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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.

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