By Jeff Woodburn
He’s one of New Hampshire’s most successful politicians, yet he’s never been to the White House or a National political convention. He is, although, quick to boast that he’s never missed a Lisbon Lilac Festival or a Lancaster Fair. For Ray Burton, the persistent, perennial Executive Councilor, who represents the northern two-thirds of New Hampshire, all politics is local and all consuming.
So early in the year, when he became the longest serving Executive Councilor in the state’s history, Burton quietly acknowledged the feat. Absent was the traditional fanfare that he is famous for during his 33 years as an aspiring or successful elected official. He seemed reluctant to celebrate his seniority, and preferred to focus on the future – the people and the projects that need his attention.
Burton burst on to the political scene in 1976, when as a young-upstart with political connections, out-hustled several better known opponents. During this bicentennial year, he set his own personal record marching in 26 parades in the short, six month campaign period. He was a young man on the move with his name being bantered around for higher office, but his moderate politics ran contrary to that of Governor Meldrim Thomson’s decidedly conservative outlook and growing dominance over the state’s political scene. Burton, of Bath, was targeted for defeat by Thomson, a neighbor in nearby Orford, and was beaten in the Republican primary of 1978. Humbled and hardened by defeat, Burton came back with vengeance and if a style was not born, it was certainly cemented. From then on, he has worn down even his most ardent opponents by showing up everywhere and taking care of his constituent’s most mundane concerns and chores. “I respond to everything,” he said, “no matter how small.” On a given week, he receives a thousand e-mails and hundreds of telephone calls.
While his home turf loves his folksy parochialism, some high-minded state bureaucrats with a righteous distain of politics consider him a persistent pest trying to pry state money into his district. Burton is not shy about his money-grabbing ways, even if it requires raising taxes to pay for it. In this region of tiny relevance with a culture foreign to most state’s elected officials, Burton has become a revered champion of the North Country. He understands the challenges and uniqueness of the people he represents – he, himself, works four part-jobs despite being beyond the age most people retire and doesn’t take vacations.
He casts a broad net and, even those who live in quiet obscurity somehow end up in Burton’s web of activity. He makes it a habit of celebrating even the smallest achievement with a formal commendation or as they’ve become known as a “Burton state seal” letter and often a photo for the local paper or his own Burton Reporter. At least one minor town official was so moved by the recognition that he included it with other important mementos in his casket when he died.
This eagerness to help – especially the downtrodden — has also landed Burton in trouble. While most politicians run from conflict, he has defiantly remained loyal to friends, including the jailed former owner of the Mount View Grand. A few years back, when the state’s top leadership – Democrat and Republican – called upon him to resign his seat for employing a sex offender as a campaign aide, his constituents rallied around him. Political observers from away couldn’t understand the loyalty that locals had for him, and as the outsiders’ attacks mounted, the voters drew him closer.
I caught up with Ray Burton at large public hearing in Whitefield. My attempts to interview him were constantly interrupted by numerous passer-bys. Each had project or problem and he patiently listened and jotted down notes on 3×5 cards, which would be followed up by him personally or one of his college interns.
Back with me, I sneak in a few questions that go to the mystery that engulfs him: why does he work so hard when he really doesn’t have to? Ray Burton has trouble with these questions, probably can’t even comprehend the cynical thought process that developed them, and because of this he’s enigma to us. We go on wondering: what motivates him? Ambition, fear of losing, or quite possibly, he genuine loves what he’s doing and can’t imagine doing anything else?
I’ve known him for nearly three decades (including service as one of those interns) and I’ve heard many variations of this question. One occasion stands out in my mind; it was at some obscure dedication of a new furnace or maybe a backhoe. There were a dozen people gathered, and of course, Ray was there bringing relevance to the absurd. An admirer encouraged him to run for Congress and he responded with a mix of humility and humor, “I wouldn’t be able to be here if I was a Congressman.” We all laughed, but I think now Ray really meant it.
Archive for the ‘People’ Category
By Jeff Woodburn
Posted in nature, opinion, People, tagged Dalton, Dave Crazton, David Craxton, farming, Fruits and Roots, garlic, Lancaster Farmers' Market, organic, sustainable agriculture on June 26, 2010| Leave a Comment »
Every Saturday on my way to the dump, I pass by David and Andria Craxton’s organic farm, Roots and Fruits. From the road, I peer through the towering evergreens that are like the curtain that hides the true identity of the great Wizard of Oz.
I wonder how Farmer Dave pulls it off – producing so much food with such little impact on the environment. He’s the area’s most prominent and prolific gardener, yet he forgoes many of the most basic modern tools that seem to be a necessity to most small backyard growers and farmers. He feeds many of us through his stand at Lancaster’s Farmers Market (each Saturday morning), but consumes relatively little fossil fuels by practicing sustainable, organic and local agriculture. His wisdom and success lies in listening to the land.
Craxton has been called the King of garlic. After all, he produces 25 varieties of garlic on his 12 acre farm on Whitefield Road in Dalton. But, that is tip of the ice berg (lettuce,) he also turns out some 200 different variations of three dozen fruit and vegetable crops that range from lettuce (10 kinds) to potatoes (22 kinds) to hot peppers (11 kinds.)
Last fall, I let my wonder get the best of me and invite myself over for a tour. Along the way, I get a tutorial on organic gardening and local food. Farmer Dave is a quiet, reflective man with deep thoughts and few words. His wife, Andria, on the other hand, uses her artistic photography and poems to vividly communicate their shared passion for the land.
Dave’s three decades of “playing in the dirt,” have not muddied his agrarian idealism, adherence to ancient farming principles or creative curiosity. If there is one guiding principle at the Roots and Fruits Farm, it is that product cannot be separated from process – even if the process is backbreaking (or as Dave calls it “time consuming.”) He uses a broad fork to open up the land instead of a rotatiller. He cuts with a scythe, rather than a weed whacker. The key, he says, is to “work the land in a gentle way” and build the soil by enriching it with good compost and rotating crops. This year the Craxton’s installed 8 solar panels that further reduce their electric consumption by one-third.
Wholesome, flavorful and nutritious food can’t be forced on the land. “You have to train yourself to hear,” he says, “The land tells me what to grow.”