events, such as a picnic at his home every July with a band and baked beans. And along with fundraisers in the North Country, Burton would also take an aerial tour of his district’s airports with the state aviation director in tow.
To pay for his travels, and events, Burton raised prodigious amounts of campaign cash, often from contractors with an interest in state business. By October 2010, for example, Burton had raised more than $123,000 in that election cycle and spent $74,000, despite having had no primary opponent. That included reimbursing himself for $25,000 in expenses.
Over the years, when the Valley News regularly reported on his campaign spending, Burton routinely sloughed off any criticism, saying he had to get out and show voters he cared about their concerns.
“Everything I do has to do with my campaign, and getting re-elected,” Burton said in 2004. “The way Chevrolet, Coca-Cola or Burger King stays in business is they keep their sign up. That’s my response.”
For many years, Democrats made only half-hearted attempts to recruit candidates against him, knowing that Burton was both unbeatable but also often voted for causes and programs they supported.
On the county level, he was an ardent backer of the new jail in North Haverhill, saying the facility would create good jobs and also replace an antiquated, unsafe facility.
And in 2011, he was in the minority in a 3-2 vote when the then all-Republican Executive Council rejected a Planned Parenthood contract in a debate over abortion politics
His one major stumble came in 2005 when it became known that he had hired a convicted sex offender as a campaign aide. Numerous politicians and newspapers — including the Valley News — called for Burton to resign, but he stayed put and held his seat in an election the next year.
“I was trying to help somebody who needed some help and I got burned by it,” Burton told the Associated Press.
Last year, nine conservative Republican lawmakers from Grafton County backed a more conservative opponent in the primary for the Executive Council seat, citing Burton’s failure to support a Tea Party county commissioner and his vote in favor of a state Supreme Court nominee.
Burton, who always said he took nothing for granted and ran as if he were two or three votes behind, handily won the GOP primary.
Cryans, the Hanover Democrat, who recalled that Burton had once advised him to “always ask people for your vote,” said Burton was a savvy campaigner who knew that hiding behind a humble line was good politics.
“He knew he wasn’t two or three votes behind,” Cryans said. “He was a master at it.”
But Cryans also noted that Burton had a life beyond politics, having served as a church organist in Bath for 30 years and also being an avid reader and member of the Grange.
“The point is he was so much more than politics, too,” Cryans said.
Asked in 2010 what kept him going with long days on the road, and phone calls to answer from his constituents when he got home, Burton said, “I love it. Have fun with it, but you’ve got to work at it.”
It was a trait his constituents came to count on. Walker, the Haverhill car dealer and Woodsville High classmate, teared up as he talked about Burton, always upbeat, always willing to help.
“The North Country lost a very special person,” Walker said. “If you had a problem, you went to Ray Burton.”
Funeral arrangements for Burton, whose survivors include Day; another sister, Mary Grimes, of Columbia, N.H., and a brother, Stephen, of Hanover, were incomplete.
John Gregg can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3217.