Remembering Ray Burton
Looking back on Ray Burton's distinguished decades of service to New Hampshire
Illustration by Peter Noonan
In the past 33 years there have been many trends in the nation’s political culture and many of them weren’t good. Special interests gave bigger voices to minority views. Cable television and redistricting made politics more nationalized and more partisan. As one recent book chronicling Washington says, politics has shifted to where now “self-service has replaced public service.”
As politicians became more distant and disconnected from everyday problems of the average citizen, approval ratings for politicians and government service in general have suffered. Evidence of this can be seen in the elections of the last decade as voters kicked one party out one year and two years later kicked out the other party.
But during that time of change New Hampshire has had a holdout to all of this. When he died last fall, Raymond S. Burton was already something of a throwback politician in a throwback office in state government. Come election time he handed out combs and potholders and hats with his name on them. He never placed an ad on the Internet. Constituents probably never knew his positions on controversial issues like abortion or tax policy. He didn’t see it as his role to be involved in such conversations. In truth, he was a moderate Republican, but even the most liberal Democrat would still vote for him. This made his re-election such a given that it birthed the campaign slogan: “Burton for Certain.”
Not only were all politics local in the world of Ray Burton, they were also personal. By the time he died in office, his district still represented a fifth of the state’s population and covered the northern two-thirds of the state geographically. Still, Burton would attend nearly every funeral and every board of selectman meeting. Everywhere he went he’d ask the same question, “What can I do to help?”
And he actually meant it. He would carry around little 3 x 5 note cards to write down requests or ideas and then once he got home he would begin working on his constituents’ requests.
Burton’s sole ambition was making his district a better place. He never ran for higher office and nor did he even toy with the idea. He did endorse in elections, but his main loyalty was to the North Country area he represented.
To his constituents, he was the connector. He connected people to jobs when they were down, to celebrations when they were up and connected people from the southern part of the state to the area he loved. Burton also served on the Grafton County Commission. A fellow commissioner once remarked that if you thought everyone knew him at the county nursing home, you should see how many people knew him at the county jail. At the jail, by the way, he would tell inmates to look him up when they got out.
Less than two weeks before his death, the state political community honored him at ceremony where an overlook of the Omni Mount Washington hotel was being named after him. Both of the state’s US Senators were there as were four former governors and much of the state’s who’s who.
In brief remarks, he reminded those assembled that “it’s for public service to the people of New Hampshire.”
Burton was the longest serving Executive Councilor in the state’s history, but he will be remembered more as the political icon and the very model of public service.