A Look Back: 50 year ago this week, Orford’s Thomson was sworn in

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News

Published: 01-04-2023 3:26 PM

He ran for president once, lost three primary bids for New Hampshire governor and was defeated twice in gubernatorial general elections. But, no matter, Orford’s Meldrim Thomson Jr. was elected to be the Granite State’s chief executive three times, enough to become by far the state’s most colorful and controversial political figure in modern times.

It was exactly 50 years ago this week that Thomson was sworn into office, launching a six-year tenure in Concord marked by a nearly continuous string of actions that thrilled his army of devoted conservative supporters and enraged his foes in the Republican establishment, Democrats and what became a growing mass of independent voters.

Some of his initiatives involved important state issues, such as going all-in for the Seabrook nuclear power plant, which was under construction, behind schedule and over budget and the target of a determined opposition campaign. On one occasion he helicoptered in to oversee the arrest of 1,400 anti-Seabrook demonstrators. Another foray was backing an oil refinery proposal floated by Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis in Durham.

He always stuck to his “Ax the Tax” mantra, built on a pledge to veto any sales or income tax, and it has been part of the state’s political DNA ever since — surely the most enduring piece of Thomson’s legacy.

But there were other aspects of his time in Concord that brought consternation and ridicule within and without New Hampshire. He ordered the flag atop the Statehouse lowered to half staff on Good Friday and he proposed arming the state National Guard units with nuclear weapons. While riding in his official limousine he ordered the trooper at the wheel to pursue speeders he observed on the road. He provoked a “lobster war” with Maine that eventually required the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve.

Reading a compendium of his speeches delivered while in office can be puzzling. He often comes off as a rational and caring politician; the hard-right rhetoric and the zany stunts don’t come through. Indeed, he was invariably courteous, even with those he knew hated his guts. Esquire magazine once rated him one of America’s 10 best-dressed men, for he was always turned out in exquisitely tailored suits and handsome silk ties when on official business, although when the best-dressed news broke the Valley News illustrated its story with a photo of him splitting firewood while dressed like a lumberjack.

The Mel Thomson years in Concord set the course markers for politicians seeking state office for the ensuing five decades. No successful candidate for governor has ever advocated a sales or income tax, and state budgets have always been bare-bones affairs. And with rare exceptions the Legislature hasn’t strayed far from the Thomson principle of “low spending is the way to keep taxes low.”

His run would end in 1978 for a couple of reasons. First was “Construction Work in Progress” or CWIP, pronounced “quip” and it was tied to Seabrook. The nuclear plant’s builders wanted electric customers, the ratepayers, to shoulder the cost of the huge amount of borrowing needed to move the project forward, while opponents said the investors who owned it should cover the bills. Hugh Gallen effectively turned Thomson’s support for CWIP against him. Then there was general weariness with Thomson’s over-publicized persona.

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It can be argued that the two names that have dominated New Hampshire politics for the past four decades incubated on Meldrim Thomson’s watch. John Sununu beat Gallen in 1982 and his sons have carried on with the Thomson anti-tax formula. And Jeanne Shaheen started her political career on Gallen’s staff and has ridden the no-broad-base-tax horse throughout her career.

Steve Taylor is a former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner, and a former editor of the Valley News. He lives in Meriden.

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