Manchester attorney David Nixon recalls that when his long-time friend and law partner John W. King was governor (1963-69), a certain lawyer was pressing his case for appointment to the Superior Court. King, Nixon says, told the man he just didn’t think he was qualified to be a judge.
“As he was leaving John’s office, he looked back and said, ‘Well, how about a four-number license plate?’” He didn’t get that either. “He wasn’t qualified to be a judge or to have a low-number plate,” Nixon observed.
To some people, it may seem strange that a few numbers — and the fewer the better — embossed on a pair of metal plates might be sought after as a consolation prize for missing out on a judicial appointment. But for politically minded New Hampshirites, the low numbers still indicate friends in high places.
“According to what I’m told, the lowest number plates show you’re the crème de la crème and an ‘in’ in the state of New Hampshire,” says State Sen. Andre Martel of Manchester. “I guess in some people’s eyes it’s the closest thing to being The Pope.” Or would be, perhaps, if His Holiness lived in New Hampshire.
“One day a man came in and said he was living out of state — I think it was in Connecticut,” recalls Concord lobbyist Dick Bouley, who was administrative assistant to Gov. Hugh Gallen (1979-83). “His dad, who lived here, had passed away and he wanted the plate to be passed onto him. I explained to him that he couldn’t get the plate because he wasn’t a resident of the state of New Hampshire. And he said, ‘Well, if I move back to New Hampshire, can I have it?’”
“He was not kidding,” Bouley insists. “He was very emphatic. I don’t remember what my answer was, but I do remember the question.”
Handling requests for low-number plates may not have been the most important work Bouley did for the governor but, for some New Hampshire residents, it was memorable.
“From time to time I’d run into people I didn’t even know, five and 10 years later, and they’d say, “Hey, I remember you. You’re the guy who gave me my plates.’ No question, people are constantly trying to get low-number plates. I have people asking me if I can get them for them even now. I tell them I have nothing to do with it.”
Next of kin are not the only ones seeking to inherit the plates of the “dearly departed,” says Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding of Hopkinton. “There are stories that when obits appear people start calling around to see if there’s any chance of getting the plates, which is kind of macabre,” he says. But Spaulding may be describing the more patient plate hunters. There are those who are on the trail while the patient still has a pulse.
“The most interesting one was Sherm Adams’ number,” says Ed Lecius, an aide to Gov. John Sununu in the 1980s. Even before he died, Lecius recalls, people were submitting requests for the two-digit number on the license plates of the former New Hampshire governor, later chief of staff to President Eisenhower. A neighbor even claimed to have made the request of Adams personally. “I guess Sherm basically told him, ‘It’s not my problem when I’m passed on,’” Lecius says. Sam Adams, son of the late governor, recalls his father did not appear to attach any particular significance to the number 22 on his plates. “He probably got it around the time he left the governor’s office and went to the White House,” Adams speculates. “If I’d asked him about it, he probably would have said, ‘Don’t you have anything more important on your mind?’”
Yet today, low-number plates remain a hot item for many Granite Staters. “I know that they’re much sought after,” says state Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin. “It’s probably the currency of the political arena.” It’s not a currency he trades in, the senator says. “I’ve told people who ask that they can request them of the commissioner (of safety). It’s his prerogative.” But that doesn’t mean Gallus
doesn’t notice when he sees the low numbers — and where he doesn’t. “I don’t think there are many in the North Country. I’d like to see them handed out more broadly across the state.”
Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter was known for his success in obtaining low-number plates for constituents during his 30 years as an executive councilor. These days, when he is not traveling in his city-owned car, the mayor is easily recognized in his own Buick Park Avenue with its distinctive two-digit plate: 59.
“I think low-number license plates traditionally throughout the country are considered a status symbol,” says Streeter, who asked for and received his plates from Gov. Thomson in the 1970s. “If you look at the list of the first 100 (numbers), I think you’ll find former elected officials, various major contributors to individuals, like governors, as well as a number of (plates) that are in the families of people that have had them for 50, 60 years.”
Those registration lists have not been open to the public since 1996, however, when the Legislature passed the Driver Privacy Act, declaring that motor vehicle “records shall not be public records or open to the inspection of any person …” Prior to that, the weekly Granite State News and Advertiser and later the Union Leader published complete lists of the low-number plates and who held them.
“We published from number 1 to 10,000,” says Richard Pease, who was vice president of the Advertiser and the son of its publisher, the late R. Warren Pease. “Our point was that low-number license plates should be like vanity plates,” which cost $25 at the time. “The idea was this was a quarter of a million dollars in revenue that was lost to create a spoils system for the governor.” Some of the spoils were not that hard to take, however.
“One of the ironic bits of fallout from all this was that one of the governors gave my father a three-digit plate, which my mother keeps to this day,” Pease says.
Despite official assurances to the contrary, the “politically connected” aspect to low-number plates has sometimes fueled speculation that those who have them are less likely to be stopped for speeding or arrested for DWI. In 1997, anti-drunk driving activist Peter DeVere sued in Superior Court for access to the motor vehicle registration records in order to cross reference the names of low-number plate holders with those of campaign contributors. DeVere won his suit in Superior Court, but the state Supreme Court upheld the state’s appeal.
Low-number plates are considered a prize in other states as well. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have lotteries to determine who gets them. Maine has a waiting list, open to the general public. Vermont accepts applications for them and issues them as available. But in New Hampshire there remains something of a mystery over who gets the coveted low digits and why.
“Historically, the governor talks to (Commissioner of Safety) Dick Flynn,” says Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth. “I guess the governor and Dick Flynn decide.” But Pamela Walsh, spokesperson for Governor John Lynch, says this governor takes no part in the process. “We refer all requests to the Department of Safety,” she says. Commissioner Flynn declined to be interviewed for this article.
“They allegedly go out to people who help out in campaigns for everybody from governor to county commissioner,” says Ray Burton of Bath, the current dean of the Executive Council and member of the Coos County Board of Commissioners. Burton says he merely refers all requests for low-number plates to Flynn’s department, which includes the Division of Motor Vehicles. “I am not in the number plate business,” Burton insists. “I merely say, ‘Is this possible?’ and let them decide.”
Similarly, Ray Wieczorek, the District 4 executive councilor, says he takes the 10 to 20 requests for low-number plates he receives each year “to the commissioner.” The former five-term mayor of Manchester turned his own four-digit plate in for his current 542 about five years ago, he recalls. He also got a three-digit plate for his son, James. “I don’t think he particularly cared, I just got him one,” Wieczorek says.
Rick Trombly, now the director of public affairs for the National Education Association-NH, recalls from his days in the Legislature that there was one sure way to bring Republicans and Democrats together: Just try to change the way low-number plates are given out.
“I put in a couple of bills dealing with that,” said the Boscawen Democrat, who was House minority leader from 1992-96. Trombly first tried to make the low-digit plates available to the general public for a vanity plate fee. After that failed, he proposed a lottery system, with the money going to support drivers education programs in the public schools.
“I got my butt kicked pretty well on those two pieces of legislation,” he recalls. “I don’t think I got 100 votes for either bill out of 400 members — and I was the Democratic leader at the time.” “Reps” without low-number plates may have had in mind surer ways to get them than trying their luck in a lottery. Those who had them didn’t want to lose them. “I had Democrats coming up to me and say, ‘Hey, Rick, I like my plates.’ It certainly was a bipartisan effort.”
So when Trombly left the Legislature at the end of the ’96 session, what was his going away present? “Ray Buckley, who was deputy Democratic leader at the time, said, ‘You’re leaving. Let’s go over and see Dick Flynn and get a plate.’ We went over there and there was the plate.” That’s why Rick Trombly is still driving around with New Hampshire license plate number 1130 and has no plans to part with it.
Not, at least, until his name turns up in the obituaries. NH
Jack Kenny’s articles and opinion pieces have appeared in numerous publications.
This article appears in the March 2006 issue of New Hampshire Magazine