When it came to gay marriage, Gov. John Lynch was supportive but not too supportive.
When he was asked about it time and again two years ago, he’d always offer a version of the same answer. He’d point to civil unions, which had recently been approved in New Hampshire. He’d be respectful, but he’d always say he believed marriage was between a man and a woman.
But he never said he’d veto a bill legalizing gay marriage in the state. Ultimately, the vast Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature presented Lynch with such a bill.
For a time there in 2009, it looked like Lynch, the state’s 80th governor, was going to get stuck with a trifecta of social bills: gay marriage, legalizing medicinal marijuana and repealing the death penalty. Fortunately for Lynch, he didn’t have to deal with all three on his desk. But he did have to deal with the marriage issue, a hot-button issue that could have put him at odds with the more liberal chunks of his own party and with social conservatives.
“As I approach decisions, I want to be very protective of the strategy we have in place, but at the same time allow for it to make progress and move us forward,” Lynch said in an interview with The Hippo two weeks ago.
Lynch ultimately signed the gay marriage bill. But he set himself up in a way that made him able to deflect criticism from the right, as he’d made it clear all along this wasn’t his first choice, as well as from the left, who couldn’t say he struck down the measure. Not everybody was happy, but nobody could be too upset with him either.
“…Not only does he look before he leaps, he rarely ever leaps,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
The gay marriage bill was probably the single most historic piece of legislation Lynch signed during his time in office, but it wasn’t anything he started. It was served up to him, Scala said.
“It was a very Democratic legislature,” Scala said. “He had to grapple with it. It certainly didn’t come from him and he had a certain level of discomfort with it.”
“He came away looking fairly balanced,” added political analyst Dean Spiliotes.
How Lynch handled the gay marriage bill was indicative of his management style and how he’s handled other bills and controversial issues. He came out and squashed an expanded gambling effort last year, but he did so in a way that suggested he wasn’t entirely against the concept. He seems to feel it’s not his role to champion one side or the other, particularly if the issue has a partisan bent.
“He’s really more about management and policy solutions, and crisis management,” Spiliotes said. “He’s never really overtly partisan. Although he’s not a pushover politically. He’s quite a shrewd politician. But he only uses it when it’s absolutely necessary.”
A partisan for nonpartisanship
As far as partisanship goes, Lynch, who was born in Waltham, Mass., in 1952, says he tries to eliminate it as much as possible.
“My style, it’s as consistent now as it was when I was in the private sector,” said Lynch, who lives in Hopkinton with his wife Susan and their three children. “It really is to pull people together to get people to feel they’re part of the solution as we move forward. Even when I was first elected, I tried to put partisan politics to one side and focus on working with people to solve problems, and to create opportunities for the citizens of New Hampshire.”
“I had that approach in 2005 and I’m continuing with that same style now. I didn’t worry back then and I don’t now, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. I care about whether you love New Hampshire and whether you want to work with me to make it better, to help us protect what’s so special about this state.”
All Lynch’s talk of putting partisanship to one side isn’t just talk.
“His style is to be inclusive, to engage with everybody in a nonpartisan way,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.
Lynch is likely engaging with leaders in both houses of the legislature on a variety of issues all the time, and mostly now regarding the budget. Lynch is accessible when legislators need to talk with him, D’Allesandro said.
Certainly not everyone thinks highly of the governor and his leadership style. Former governor and state GOP chairman John Sununu has called Lynch the state’s worst governor. New state GOP chairman Jack Kimball seems to end every statement his office sends out with something about how Lynch has got to go.
Still, Lynch’s approach has served him well with voters, particularly with how he’s perceived by voters. They sent Lynch back to the governor’s office for a record fourth term this past November, though the race was tighter this time around then it had been the previous two cycles.
“He’s been governor through really good times for Democrats and now really bad times for Democrats,” Scala said, adding Lynch’s political fate seems separate and above the political waves that have dominated recent elections. “People treat him differently. They don’t look at the D or the R next to his name.”
Executive Councilor Raymond Wieczorek, R-Manchester, is serving his 10th year in his post and he’s seen many different mixes of Republicans and Democrats. All the while, Wieczorek said he has seen Lynch handle the Council in an even-handed way.
“He’s never interrupted anybody on the Council and nothing is off limits,” Wieczorek said. “That’s a good thing. You could have somebody who is always cutting you off at the pass and then you’re never expressing your feelings. He isn’t that way.”
Lynch can be mild-mannered in a way that sometimes upsets supporters but also frustrates opponents. The fact that Lynch could win by a significant margin — not that the race with John Stephen wasn’t close this past November — in such a lopsided year for Republicans makes the case for Lynch’s still being arguably the most popular politician in the state, Scala said.
“You’d have to ask them,” Lynch said laughing when asked about his popularity with voters. “I hope they’d say that I put politics to one side and that I work with them to make New Hampshire a better state....”
Sometimes Lynch is criticized for what is perceived as his waiting until the last minute to make a decision. When it comes to controversial issues, he’s not an out-in-front politician.
D’Allesandro said the criticism that Lynch waits too long on certain issues is fair. But again, D’Allesandro said coming out too early one way or another could impact a governor who is trying to create a bipartisan flavor to decision-making.
“I wish he would come out on certain issues much sooner,” D’Allesandro said, adding Lynch was out in front on some items, such as improving the state’s dropout rate. D’Allesandro, in particular, has long championed expanded gambling in the state. Lynch has a different position on the issue, but the last time around, D’Allesandro said he wished Lynch would have come out one way or another sooner in the process.
“If I could say one thing, he’s cautious,” D’Allesandro said. “He’s extremely cautious, where other governors have been much more demonstrative. But that’s his style and it won him four terms.”
“John Lynch is a very nice person,” said Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare. “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with or play tennis with. But he has his particular management style — obviously that works for him. He is rather cautious and in many cases, rather than take a position to help shape the debate, he comes in at the end to cap the debate.”
Still, Kurk said Lynch will step out in front on some things. Lynch took a strong public position right off the bat regarding the education amendment to the state constitution. Lynch has worked hard behind the scenes with a variety of people to make the legislation work, Kurk said.
When approaching difficult decisions, Lynch said he looks at the current strategy — low taxes, high quality of life, preserving public safety and preserving education — and tries to gauge how one decision or another will impact the strategy. He points to the state’s fast-growing economy, its unemployment rate that is 40 percent lower than the national average.
“I really work hard to put partisan politics to one side and bring people together, keeping the focus on solving problems...,” Lynch said.
More than two years ago, Jim Merrill, a Republican political operative who recently worked on Ovide Lamontagne’s Senate campaign, said Lynch was a nice guy but that the governor wasn’t willing to break a few eggs to get things done. It’s not that Lynch won’t crack the eggs; he just prefers to wait until the butter in the pan is about to burn.
Wieczorek has heard the criticism of Lynch taking too long, but he said many of the decisions Lynch is making are dependent on a variety of factors. The court system, Wieczorek offered, is short on judges in a number of places, but there’s also a massive state budget crisis.
“Trying to balance those things is not easy,” Wieczorek said.
Wieczorek did say there are times he wishes Lynch would move a little more quickly on particular items, and that there are times when he simply doesn’t agree with the governor, but he appreciates his methodical approach.
It’s not just that Lynch is a nice guy who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings. He also has a solid understanding of the role of governor in the state — it’s not a big one.
“The governor’s office is inherently weak in terms of power,” Scala said. “It’s not a reflection of any one governor; it was designed to be weak.”
“To be successful and to last as long as he has…you have to have modest ambitions,” Scala said. “We’ve certainly had crusading governors in the past — Mel Thomson. I think it’s fair to say New Hampshire voters are a bit suspicious of crusading governors. They prefer a governor who is there when needed, but other than that, they don’t look for big personalities out of the governor. They’re not looking for especially powerful people in that office.”
So Lynch hasn’t come at the residents of New Hampshire with some grandiose or controversial plan to change something fundamental to the state. He hasn’t championed any kind of broad-based tax, like an income or sales tax. In fact, he’s said he’d veto any such proposal. He hasn’t presented a health care plan that mandates coverage or offers a government-run plan. That’s not his style — and if it were, he probably wouldn’t have lasted so long in office, analysts said.
“I think first of all he enjoys the job, which is paramount these days,” D’Allesandro said. “He enjoys engaging people. He loves talking to people who come into the Statehouse. I think he really creates an image of being very much a person who enjoys what he’s doing. I think his outside presence is terrific.”
While Lynch is probably consciously staying above the fray, Scala said Lynch doesn’t come across as though he’s some kind of crusader in disguise.
The chief executive
Lynch has treated his role as governor more or less as CEO of the state.
Former governor Craig Benson, whom Lynch beat in 2004, also tried to run the state like a business, but he had more of a my-way-or-the-highway type of approach. (Anyone remember Benson’s quote about there being a new sheriff in town?) Lynch has more of a gentle touch in how he deals with people, Scala said.
“I don’t think he’s got some big ideology,” Scala said. “I think he is who he is.”
Lynch served as president and CEO of Knoll, Inc., which is a national furniture manufacturer, and helped turn the company around. He also served as president of the Lynch Group, a business consulting firm in Manchester, according to his biography on the state website. Lynch graduated from the University of New Hampshire and has an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School as well as a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center.
To a certain extent, Lynch, and the governor of New Hampshire in general, is a glorified town manager, Scala said.
“You’re beholden to lots of other bosses,” Scala said. “You don’t necessarily get to deal with fellow government bodies from a position of strength. He has his personality, and his modest political figure makes him well-suited. He’s modest in his ambitions and that really suits the modest powers of the office.”
Lynch is a problem-solver and a crisis responder. Those two roles can be played in a decidedly nonpartisan way.
“He’s really sort of a nonpolitical politician,” Spiliotes said. “That’s a real difficult skill to cultivate, to accomplish political goals without seeming political.”
That’s something that Lynch, a former director of admissions at the Harvard Business School and chairman of the University System Board of Trustees, has embraced as well. Scala said there’s an old saying about New Hampshire being like a large town. Lynch embraces that aspect of the job. It’s particularly true in cases of emergencies, such as the flooding in Cheshire County several years ago and the tornado that ripped through central New Hampshire in 2008. He’s always on hand. He’s handing out his cell phone number to folks, much like the mayor of a small town would do, Scala said.
“He doesn’t see himself as above that,” Scala said. “When people want to look to one person, the governor, to help them out, he’s got that going for him.”
The budget is the single biggest task that lies before the legislature, and Lynch gets the first crack at it every two years.
This year, most reasonably objective officials were impressed with Lynch’s proposal. Sure, many said his revenue estimates were too high, but he made substantial cuts into the projected $900 million deficit.
D’Allesandro said Lynch’s budget presentation was the most sophisticated he’s seen during his time as an elected official, which dates back decades.
“It was a difficult budget,” D’Allesandro said. “There was a lot to like and a lot to not like.”
Lynch said the current budget builds on the budget he presented two years ago. It continues progress on things lawmakers did two years ago. It also restructures state government while cutting costs to less than 2008 levels, Lynch said.
While some have criticized Lynch and Democrats for using accounting gimmicks and stimulus money in balancing the budget two years ago, this budget is remarkably free of gimmicks. Still, Lynch said the state used the stimulus dollars for their intended purpose two years ago. Either way, the stimulus isn’t an option this time around.
“He was very careful to have a budget that didn’t have a lot of gimmicks and he focused more on restructuring programs,” Spiliotes said.
Lynch said he made hundreds of changes to the budget that amounted to cutting spending and restructuring programs, while still protecting the highest priorities, among them keeping taxes low, fully funding adequacy aid to communities, ensuring public safety and providing health care to the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“There are admittedly many difficult decisions in the budget,” Lynch said. “...We tried to be fair to every department and every agency across the board. We went into the budget knowing we had to reduce spending to about 95 percent of 2011 levels, so that approach was applied to cities and towns as well....”
Republicans have tried to harp on the fact that Lynch cuts back in local aid, but as Lynch said, that was done in proportion with the rest of the budget.
While House Republicans might have some different ideas on how to balance the budget and they certainly have differences in revenue estimates, Lynch did present a budget with no new taxes, something that’s very much in line with Republicans right now. Kurk added Lynch is probably representative of the people of the state.
“We’re Yankee conservatives,” Kurk said.
Along with revenue estimates the House deems too high, Kurk said Republicans aren’t necessarily on board with downshifting costs to local property taxpayers.
“I think he’s doing what is the reality of a very difficult fiscal situation,” Spiliotes said. “Also...I think he was very careful to show you how the decision-making process was made. He would say things like, ‘Here are three options and here’s why I picked the second option.’“
While Lynch’s budgetary tone was conciliatory as the news wasn’t good for many folks, he was decidedly more pointed when it came to hospitals. He criticized the state’s nonprofit hospitals for the millions they paid out to their executives. Subsequently, he proposed slashing $20 million in state funding to hospitals, in the name of priorities.
Holding a consistent line right in the middle
Consistent, consistent, consistent.
Aside from pure ideological disagreement, it’s not easy to name a time when Lynch made a mistake, though the introduction of an LLC tax two years ago would probably qualify as one at least in a political sense, and certainly so with the business community. Much gets made of the accounting gimmicks that helped balance the current two-year budget, and critics wouldn’t be wrong to attack that, but Lynch and Democrats wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to try whatever they could on a temporary basis to avoid having to make some of the cuts lawmakers will probably have to make this time around. Everything is calculated.
“He’s very successful in speaking a language of leadership that is not overtly partisan,” Spiliotes said. “He works with a fairly broad group of legislators. I think that hasn’t changed.”
“I think one of the things people like about the governor is that he always seems to be the same,” Scala said. “People have a level of comfort with him, that he seems impervious to the partisan tides.”
Lynch pointed to the reduction in the state dropout rate during his tenure as an example of how he approaches problems. He set out with reducing the rate as a goal, and passed legislation that raised the dropout age to 18. The rate has fallen substantially. Lynch said he worked with a number of legislators to target the problem rather than unilaterally try to create a cure-all himself.
“At a time when high school dropout rates are at epidemic proportions in other states, we cut ours in half,” Lynch said. “That happened as a result of lots of people coming together.”
Lynch says it’s not just fellow lawmakers, it’s stakeholders of all kinds: businesspeople, teachers, agency heads.
Does he feel like he’s changed at all in his approach?
“No, I continue to treat people as people, and again, I try to work with them,” Lynch said. “There may have been a legislative-makeup change, but the people of New Hampshire haven’t changed. I continue to want to work with legislators to make a difference in the lives of the people of New Hampshire and to protect what’s so special about this state.”
Whatever Lynch is doing to remain consistent is working on the voter front. Lynch, as a centrist, puts himself in a good spot politically for the voters of New Hampshire. The voters tend to be fiscally moderate to conservative and they carry a libertarian philosophy on social issues, Scala said.
Take the gay marriage bill. While his opponents have tried to tie the bill to him, and he certainly isn’t someone social conservatives love in this state, Lynch’s signing of the bill was in line with the state’s socially libertarian leanings.
“It was a big step for Lynch to take, but it wasn’t a step too far considering the state’s ideology,” Scala said, pointing to polling by the UNH Survey Center suggesting opponents of a gay marriage repeal far outnumber supporters.
Legislators don’t always agree with Lynch, but D’Allesandro said consistency has been a theme with Lynch.
There’s been a lot of talk about his running for U.S. Senate some day. Lynch has always said no to that speculation, which is fairly standard procedure for politicians, regardless of their intentions. But his political moves and leadership style don’t suggest he’s gearing up for another office, Scala said.
Logistically, he’d have to wait a while. Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte was just elected to a six-year term this past fall and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen isn’t up for reelection until 2014.
“I’d be surprised to see him run for U.S. Senate,” Scala said. “I think he genuinely seems to enjoy the managerial part of the job, just like he enjoyed running his own business. In some ways that’s how he sees the governorship.”
“He’s there for the state,” Scala said.
And people like that. That personality resonates with them, Scala said.
While reports have suggested Lynch is probably done after this term, the governor hardly seems to be closing the door on a fifth term.
“At the end of the day, you have to wonder,” Scala said.
Democrats know Lynch is probably their most popular politician — and the most popular politician in the state — so it would likely only help their cause if Lynch were to try for a fifth term.
Tempering Democrats and Republicans
It’s been frustrating at times for Democrats. Some probably had the sense that from 2006 to 2010 it was a great Democratic moment for the state, a time to transform the state, to do bold things, like gay marriage and introducing an income tax. But Lynch tempered some of that, Scala said.
Maybe some transposed an ideology on the governor and expected him to take up their progressive causes. Some probably found, to their dismay, that that wasn’t how he was going to operate. But still, Democrats would be in even more dire straits right now had they not had Lynch at the top of the ticket for the last four elections, Scala said.
Given how Lynch has frustrated some Democrats, it’s interesting that he hasn’t seen a serious primary challenge in the way that former governor Shaheen did during her later terms in office, Scala said.
In some ways having large Republican majorities has freed Lynch. Republicans have long tried to portray him as wishy-washy and as being carried along by the Democratic tide. Times are different now. Lynch can perhaps more comfortably be the centrist that he actually is. Perhaps on social legislation, such as an attempt to repeal gay marriage, which was recently put off for the time being, Lynch can be the governor who holds social conservatives and the Republican party back. Given the times, Democrats are probably thankful to have a centrist in office, Scala said.
“John Lynch is a relatively conservative Democrat,” Kurk said. “It’s much easier with that perspective to work with a heavily conservative legislature.”
Education funding, a longtime issue, could be an area where Lynch and Republicans will find common ground.
But he will hit back
Thinking back to the election this past fall where John Stephen mounted a spirited campaign against Lynch, polls at one point had Stephen closing the gap to as little as 2 percentage points.
And then wham — Lynch was back up by double digits.
“Lynch hit back early and he hit back hard,” Spiliotes said. “It’s not the first thing you typically associate with him.”
Lynch hit Stephen hard on the trust front, even ending an ad with the statement, “John Stephen, you just can’t trust him.”
Lynch has a good feel of how to project himself as a chief executive, and part of playing the CEO is knowing when to be above the fray. Lynch has displayed strong political judgment in that regard during his time in office, Spiliotes said. But when he needs to, he’s not afraid to fire away.
Lynch came of age politically prior to the progressive swings of 2006 and 2008, so he’s coming from a different place than some other Democrats. He’s been there in tough times for Democrats as well as good times.
“He’s been generally pretty good at portraying himself as reasonable,” Spiliotes said. “That’s probably his best political tool at this point. New Hampshire finds him reasonable, not overly partisan.”