October 30, 2013
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Ray Burton’s political legacy is unusual and unique. Burton made his mark over almost forty years as a public figure like no other in an institution that doesn’t exist anywhere else. While there is much other politicians would do well to copy, it is unlikely he will ever be replaced or duplicated and the state will be poorer because of it.
As America celebrated its bicentennial, Ray Burton was elected for the first of a record 18 times to an office that predates the United States and has now vanished in every other state. Ray’s attention to the details of politics mirrors the detail oriented focus of the institution he serves.
New Hampshire’s Executive Council is a vestige of the old royal councils that existed in England and all of her colonies. One by one the state’s around us eliminated their councils. Maine’s was eliminated in 1975. There is still a council in Massachusetts but it is largely ceremonial.
In New Hampshire, an executive council with five members elected in districts of about 265,000 people must confirm gubernatorial appointments not just for department heads but for hundreds of deputies, division directors, bureau chiefs and oversight board members. In addition, and uniquely, they must approve transfers of funds, contracts, and expenditures greater than $10,000 for the entire five billion dollar state budget.
That level of detail can be tedium for some but puts New Hampshire’s state government under the microscope at a more detailed level than most states.
Ray Burton has become legendary for embracing the detail to the benefit of his North Country district and for making that the defining aspect of his political life and reputation.
Today, most politicians carve out a name in one area and then jockey to parlay that into something else or try to climb the political greasy pole. In forty years, Ray Burton never had a shadow campaign for governor, a manufactured congressional boomlet, or seemed to be jockeying for some lucrative appointment. Instead he became known more and more as the voice and presence of the North Country.
Elected to represent the North of the state, he moved the field of play for the council from the old chamber inside the State House to the mountains and valleys of the state at large.
While the districts are equal in population, Burton’s district is geographically more than half the state. Nonetheless, it is not possible to attend an event of any sort with more than a handful of people anywhere in his district without bumping into Ray Burton. His presence at so many events should be surprising but has come to be expected.
Although Ray always campaigns “as if he’s five votes behind,” he hasn’t had a close election in decades and his frenetic pace is not electoral in nature. His election is assured but just as the council immerses itself in the details of the state so Ray immerses himself in the details of his district. He’s not running for re-election when he goes everywhere instead he’s like the mayor of a giant swath of territory making sure that every pothole gets filled and every bridge is on the list.
When most politicians enter a room people ask “what’s he running for?” and smile politely until that guy leaves and we get on with our business. But Ray’s presence was different. His speeches were never about him but about making sure people knew what was happening and that he could be counted on if they needed help. Tellingly, his retirement announcement this week makes sure people know they can contact his office for anything they need even as he’s battling cancer.
Burton’s humility and dedication to service is unusual in politicians today. It is easy to describe him as old fashioned as if he’s an anachronism and a bit of a switchboard operator in an iPhone world. But that misses what Ray Burton is entirely.
Attention to detail is what modern politics lacks. Ray Burton wanted to know every issue in every town he represented. When the state develops its highway plan, he makes sure small town bridges aren’t overshadowed by large superhighways.
Too often, the biggest and most dramatic projects crowd out little ones that can make more of a difference at lower cost. Too often, powerful people from the biggest cities move to the top of appointment lists over good people from tiny towns far from the media centers.
The Ray Burton approach to detail isn’t archaic, it’s detail oriented. It is the opposite of modern blow dry politics in every good way. Ray’s retirement leaves a hole that must be filled and a personality we’re all going to miss.