12/13/2012 - Craig Benson swung into the governor’s office in 2003 with a businessman’s swagger. He had a track record of business success and had just knocked off former state Sen. Bruce Keough and former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey in the Republican primary. Benson famously said, after his election victory, that there was a new sheriff in town. But the swagger didn’t last through his first term. Benson and his administration became mired in a political scandal involving the handling of sexual assault allegations against then-Attorney General Peter Heed.
Another candidate saw an opportunity.
John Lynch, himself a successful businessman who had never run for office before, ultimately decided to challenge Benson in 2004 in what turned out to be the most expensive gubernatorial election in New Hampshire history. Lynch won a narrow victory, the first of what would be a record four terms in office. It was a politically risky move for Lynch. After all, it had been more than 75 years since the state had rejected an incumbent governor after just one term.
There is no swagger when it comes to Lynch. There is little partisanship either. Lynch has remained centrist in his approach to governing, sometimes drawing the ire of Democrats for not choosing a more progressive path. He was hesitant to sign off on things like gay marriage and medicinal marijuana. He preferred to focus on the economy, jobs and education — perhaps his marquee legislative achievement was raising the state’s compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18.
In 2010, the legislature changed dramatically, and it appeared that Lynch, even with his nonpartisan tendencies, would provide little check against the Republican stampede in the legislature. Forever a moderate Democrat who constantly preached the importance of working with everyone, regardless of political stripes, Lynch found himself staring down the barrel of three-to-one Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Lynch said he tried to work with legislators, keeping regular communication with Senate leadership, but House leadership wasn’t willing to engage him. While the GOP could override any veto by Lynch, he stuck his neck out on a few issues, notably right-to-work legislation and a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative repeal effort.
Lynch was known, perhaps best, for his presence whenever natural disasters occurred. When floods ravaged New Hampshire in 2005, Lynch was there. When an ice storm left thousands of people without power in 2008, Lynch was there, comforting people. The same was true when a tornado struck in 2008, and when hurricanes hit the state in each of the last two years. Arnie Arnesen, a liberal-leaning pundit, joked that Lynch’s portrait in the Statehouse should include his cell phone, because of his willingness to hand out his cell phone number to seemingly anyone who needed help. (He told NHPR’s Laura Knoy last week he still gets calls from people he’s given his number to.)
Lynch’s tenure is coming to an end now. The mild-mannered Lynch made the announcement last year he would not seek a record fifth term. He’s set to be succeeded by Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, who attempted to strike a centrist tone like Lynch’s during her campaign.
Lynch sat down with us (reporter Jeff Mucciarone and managing editor Meghan Siegler) in late November to reflect on his time in office.
Jeff Mucciarone: You’re getting toward the end of four terms. What are you thinking? What are your thoughts on the last eight years?
It’s gone by very quickly. I remember when I was first elected people would tell me, and particularly former governors, that the time … would go by very fast, and it certainly has. And as I look back on eight years, I think what I’ve tried to do is bring people together, put partisan politics to one side and solve problems and create opportunities for the people of New Hampshire. So where there have been successes, I think it’s been a result of bringing people together. And we’ve had a number [of successes] in a variety of different areas — education, for example. The fact that we’ve been able to reduce our high school dropout rate at a time when high school dropout rates are literally of epidemic proportions in other states, we’ve reduced ours to a remarkably low 1 percent. And we got that legislation passed to raise the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18 in part by bringing people together and letting people understand the importance of education and the importance of giving students every opportunity that they could get to graduate from high school. … The schools and the principals and the teachers and the staff really rallied around that goal and developed, for themselves, programs to keep the students interested in staying in school, so I think it was really a result of the work that was done in the schools themselves. But that’s just one example of how I’ve tried to put party politics to one side and just try to bring people together to try to solve problems.
Meghan Siegler: Do you think that trend can continue? Do you think people will work together?
I hope so. I think the people of New Hampshire expect us to work together. As I travel around, and I am out all the time...I’m with people, and people tell me, over and over and over again, that they want us to work together. That’s what upsets them about Washington, the fact that people don’t work together in Washington, that it’s become way too polarized, way too partisan. So I certainly hope that, with this legislature and I’m sure it will be with the next governor, that they’ll find ways to work together.
[In a wave election in 2010, Republicans amassed veto-proof majorities in the state Senate and the state House of Representatives, while also taking all five Executive Council seats.]
JM: The legislative makeup the past two years was different from...the previous two terms for you. Was it frustrating working with that legislature?
It wasn’t with the Senate because I communicated with the Senate on a regular basis. And I think what’s really important, in order to be able to work together, is you have to be able to build trust. You have to earn trust. You have to develop trust. And that doesn’t happen unless you communicate with each other on a regular basis. … That communication didn’t happen with House leadership [led by House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon] because they didn’t want to communicate. Ever since I was first elected, during the legislative session, we would have the speaker and the senate president and myself meet weekly and so it happened regardless of whether it was Democrats or Republicans. And those meetings stopped, unfortunately, with this last legislative leadership being elected.
JM: In any way did the last two years set the state back?
I think New Hampshire is a pretty resilient state and I think this next legislature, which I believe is going to be more centrist because I also think the people of New Hampshire are fairly moderate, so I think this legislature working with Gov.-elect Hassan will be more moderate and centrist in their approach. So I think they’ll be able to move New Hampshire forward. I think this past legislature did some things that probably did not move New Hampshire forward, like their severe cuts to public higher education, and I also believe public higher education needs to be accessible and affordable to the people of New Hampshire, to the families and the children. … If we continue to invest in education, that’s the best way that we can ensure a strong economy. Obviously, New Hampshire, our economy has been better than many other states’. Our unemployment rate has been significantly below the national average. As I meet with business people, business people tell me they still need workers. They still need workers to fill jobs with the requisite skills and talents and qualifications. The way that happens is through education. Since I was elected governor, we reinstated job training, for example, and it’s a collaborative partnership with the community college system. We’ve trained over 14,500 workers in New Hampshire, keeping those good jobs right here in our state.
MS: With your focus on education...are you going to continue to be involved in [education] in any other way?
It’s possible I might do some teaching. My expectation now is I’ll go back into the private sector, which is what I did before I took this job. I was in the manufacturing business and I would expect I would go back to doing that, but maybe also do some teaching.
MS: What would you be teaching?
You know, one area that I’m interested in is the differences and similarities between running a business and running state government. And I’ve had experience in both areas, so it would be a natural fit for me to talk about the differences and similarities between those two.
JM: What are some?
Well, it’s really interesting. We could talk about this forever because I’ve already taught classes on this before. One is you have to build a team, in both cases. And that’s what I did at [Knoll Manufacturing, where Lynch served as CEO and president from 1994 to 2001] and that’s what I did as governor. I really had to build teams in both places, because you don’t get work accomplished on your own, you get it accomplished by developing a team of good people, who really care about the constituencies they’re meant to serve. And right now in state government, for example, we have a great group of department heads. They don’t have any political agenda. They just want to work hard to serve the constituencies. And they work very well together. I tried to do the same thing at Knoll. When I started at Knoll, nobody got along. They didn’t like each other. They didn’t trust each other. So I had to build a team. That’s an important similarity. Another similarity, is understanding who your customer is. You have customers in the private sector, you have customers in the public sector. Who is your customer? What are their needs? And how do you meet their needs in the most efficient manner possible? Another similarity, which I talk about a lot, when I started at Knoll, Knoll was losing $1 million per week. Knoll lost $50 million in each of the years in the early ‘90s. To make a long story short, Knoll started to turn around and I gave a presentation to Westinghouse — Knoll was part of Westinghouse at the time — senior managers, and I said, the way you make money, if your costs are less than your sales, you make money. It’s pretty straightforward concept. But it’s true in government. Your costs have to be less than your revenues in order to ensure a balanced budget. So that’s another similarity. The differences are many. If you’re in the private sector, you get to choose your customer. And in the public sector, you don’t choose your customer because all the citizens are your customer. In the private sector, you get to choose your product. You don’t in the public sector. You don’t get to choose how to price your product. ... And the decision making process is very different in the public sector. There are three branches of government. Obviously, the legislature is very involved in the decision-making process.
JM: Are you looking forward to getting back into the private sector?
I’m looking forward to it. But I’m going to be a little bit sad about leaving. You can’t invest a lot of your time and energy into this kind of effort over eight years and not feel a little bit sad about leaving.
JM: What are you going to miss?
I will miss, although I will figure out another constituency to work with, being with the people. That’s what I’ve really enjoyed. Being with people. I love being with people. That’s what I do every day. And I tell people interested in running for governor, I say, “If you like people, then it’s a great job.” And I further say to them, “If you don’t like people, well, you probably shouldn’t run for governor of the state of New Hampshire, because you’re with people all the time.”
MS: I’m sure you can’t go anywhere without people talking to you.
Even my day is just full of meetings with people. It could be state representatives, state senators, department heads or it could be fourth-graders who regularly come to the Statehouse as part of their fourth-grade educational experience. So I’m with people all the time, which is what I really enjoy. And I enjoy helping people. Helping people, trying to solve problems for them, trying to create a difference, a positive difference in their lives. And whether that’s through legislation, that could be pulling people together to respond to a myriad of natural disasters we’ve had here in New Hampshire or bringing businesses to New Hampshire. We’ve had some real success bringing significant businesses to our state, which again, is a result of getting people to work together.
[Lynch has always tried to maintain a largely apolitical status. Democrats and Republicans have been critical of him for seemingly waiting to take a stand on an issue until he absolutely has to. Lynch has countered that he has taken a strong leadership role on a number of issues, notably education-related issues.]
JM: Do you expect to be a voice for the Democratic party in New Hampshire going forward?
You know, I would like to be a good ex-governor, a good former governor, you know, much like I think Walter Peterson was as a former governor, so I would expect that I would have a very, very low profile, in terms of the political world.
JM: What’s your take on the election, the results, but also, what was it like for you to not have to participate in it?
Well, it’s interesting. A number of people came up to me who had obviously been voting, particularly the last eight years, and they told me it was a little bit uncomfortable not seeing my name on the ballot. [laughing] Even the fourth graders, who I met eight years ago, who are now ready to vote, they, I think, were a little disappointed you know, having known me for that long, for many of them I was the only governor they’ve known. ... I was fine with it. But it was a little bit unusual to have me sit out on the sidelines and watch everything else go on. I am very comfortable with it.
JM: What’s your take on the results?
I think people in New Hampshire want us to govern from the middle. I really do. And I think when the legislature and/or the governor governs from the extreme, I think the people of New Hampshire recalibrate their votes and wanting the government to move back to the center, which is what I think most people are. Most people are in the middle, and I think that’s what the people of New Hampshire, in a very strong message, sent that to their elected officials. They want us to be moderate, centrist and govern from the middle.
MS: As you’re leaving, is there anything that you didn’t get done that you’d hoped to achieve?
I think we made progress in a lot of areas. I think, like anything else, you make progress but there’s more that you would have liked to have done. With infrastructure, for example...one of the big projects in New Hampshire is the widening of I-93, which we hear about all the time. So we’ve made some real progress. We brought the widening up to Exit 3 from the Massachusetts border and working on the interchange at Exit 5, but I would have liked to have had that project completed. We did the widening of the Spaulding Turnpike, which was a very important project, important for public safety, economic development and quality of life, and that got completed, which is really going to open up economic development from Rochester all the way to Portsmouth. We completed open road tolling in Hampton, which is a wonderful feature, but we haven’t finished that in Hooksett yet. That won’t be done until June of 2013. With the dropout rate, we had a goal of zero dropouts in New Hampshire. I’d still like to get to that goal. And I think if people continue on the progress that we have built, we’ll be able to achieve that role. With health care, we’ve done a lot of good things with health care. In New Hampshire, for example, I signed a bill into law allowing children to stay on their parents’ plan up until age 26, way before Obamacare came out. We went forward with managed care, accountable care organizations, electronic medical records, but there’s still more to do in terms of making health care more affordable and accessible and lowering the overall cost.
[Following the 2010 elections, many thought Lynch and the legislative leadership might find common ground with an education funding amendment. The state’s system has been controversial since the state Supreme Court took funding control away from the legislature and instead mandated the state to provide the cost of an adequate education for every student. Lynch had wanted an amendment that would have restored the responsibility to fund education to the legislature, but which would have also allowed lawmakers to target aid to the neediest students and districts.]
JM: You introduced language for an education funding amendment last year. ... Any regrets on how that’s been handled either from you or the legislature?
Well, you know, I’m disappointed we didn’t get one. But the amendment that I wanted was an amendment that would reaffirm the state’s responsibility for public education, but at the same time allow us to direct more money to the communities and children who need it more than others. I still believe that’s the right approach to education funding. If you believe that education is about opportunity and that every child deserves an opportunity to get a good education regardless of where the child lives or the economic background of the child or the wealth of the community in which the child lives, the only way I know of ensuring that opportunity is by directing more money to the communities and children who need it more than others. But it has to be affirming the state’s responsibility. Unfortunately, with regard to the amendment, there were some who wanted an amendment that would allow the state to abandon its responsibility for public education, and I wasn’t willing to support that type of amendment.
MS: You’ve had the most positive rating of any governor in the country. How does that make you feel and how do you think you achieved that?
Well, I’m not really worried about that. What I do worry about is making sure I’m accessible to the people of New Hampshire. And like I did at Knoll, I’d get up every morning believing that I have to go out and earn the trust of the people, every morning. I had to do that at Knoll with regard to a company that was losing that kind of money with the employees, and I do that in New Hampshire. As I said, I’m out all the time, and I try to help people, to the extent that I can. And I love New Hampshire, and love the people of New Hampshire. And I think people realize that I do have a deep, deep affection for this state.
JM: What kind of a toll does [being governor for eight years] take on your family?
My family has been great, absolutely fantastic. My wife has been a real partner to me in all of this. When we decided to run back in 2004, we were in 14 parades together, along with members of my family. I can’t say enough for how supportive they all have been. And I think it’s been a very rewarding experience for them as well, because they’ve got to meet people from all over New Hampshire in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do so. My wife has been involved in a myriad of projects of her own and has loved doing it. So I think overall it has been a very positive experience for the family.
MS: Do you have any plans for vacations now?
[laughing] My wife and I will probably go away. For the most part, I need to stay busy and I need to stay active, I need to stay engaged. So I’ll probably take a few days and kind of think about it, but then I’ll get right back working hard.
JM: Well, what won’t you miss about the job?
Part of the job that I did not like was among some people there is a real display of partisanship. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, there are some partisans who don’t want to work with the other side. And to me, that’s the wrong way of governing. I think you need to reach out to the other side and work with the other side. There are some who look to whether you have a D or an R on your forehead. If you have a different letter than they have, then they’re not going to work with him. And I’ve never cared what people wear on their foreheads. I care about what’s in their hearts and whether they want to work with me to make New Hampshire a better state.
JM: What are the issues you see looking forward?
The big issue is always, in the first year of the legislative session, the budget. The budget is always the single biggest issue. You have to work hard, you have to make compromises, build a consensus in terms of making a balanced budget and also meeting the needs of the people of New Hampshire.
MS: What are you doing to transition out of office? Are you meeting with Maggie?
Yes, I’ve met with Maggie. I’ve made sure and made clear to my department heads that I want them to work with Maggie and give Maggie whatever information she needs, whether it’s of a budgetary nature or non-budgetary nature. I’d really like to see Maggie, on day one, be as up to speed as possible in terms of the requirements of the job are.
JM: What kind of a governor do you expect her to be?
I think she’s going to be very pragmatic. I think she’s also going to be able to put party politics to one side and work with everybody to solve problems. I think that’s the way she was in the Senate. She’s very smart. And I think her ability to work with everybody is something that will stand her in good stead as governor of the state of New Hampshire.
JM: What are … some things you see New Hampshire having to deal with going forward?
I think there are a number of areas. We talked about infrastructure. I think there needs to be a serious discussion about how the state is going to provide more funding for public higher education. That would be a discussion, not only with the legislature, but also with the representatives from public higher education, meaning the university system, the community college system. … The whole issue of corrections, how we manage corrections going forward. At some point we’re going to need a new men’s prison in Concord. We need a new women’s prison in Goffstown. The capital costs for both of those will be hundreds of millions of dollars, so there has to be a model that would help figure out how we get new prisons. And it’s important, not only for the prison itself, but it’s important as we work hard to lower the recidivism rate in New Hampshire. … Obviously, there’s been talk of whether to go forward with expanded gambling. I’m opposed to that for a myriad of reasons. There are many in the legislature, and I think Gov.-elect Hassan supports one facility, but they’re going to have to figure all that out.
JM: What types of further steps need to be taken to continue to improve the [economic] situation here?
We’ve been able to entice a number of large companies to come to New Hampshire. Albany International is a good example. They’re an $800 million company. They could have located anywhere in the country and they decided to locate in Rochester. They have plants all over the world and I believe over time that will create in excess of over 1,000 jobs. Already, there’s talk of some of their suppliers moving to Rochester. Another company that we’ve been able to work with to get to move to New Hampshire is Aspen Technology. They’re about a $300 million company and they’re moving a significant part of their research and development to Nashua, creating upwards of 150 jobs. We’ve done a lot of work obviously to get the paper mill reopened up in Gorham, the biomass plant in Berlin. Those two initiatives will create hundreds of jobs. Already there have been over 200 people rehired at the paper mill in Gorham. So I think it’s continuing to reach out to businesses, talking to businesses, getting them to think about locating here in New Hampshire. But I think to do that, we need to make sure the workers are here. … Manufacturing companies continue to tell me that they need graduates with those skills, those disciplines, science, technology, engineering and math.
JM: What things are you expecting to be working on as you close out the term?
[laughing] Taking the pictures of my family out of the office. I have to do that. ... My schedule is actually almost completely booked between now and Jan. 3 with a myriad of meetings both inside and outside the office.
JM: Is there a message you’d leave the people of New Hampshire with?
The message I’d leave for people of New Hampshire is, I really love New Hampshire. I love the people of New Hampshire. I have loved being governor. And I appreciate the trust that they’ve placed in me.