Mark Hayward's City Matters: Andy Martel, the little guy who prevailedBy MARK HAYWARD
December 30. 2016 9:51PM
Two days ago, Joseph McQuaid, the President and Publisher of this newspaper, stopped me in the hall, noted my 20th anniversary at this newspaper, and thanked me for the work I’ve done here.
I started working here in the closing days of 1996, and within a few months I was thrown into one of the biggest stories of the decade in Manchester — the coupling and very messy divorce involving the city’s two acute-care hospitals.
I loved reporting that story.
It touched so many facets of life, both locally and nationally — the rise of corporate health care; the disputes inherent whenever the religious and secular join forces; and whether a little guy can take on the ruling elite.
Which brings me to a sadder milestone: the death last week of Andre “Andy” Martel. An ordinary Franco-American, Martel captained a four-year battle that ended the Optima Health merger and restored Catholic Medical Center as an independent, Catholic hospital on the West Side.
“We were up against big money, big medicine, the establishment. We prevailed for one reason — Andy Martel,” said Michael Quinlan, the vice chairman of Martel’s Community Action Group to Save CMC.
The victory is important because when a little guy takes on the power structure, he usually loses. Hence, the adage: “you can’t fight City Hall.” But Martel and Save CMC succeeded.
What follows are some key lessons of that struggle. Anyone who wants to fight the establishment and change the status quo may want to take heed.
“Andy worked it 24/7,” Quinlan said. Whenever elderly people would gather, he’d be there to give a speech. He organized a referendum campaign. He hit people up for money. He attended hearings and meetings. He returned telephone calls.
In a 1998 interview, Martel talked about getting 200 telephone messages in a single day. Quinlan said Martel would call him daily for four years.
Part of the reason was Martel had the time. A 1987 automobile accident forced Martel, a mid-level manager at Digital Equipment Corp., to go on disability.
“He was a tireless worker who really believed in his cause. He stayed focused and just wouldn’t stop,” said Tom Colantuono, a former state senator, executive councilor and U.S. attorney.
“(Martel) was fearless,” said Scott Tranchemontagne, at the time a young public relations consultant who worked at the firm O’Neil Griffin, which had been hired by Optima. “He wasn’t afraid to attend any meeting, any public hearing and stand up for what he believed in.”
That involved calling then Mayor Raymond Wieczorek a liar in public, describing Optima Health as a leech, and orchestrating a walk-out from a committee before it even got started.
“He had the guts of a burglar,” Quinlan said. He remembers cautioning Martel against saying some harsh lines, and Martel would snap that he’d say whatever he wanted.
“He was like a freedom fighter, a rebel. He threw bricks, but he had to upset the applecart,” Quinlan said.
Martel’s inspiration was Charles Martel, the French king who repelled the Moors in 732, Colantuono said. Charles Martel’s nickname — the hammer.
Had the fight been about faceless hospitals, it probably would have gone nowhere. But Martel was fond of talking about how his grandparents — and many other West Side residents with French-Canadian roots — had contributed nickels and dimes to build CMC.
“He got people to think of the hospital as something they owned,” said Tranchemontagne, now president of the firm Montagne Communications. “He made it more about ‘this belongs to the people, not the corporate interests.’ That’s populism.”
Quinlan saw that during his day job as an in-home respiratory therapist. Patients would tell him to give their best to Martel, and pledge their backing, 100 percent.
“He came as close to a folk hero as you’re going to see in this area,” Quinlan said.
Martel was overweight, wore Coke-bottle glasses and spoke in a French accent. He was up against professionals who boasted advanced degrees, wore designer clothes and visited the gym, often.
“Some people, quite frankly, looked at myself and Andy as inferior species,” Quinlan said. Even some natural would-be allies such as insurance companies and Manchester Bishop John McCormack would not meet with him.
“It worked in his favor. He came across as a guy on the street just looking out for his community,” Tranchemontagne said.
Quinlan said Martel was happy to have his foes underestimate him.
In the meantime, Martel was not intimidated to approach and make allies with heavyweights such as Dr. Alan Sager, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, and John Lynch, then a corporate executive and Optima board member who eventually came out against the consolidation.
Divide to conquer
If Optima Health was an attempt to unify two hospitals, Martel fought back with divisiveness.
So the issue became one of Elliot Hospital vs. CMC; of east side vs. West Side; of pro-choice vs. pro-life, of a neighborhood gem vs. a corporate behemoth.
“It was a fight against one-size-fits-all,” Quinlan said. Martel encouraged a bunker mentality among his followers, he said. That meant no white flags, no treaties, no compromise.
When community leaders favored a particular person as a mediator, Martel sabotaged her selection, fearing she would be too good at forging a compromise, Quinlan said.
When Wieczorek placed three CMC representatives on a committee following a 1997 non-binding referendum that overwhelmingly opposed consolidation, Martel orchestrated a walk-out.
“He did not want a compromise,” said Quinlan, who walked out alongside Martel, despite personal misgivings, “and he was right about that.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.