CONCORD — After representing the northern half of the state, including Laconia, on the Executive Council for 35 years, Ray Burton of Bath announced on Sunday that with the return of the cancer that slowed him earlier this year he will not be seeking re-election to either the Executive Council or Grafton County Commission in 2014.
Burton, 74, opened a formal statement by saying "It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that my cancer has returned. After several days in and out of the hospital I will be heading home to Bath, New Hampshire to rest." After announcing his retirement, he quickly and characteristically added "I will fulfill my duties entrusted in me. My office is always willing to assist the constituents of Grafton County and Executive Council District 1."
The announcement immediately prompted a flurry of tributes from public officials from one end of the political spectrum to the other. "For me it is a very sad day," said State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), and it's a sad day for all Ray's constituents. No one does it it better than Ray Burton," she continued. "If all our public servants followed the Ray's model, we would all be a lot better off." She said that the Grafton County Republican Committee created an extraordinary service award in Burton's name and honored him as the first recipient. "But, with Ray it was never about Republicans and Democrats," she remarked. "It was always about the people."
Peter Powell of Lancaster, longtime director and past president of the North Country Council, recalled that Burton, then a young man of 19 or 20 helping to elect his father, Wesley Powell. governor in 1958. "Ray grew in, with and for the North Country," he remarked, "and became an icon for the place. You couldn't look at him without thinking of the North County." Noting that the authority of executive councilors appears limited, Powell said that Burton "turned his position into one of significant power, which he used to the advantage of the people he represented. He is on the minds and hearts of everyone up here," he said.
Governor Maggie Hassan, the last of the 10 chief executives to serve with Burton, called his record of public service "unmatched" and said "I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside Councilor Burton." John H. Sununu spoke of his "his dedication and deep commitment to his constituents," noting that his "bipartisan leadership will be missed." United States Senator Kelly Ayotte described Burton as "a passionate and tireless voice for the North Country for decades" while for United States Congresswoman Annie Kuster he was "a fixture of governance and service In New Hampshire since I was a young girl."
Following treatment for kidney cancer in February and March, Burton said in April that as tests showed no sign of the disease he intended to run in 2014 and 2016. However, his health faltered earlier this month when he was unable to attend the meeting of the Executive Council on October 16 and a week later, was not on hand to accept a lifetime achievement award from the North County Council at its annual meeting.
First elected to the Executive Council in 1976, Burton lost his seat two years later, but regain it in 1980 and has held it ever since, almost always by a wide margin. He has also served on the Grafton County Commission for the past 22 years. But, he never forgot the lesson of his only loss. "I'm always running a two votes behind," he said of every campaign, right up to election day.