State. Sen. Odell, R-New London, Plans to Step Down at End of Term
New Hampshire state Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster speaks in favor of repealing the state's death sentence law on the Senate floor, Thursday, April 17, 2014 in Concord, N.H. Lawmakers voted 12-12, and the tie means that the death penalty will stay on the books. The state has one person on death row, Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a Manchester, N.H. police officer. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, in a May 2011 photograph. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
New London — State Sen. Bob Odell, a moderate Republican known as a pivotal and principled vote in Concord, announced Friday he would not seek a seventh term in the state Senate, saying he is ready to spend more time with his family and friends.
“As my colleagues all know, serving in the New Hampshire Senate is both a unique privilege and a sacrifice,” he said in a written announcement. “And much of that sacrifice is paid for by your family in the form of missed dinners, birthdays, vacations and all kinds of special occasions because of the demands of the office. After 14 years in the Legislature, those missed occasions start to add up.”
The 70-year-old New London resident serves as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and has also been a longtime force on the Senate Finance Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chaired for three terms.
Odell has often cast critical votes on hot topics — a reason he often appealed to independents and sometimes alienated the right-wing of his own party. In fact, had he sought another term, Odell would have faced a primary against J.P. Marzullo, a former Deering, N.H., selectman who is vice chairman of the GOP state committee.
Just this week, for instance, Odell was one of only two Republicans to vote against the death penalty — repeal efforts failed, at least temporarily, on a 12-12 vote. And earlier this spring, he and two other top Senate Republicans were the only members of their party to vote for Medicaid expansion in a compromise with the administration of Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who previously served alongside Odell in the state Senate.
Accolades for Odell, a New Hampshire native who greets constituents with a sincere warmth, poured in from both sides of the aisle following his retirement announcement.
“It has been an honor to serve with Senator Odell and to work with him on bipartisan solutions to help improve the health and economic security of hard-working Granite Staters. His steadfast commitment to serving the people of New Hampshire will be missed, and I thank him for his distinguished service,” Hassan said in a written statement.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a former state attorney general, also thanked Odell for his “years of tremendous service to our state.”
“Senator Odell is an outstanding public servant who has been a strong and tireless voice for the people of District 8, and he’ll leave behind big shoes to fill at the Statehouse,” Ayotte said in her own statement. “I always appreciated the thoughtful and principled perspective he brought to the major issues facing our state.”
A longtime professional fundraiser for Republicans across the country, Odell was elected to the New Hampshire House in 2000, then won what was then the Claremont-area District 8 Senate seat in 2002.
He developed an especially close political friendship with Democrat John Lynch, a four-term governor who also worked most comfortably in the middle of the political spectrum.
Odell worked with Lynch to help spur economic development in Claremont — relocating Granite State College to downtown, for instance — and to help Unity win school building aid before a state moratorium on such funding.
In an interview Friday, Lynch said he and Odell used to speak almost daily, and would regularly march in parades, tour factories and sit through editorial boards together in west-central New Hampshire.
“I just think he’s a wonderful human being,” said Lynch, who is now teaching at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “He’s always open-minded, thoughtful, considerate, and always trying to figure out what was best for his constituents and the people of New Hampshire.”
State Rep. Virginia Irwin, a Newport Democrat who also serves as a selectwoman there, applauded Odell’s tenure and said she would now consider a run for the Senate seat.
“I think he was a good, moderate person. He was very conscientious. He certainly looked out for Newport, and did yeoman’s work for Unity,” Irwin said.
District lines were redrawn two years ago and he lost Claremont and a few other towns, with District 8 now comprising Newport, Grantham, Sunapee , Croydon, Unity, Springfield, New London, Goshen, Newbury, Sutton, Bradford, Lempster, Acworth, Langdon, Marlow, Washington, Hillsborough, Windsor, Stoddard, Antrim, Deering, Bennington, Francestown and Weare.
Given his tax and budget expertise, Odell continues to be a central figure in negotiations over how to resolve hospital finance issues, especially following two court rulings that found New Hampshire’s use of a Medicaid Enhancement Tax to be unconstitutional.
Frank McDougall — the top lobbyist for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and himself a former secretary of commerce for two governors in Vermont — said Odell was a “gentleman personified” who has set a standard for other politicians to follow.
“He never ducked a tough vote. He never cloaked himself in partisanship,” McDougall said. “Critics said he was hard to label. I look at that as a tribute.”
“He voted with his conscience and what he thought was right for his constituents, and took the lumps when the lumps were there to take,” McDougall added.
But even in Sullivan County, Republicans sometimes grumbled about Odell’s moderate voting record. Former state Rep. Spec Bowers, the Sullivan County GOP chairman, said, “I’m going to duck that question” when asked whether he would have preferred Odell to Marzullo in a primary, but did acknowledge he was upset by Odell’s vote in favor of Medicaid expansion.
“The biggest part of Bob Odell — people liked him,” Bowers, a Sunapee resident, said. “He now and then cast a vote that a lot of people didn’t like, but do they speak for everybody? Clearly not.”
Odell lived for much of his Statehouse tenure in a farmhouse in Lempster, but after his wife, Sandy, died in 2009 of ovarian cancer, he spent more and more time at their house in New London, where he moved permanently late last year, near a stepdaughter and three of his grandchildren.
His retirement announcement specifically mentioned his companion, Judy Butler, a Boston-based lobbyist for Merck, and his interest in pursuing hobbies and backing local charitable groups.
Odell said he was proud to have helped craft state budgets in both tough fiscal times and when coffers were more flush, and also highlighted environmental and conservation issues he has championed. Those range from banning lead fishing tackle to protect loons to supporting renewable portfolio standards and New Hampshire’s participation in the regional greenhouse gas initiative, a market-based program to combat global warming.
“I know it’s controversial, but it’s a good thing for New Hampshire,” he said of the greenhouse gas initiative.
Odell said he first began thinking of retirement when his district was redrawn in 2012 and several towns in Hillsborough County were added to District 8, cutting him from Claremont, where he had devoted considerable attention and care.
Asked if he thought he would have had an easy time in the primary against Marzullo, who moved to New Hampshire nine years ago and called Odell a “liberal Senator” earlier this week, Odell said, “I think it would have been tough in certain areas of the district, but I have a pretty good relationship with the average Republican.”
And Odell also warned more conservative members of his party not to let ideology trump the importance of winning elections.
“To me, I think it’s good for the Democrats,” he said of primary challenges from the Tea Party base, “because often the weaker candidate gets nominated and you lose the general election. I think it’s something to be concerned about going forward.”
News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at 603-727-3217 or firstname.lastname@example.org