Learning math, the Ray Burton way

Longtime New Hampshire Executive Councilor Raymond Burton passed away on this date in 2013. I’m re-posting what I wrote at that time about the most important lesson I learned from him.

The Presidential Range, seen from Lancaster: Ray Burton territory. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
The Presidential Range, seen from Lancaster: Ray Burton territory. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

A visitor to my home state of New Hampshire could be forgiven this week for wondering about the flags at half-staff. An extended observance of Veterans’ Day? The loss of another Granite Stater on an overseas battlefield? No. Ray Burton has died, after 18 terms on the Executive Council, representing the northern two-thirds of New Hampshire.

Think about that: he won eighteen state-level elections. He was a county commissioner for good measure. He knew how to run and win and serve.


I learned from watching him. The principal lesson: if you can’t do math, don’t bother making noise about how much you want to be elected in order to … fill in the blank: enact pro-life legislation, get that road built, raise or cut that tax, fight to keep a piece of land open for recreation. Obvious? Not to me, when I was a younger and less seasoned activist. I thought just Doing the Right Thing would sweep all political considerations before it.

Twenty-some-odd years ago, I was working in a certain organization with legislative goals we pursued with equal parts passion and naïveté. Some policy initiative we favored – I forget which one – was shot down in the Executive Council. One of the offending votes had been cast by that darn Ray Burton, before he was a legend. We grumbled to each other and said,”Why can’t we find someone to run against him?” I can only plead youth and inexperience. A less charitable observer might simply say to me “you were an idiot.”

  • With one exception, no one at that meeting lived in the North Country, which to us meant anything north of Concord. Come to think of it, Burton’s district stretched almost that far south, while extending northward clear to the Canadian border.
  • No one in the room knew how many votes had been cast in Burton’s district in the previous election. We didn’t know who his opponents had been, in either the primary or the general.
  • None of us, including the sole Grafton County resident among us (who was a relative newcomer to New Hampshire), knew anything about why voters supported Burton.
  • None of us had met Ray Burton.

Needless to say, Councilor Burton had nothing to fear from us. Quite apart from our collective ignorance of his district, we had no math skills. We didn’t know how many votes he had garnered or how many votes it would take to get all that, plus one. After that, I learned how to study election results and do the arithmetic.

All of you who are passionately pro-life and yearn for more pro-life elected representatives, trust me on this, because each generation has to learn it anew: Understanding the absolute fundamental dignity of each human life is basic – but to translate that into public policy, learn to count.

I said that math was the principal thing I learned from the Councilor. That was a couple of decades before I actually met him. Then, I learned more, starting with this: he was pro-North Country. It didn’t matter to the vast majority of his constituents whether he was pro-anything else. He knew his people, and he covered an astounding distance every year to stay familiar with his district. His constituent service was second to none. Moreover, he liked people in a way few officeholders can honestly claim to do.

I worked on my first statewide campaign in 2010 for gubernatorial candidate John Stephen. I remember the first time I was sent to a meeting as the sole representative of the campaign –  a GOP meeting in Wolfeboro. Every face in the room was new to me. I was beyond nervous. I was shaking in my shoes, notwithstanding the fact that I was about the same age as most of the people at the meeting. (In fact, I was a generation older than most of my co-workers.)

Ray Burton was the evening’s featured speaker. When he arrived, he made the rounds of all the party regulars in the room, all very familiar to him. Then he approached me, offering a greeting and a handshake, seeing I was new in town.

In those few moments of conversation, he put me at ease and managed to treat me as though I were the only person in the room. Since his death, I have heard other people talk about similar encounters. When Councilor Burton spoke with you, he spoke with you.Amazingly to me, after that first meeting in Wolfeboro, he remembered my name every time we ran into each other during the campaign.

Campaign staff members put up with all kinds of attitudes from all kinds of people when we’re on the road for our candidate. That’s part of the job, and we know it, and we take it in stride. The only thing I ever had to take in stride on the campaign trail from Councilor Burton was the same courtesy he showed everyone. He always, and I mean always, had a cheerful greeting and a kind word for me and my colleagues. He kept a gimlet eye on how we were doing our jobs, mind you, but he was always gracious at the same time.

Councilor Burton had challengers, of course. He liked to say that he always ran as though he were five votes behind. Other Republicans were sometimes moved to run against him in the primaries. Some of them even managed to hold him to under 80% of the vote.

Yup, he was pretty good at math.

Some of his votes drove me nuts. He never voted thoughtlessly, though. The interests of the people of District One were his only concerns, for more than thirty years. I should have known that all along – even twenty years ago.