Gov. Lynch reflects on eight years in corner office
CONCORD - When fourth-graders tour the State House while the Executive Council is meeting, Gov. John Lynch stops the proceedings and gets out of his chair to talk to the students, ask them questions and shake their hands - all of their hands.
"They are the highlight of my day," says Lynch, who will be leaving office next month after eight consecutive years as the state's chief executive officer, which makes him the longest serving governor in 200 years.
On Read Across America Day this year, Lynch went to Broken Ground School in Concord to read his favorite Dr. Seuss book to the fourth-grade class.
As he was about to leave, the school's principal and music teacher stopped him and said they had something prepared for him.
The fourth-graders serenaded the governor with songs from his favorite group, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, with modified lyrics to reflect events that happened during his term as governor as a way of saying goodbye to him.
The students had done research, learning among many things that his first job was pumping gas, and they worked that information into one of Lewis' songs. "It was so touching," Lynch said.
That day is one of many of Lynch's fond memories as he prepares to leave office after eight years that saw the Alstead floods in 2005 and tropical storm Sandy last month.
To many people in New Hampshire, Lynch will be remembered as the calm, reassuring voice telling state residents everything will be all right as state agencies and public utilities worked to undue the damage from a hurricane, tropical storms, a tornado, floods, wind and freak snowstorms. He was often at the scene, talking with those affected by the disaster, putting his hand on their shoulder and giving them his personal cellphone number.
Lynch was not only at disaster scenes, he also spoke at the services of those killed in the defense of their country and comforted their families. He said that was the most difficult part of his job as governor, seeing the families' sadness, grief and loss.
During his tenure, more than 30 soldiers and three police officers were killed. Lynch said the killing of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs was his saddest moment.
"I remember exactly where I was when I heard Michael Briggs passed away at the hospital," Lynch said in an interview in his State House office.
"I remain close to his wife and his kids. I remember speaking at the stadium where the Fischer Cats play, that was where the funeral was held, and looking out and seeing Laura and Mitchell and Brian."
Political party affiliations mean little to those who lost sons, husbands, fathers or siblings or to fourth-graders touring the State House, and that is important to Lynch, who has always stressed a bipartisan approach to governing.
"To get things done, you have to be able to put partisan politics to one side, to forget about whether people are Democrats or Republicans and work with everybody to solve problems and to create opportunities for the people of New Hampshire," Lynch said. "That's how you accomplish things, by bringing people together. That is true in the private sector as well as the public sector. If you spend your time fighting with each other, you're not going to get things done."
And much to some Democrats' displeasure, Lynch appointed many Republicans to key positions in state government, including the state Supreme Court with the nominations of James Bassett and Robert Lynn, and department heads such as former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who is now a U.S. senator.
"I always looked for the best people," Lynch said. "I never asked any prospective department heads their party affiliation. I don't care. I wanted to find the best person for the position."
Lynch had not run for public office before he ran for governor in 2004. After the primary, he faced incumbent Gov. Craig Benson, who was finishing his first term, when no first-term governor had been defeated who sought reelection in recent history.
Lynch defeated Benson in a very close race, waiting until the wee hours of Wednesday morning to declare victory. It would be the only close race Lynch had.
Within months of taking office, Lynch's popularity soared to 70 percent or better, and he remains among the top tier in popularity of any governor in the country.
When asked about his accomplishments, Lynch quickly turned to education and the state's low high-school dropout rate.
He championed raising the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18 years old and he notes the result is the state's "remarkably low 1 percent (high school dropout rate)."
He said raising the dropout age has "created opportunity for those young people to have better lives and get jobs and provide for themselves and their families."
Education is needed to provide the skilled workers businesses need, he notes.
"Businesspeople continue to tell me they need workers with skills, talent and qualifications to fill jobs," Lynch said. "If they don't have the workers, everything else can be perfect for that business, but they are not going to be successful. It is a question businessmen ask me when they look to locate to New Hampshire."
He used Albany International, which recently relocated to a Rochester industrial park, as an example, noting the move was a real partnership with the state community college system, which will train its workers.
One of Lynch's priorities since he took office has been a constitutional amendment that would give the state more flexibility in how it funds education.
Lynch attempted to pass an amendment a number of times, including the last two sessions, but the House has always voted it down.
He noted there was a philosophical divide the past two years between those who wanted to maintain the state's responsibility to provide an adequate education and those who wanted to give lawmakers sole discretion.
"It doesn't look like there is a lot of support for an amendment with this upcoming Legislature," Lynch noted. "But I still believe it is the right thing to do...."
He said some communities don't want state funds, they just do not want to be donor towns.
Why should the state send money to those communities when there are others that need far more help? he asked.
"Sending more money to the communities and the children who need it more than others is the only way I know of ensuring the kids get equal opportunities, and right now they don't get an equal opportunity," Lynch said.
He believes the state spends enough money on education, but not in the right way.
Lynch also touts improvement in the state's transportation infrastructure, including the expansion of the Spaulding Turnpike and Interstate 93 from Salem to Manchester, but laments the I-93 project will not be completed before he leaves office.
"I hope the Legislature and Governor-elect Hassan can agree on the best way to complete the project," Lynch said. "This is the perfect time to do it. The cost of capital is relatively low and bids are coming in under budget."
But, he said the project does have to be paid for. The state is currently about $250 million short of finishing the project.
It is not fair to support the project but not be willing to find a way to pay for it, he said, noting reinstating the $30 surcharge on vehicle registration would provide the necessary funds.
Last year the Republican-dominated Legislature repealed the surcharge.
Lynch said he will take some time after he leaves office to go "through withdrawal," but sees himself going back into the private sector in the area of manufacturing, where he initially made his mark as a turn-around leader.
Lynch also sees himself teaching, with his particular interest the difference between being the CEO of a private corporation and the CEO of state government.
He believes in both the public and private sector, the leader at the top has to build trust and earn the trust of the people he leads every single day.
"Every morning I get up, I want to earn the trust of the people of New Hampshire," Lynch said.
"And that's what I try to do."