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Broad respect for Sununu's AG nominee Gordon MacDonald

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 01. 2017 8:45PM
Gordon MacDonald speaks during a public hearing on his nomination last week. (DAN TUOHY/UNION LEADER)
When he would step aside
If confirmed as attorney general, Gordon MacDonald said he would disqualify himself from taking part in any state review of these pending lawsuits because he has been involved in them as a private corporate lawyer.

• State of N.H. vs. Actavis Pharma et al: Represented Purdue Pharma resisting attorney general's bid to get documents regarding painkiller proscribing practices and challenge state's right to hire outside counsel, pending before state Supreme Court.

• N.H. Hospital Assn. vs. Burwell: Represented hospitals that sued federal government over disproportionate share payments under Medicaid. Federal court ruled in hospitals' favor; that could require state budget writers to set aside tens of millions more in payments over next two years.

• XTL Inc. vs. N.H. State Liquor Commission: Represented losing bidder for lucrative liquor warehouse contract; matter now on appeal to Supreme Court. MacDonald, says he hasn't had active role in case since December 2014.

• Tuttle vs. N.H. Medical Malpractice Joint Underwriting Assn.: State represents insurance commissioner who is receiver of this insurance underwriting group that is going through liquidation.

• Liquidation of Noble Trust Co.: Case pending since 2008 as state represents banking commissioner over dissolving this trust company; hasn't been involved in the case for five years.

CONCORD - Back in his late 20s, Gordon J. MacDonald, the Deering Republican likely to become New Hampshire's next attorney general, wasn't even sure he wanted to be a lawyer.

MacDonald's political and administrative skills had already set him apart, rising from an office aide to become chief of staff on Capitol Hill to U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., before he was 30.

"I was somewhat reluctant to go to law school, I wasn't sure that was the best choice," MacDonald told the Executive Council during the public hearing on his nomination last week.

But MacDonald met many talented lawyers and one who inspired him to go on to Cornell Law School was New Hampshire's other senator, Warren Rudman.

"I admired his legal mind and his legal skill," MacDonald said.

Now 27 years later, MacDonald is on his way to confirmation on Wednesday as Gov. Chris Sununu's pick to replace Nashua's Joseph Foster, a Democrat.

As someone who's known MacDonald since those Capitol Hill days, Concord lawyer Dan Will isn't surprised one bit by MacDonald's nomination.

MacDonald hired Will to be on Humphrey's staff, Will's first job right out of the University of Pennsylvania.

"I was 22 years old and he was probably five years older than I was. I wouldn't imagine being in that job at his age," Will recalled.

"What really stood out to me was Gordon's number one goal was to inspire us to do our very best. At the end of the day, nobody wanted to disappoint Gordon. It would be like disappointing a friend or a family member."

There's no mistaking MacDonald's politics; it's always been steeped in the Republican Party.

After serving as a Capitol Hill staffer, MacDonald would become more widely known in partisan circles as executive director for the conservative Americans for Tax Reform and later the one who managed Humphrey's first run for governor against Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen in 2000.

Over the past 20 years, MacDonald has donated more than $12,500 to Republicans seeking or holding office in New Hampshire along with those running for President, according to federal campaign finance records.

When longtime GOP operative Jim Merrill ran state operations for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio in 2016, MacDonald was at his side as a crucial adviser.

"He won't be outworked, he won't be out-hustled and he won't be out-thought," said Merrill, who's known MacDonald for more than decade. "He's never going to get a swelled head; he is so well grounded."

MacDonald declined to be interviewed for this story. It's typical for nominees not to comment before confirmation.

Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley has questioned Sununu naming MacDonald since he's represented Purdue Pharma, the maker of prescription painkillers. The firm has fought Foster's attempt to get documents as his office investigated whether this and other drug companies failed to disclose to consumers how addictive these pain pills could be.

"The opioid crisis is the primary issue in many New Hampshire communities, yet Governor Sununu just tapped someone who for years has been defending the opioid industry against the state of New Hampshire," Buckley said.

"It's concerning that Governor Sununu would nominate an attorney general candidate who would automatically be in conflict with one of the state's biggest lawsuits when there are certainly other qualified options. New Hampshire deserves an opportunity to understand and question the rationale behind Sununu's appointment."

MacDonald said if confirmed he would not take part in this case along with four others where he represented private clients that had dealings with state regulators (See attached list).

Bipartisan praise

Despite his history in rough-and-tumble politics, it's difficult to find partisan Democrats who said they had a bad experience with MacDonald.

Paul Twomey of Chichester was the longtime legal counsel to the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

The two spent countless Election Days on opposite sides, Twomey as the lead lawyer monitoring the polls for Democrats, MacDonald performing the same role for the New Hampshire GOP.

Twomey predicted MacDonald will go down with the "giants" who have been AG like retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter and Rudman.

"I have never been more impressed with someone in terms of their openness, honesty and problem-solving skills," Twomey said.

MacDonald said his family moved from coast to coast early on in his life until they settled in New Hampshire when he was 10.

He and his wife, Jennifer Eber, have one daughter, Nellie, 8.

Friends who know him well say MacDonald possesses a wry sense of humor. He's also devoted to physical fitness, a swimmer at Dartmouth College as an undergraduate and as one associate said, an "insane jogger" who has run many road races.

New Hampshire Magazine lists MacDonald among its "best" attorneys in four different categories.

His specialty has been corporate law, working for the past 15 years with Nixon Peabody in Manchester, the past decade as a partner.

"I have litigated cases against the state of New Hampshire; I have litigated cases with the state of New Hampshire," MacDonald said.

And he's won some big ones.

In 2010, he was part of the legal team that blocked then-Gov. John Lynch's bid to raid $110 million in surplus from a medical malpractice underwriting fund to balance the state budget.

And just last month, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of his client, the New Hampshire Hospital Association, which sued the federal government for how the state and federal government leveraged disproportionate share payments from them to support state budgets over the past two decades. This ruling, subject to appeal, could force Gov. Sununu to find $150 million more than he had budgeted for these payments to hospitals over the next two years.

Advocate for the poor

Mary Ann Dempsey was on the other side of numerous battles with MacDonald over hospital taxes in the Attorney General's office; she's now general counsel to the state Supreme Court.

"I saw his passion for issues and appreciation for the fact we were trying to come up with a solution to help the state as a whole," Dempsey said.

"He has said the only person he values more than me is his sister. I don't know if he has a sister."

Manchester auto dealer Andy Crews knows MacDonald as a legal adversary too. MacDonald represented a former business partner of Crews and John Deere Corp., the national tractor maker that fought auto dealers who wanted farm equipment included in the New Hampshire Automobile Bill of Rights law.

"Beyond any other attorney I ever met I couldn't help but respect him," Crews said. "I disagreed with him but respected him.

"He had integrity, he had class and showed the dealers compassion and a level mind set."

What has won over even more people is MacDonald's work for the indigent who can't afford to hire a lawyer.

For three years he chaired the Campaign for Legal Services Leadership Council raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support two offices that offer legal advice and representation. He's also donated many hours of pro bono legal work to victims of domestic violence and clients with IRS disputes.

John Tobin is the former executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

"We were thrilled with the idea of someone with his reputation, integrity, intellect would agree to do this," Tobin said. "He was concerned about whether he was worthy to do that, whether he would do a good job. He holds himself to a very high standard."

Time and again the legal profession called on MacDonald to lead it, chairing the N.H. Board of Bar Examiners that test all would-be lawyers and heading the Supreme Court Commission on the N.H. Bar in the 21st Century.

"His capacity to listen is extraordinary; most people don't possess it," said retired Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, a Manchester Democrat. "I have always found him to be a compassionate person but I also know he has a capacity to be firm when he needs to be."

Former Gov. Steve Merrill said the AG must be someone with a level of confidence and surety about their legal position.

"You have to have an AG with great love of the law because the governor may not necessarily want to follow the law," said Merrill, who was attorney general to Gov. John H. Sununu in the mid-1980s.

Former Sen. Humphrey said early on he saw in MacDonald someone who could go on to become the state's top law enforcement officer.

"He's bright, articulate, analytical but not arrogant, very empathetic and selfless. I always felt if he wanted to, Gordon could achieve great things in politics," Humphrey said.

"And my guess is this won't be the last thing he does in public service for the state of New Hampshire."

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