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December 20. 2012 8:38PM

Fergus Cullen: John Lynch was a political force who left so much power unused

When Maggie Hassan is sworn in on Jan. 3, it will be the first time since the '50s that one New Hampshire Democrat succeeds another as governor. The 1850s, that is.

State archivist Brian Burford had to go back to 1854 to find the last time it happened, when Dover's Noah Martin became the last of a string of Democratic governors who served before the Civil War.

It ain't easy replacing a legend, Hassan may discover as she takes the reins from Gov. John Lynch. Mickey Mantle pulled it off when he took over center field upon Joe DiMaggio's retirement, but most successions don't work out as well. No New Hampshire governor had ever served four two-year terms before Lynch. His 74 percent of the vote in 2006 set a state record. Most political careers end badly, but Lynch leaves office with a 70 percent approval rating, according to the October University of New Hampshire survey.

Lynch seemed an unlikely future political juggernaut when he first announced his candidacy in 2004 as an underdog running against incumbent Gov. Craig Benson. Like most who come to dominate their field, he got there by being good, being lucky, and having some help, including a lot of help from Republicans.

During Republican Gov. Meldrim Thomson's administration, Lynch worked a couple years as executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, a key partisan fact Lynch tellingly leaves out of his official biography. Some underestimated what a political street fighter Lynch could be. He won that first race by running an aggressive campaign, unlike his subsequent nice guy reelection efforts, challenging Benson's ethics and integrity.

Lynch's approval rating shortly after he took office in 2005 was a modest 43 percent, according to the UNH poll. But after two years of unending drama under Gov. Benson, Lynch benefitted from considerable goodwill in the State House. The honeymoon lasted six years.

Lynch benefited from fractured Republican leadership at the outset of his administration. The new Republican speaker of the House, Doug Scamman of Stratham, was a consensus pick elected with the help of Democrats. Scamman was there to administer the House, not lead the partisan opposition to the Democratic governor. That job fell to Senate President Tom Eaton of Keene. When then-state Sen. Ted Gatsas, supported by Senate Democrats, staged a mid-term coup and deposed Eaton in September 2005, that was the end of any real political opposition to Gov. Lynch within the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The following month, October, came the Alstead flood. When the water receded, Lynch's approval rating climbed to 71 percent in November. A year later as he campaigned for reelection in 2006, it hit 77 percent; 74 percent among Republicans, 45 percent of whom said they planned to vote for him. The rout was on. Lynch swept in Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, something state Republicans had previously assumed was structurally impossible.

Republicans who criticize Lynch for not having had much of an agenda or not being a forceful leader should be grateful for those qualities based on what happened, and what didn't happen, next. A more ambitious Democrat might have harnessed those Democratic majorities in 2007-08 in support of grand plans. Lynch did not. He left a lot of political capital unspent.

Lynch never tried to build a national profile, never treated the governor's office as a stepping stone to Washington. Other governors ask themselves, how do I stand out? What can I do to attract the attention of the national media or angle for a Cabinet post? Lynch wasn't interested. He didn't take a leadership position with the Democratic Governors Association. He didn't campaign for other Democrats around the country. Most New Hampshire governors try to leverage their endorsement of a presidential candidate into national opportunities, but when Lynch had the chance to do so in 2007, he passed.

Instead, Lynch was happy blending in with the crowd at UNH hockey games, comfortable giving his cell phone number to ordinary citizens, delighted to greet yet another class of fourth graders.

Retiring governors sometimes leave a token behind in the office for their successor to find. Perhaps Lynch will leave Hassan a blue raincoat in case of an emergency.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.

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