Like the Old Man of the Mountain who was one of his constituents, Ray Burton left in the middle of the night before most who knew him could say goodbye.
“Burton for Certain” was less a political slogan than a promise to his constituents that they could always count on Ray in times of need. He was the Johnny Cash of politics, there for the beaten down and the hungry.
Burton’s life of service began during his senior year at Plymouth State in 1962 when he was elected to the Bath School Board, responsible for 72 students. He found his way to the State House, working as Sergeant-at-Arms and on Gov. Walter Peterson’s staff.
In 1976, Burton got elected to the council after winning a four-way primary for an open seat. Despite a 4-1 Republican majority, the council clashed with GOP Gov. Meldrim Thomson. In one of the last proxy fights of the decade-long Thomson-Peterson war, Burton became a casualty in the 1978 primary, losing by 149 votes. When Burton mentored future generations of politicians to run like they were three votes behind, there was a twinkle in his eye, but he was serious.
Such is how life-long political grudges begin — except that Burton was the rare politician who didn’t do feuds. Instead, he wore out what few opponents he had with kindness. When Thomson’s sons later came before the Council, they advanced with Burton’s support. “The friendship that developed between Ray Burton and the Thomsons was one forged in fire,” Robb Thomson told me.
Burton came back in the 1980 primary to crush the man who’d beaten him. He was never seriously challenged again, racking up 17 straight wins and accumulating more than 1 million votes. Starting in 1990, he was elected to successive concurrent terms on the Grafton County Commission.
He needed the two stipends. In terms of family and finances, Burton effectively took priest-like vows. It is impossible for anyone to cover the sprawling, 100-plus town district the way he did, for as long as he did, with a family to support or dine with. Burton inherited the modest homestead he grew up in, which produced a little income from haying, and taught a couple courses to make ends meet. He leaves behind few material possessions beyond his classic cars.
Oscar Wilde said that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. It was Burton’s compulsion to help people that nearly ended his political career. When it came out in 2005 that he knowingly employed a sex offender as a political assistant, bipartisan calls for Burton’s resignation came from the entire congressional delegation, the governor, and three of his colleagues on the council. The political pressure was enormous.
If ever an elected official had a right to say, “After all I’ve done for you?” it was Burton then. Another man might have become embittered about being forsaken in his hour of need. But Burton had reminded nine governors that if they wanted something passed by the council, they needed to know how to count to three; that commissioners they wanted to replace didn’t go until the council told them to go. Burton could count votes, too. He admitted an error in judgment and threw himself at the mercy of his constituents.
Decades of granular attention to individual voters, of making thousands of people feel special one at a time, saw him through. “If everyone Ray has helped out over the years voted for him, I don’t think there would be many people left to vote against him,” Ralph Doolan of Bethlehem summarized accurately at the time. In a district with a quarter million people, no opponent, Republican or Democrat, filed against him. Burton continued in his life’s work.
“True public servants know the meaning of serving comes from asking people what you can do to help them. Ray always would greet me with, ‘Hello, and what can I do for Steve Duprey today?’ And he meant it,” recalled Duprey, who served as a state representative from Burton’s district four decades ago.Ray used to tell people that they were never alone so long as he was around. Today, we are all a little alone.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ferguscullen.