Mark Hayward's City Matters: More light than heat at doughnut gang meetings
As mayor during the 1990s he banged the gavel at City Hall, keeping aldermen and city officials focused on the machinations of municipal government.
Then for the last 11 years, he sat alongside Govs. Craig Benson and John Lynch as an executive councilor, a quirky New Hampshire job that brings five mini-governors together every month to ink contracts and confirm appointments to high-level state jobs.
But for the past 10 years or so, most meetings of Ray Wieczorek haven't been of the Roberts-Rules-of-Order variety. Rather, many mornings you can find him with his doughnut gang - a group of contemporaries who sit at the Dunkin' Donuts at the corner of Webster Street and Hooksett Road.
Politics gets discussed, of course, along with the weather, the Red Sox and the latest maladies of aging gang members.
"He has a very good sense of humor, and he can laugh at himself," said Karen Sheehan-Lord, a retired Central High School art teacher. "He's just a nice man. You can talk to him and reason with him."
Sheehan-Lord emphasizes reason because many of Wieczorek's doughnut gang are self-described liberal Democrats. And some of them are teachers or retired teachers like Sheehan-Lord, who 20 years ago picketed Wieczorek, a loyal Republican, over school spending and teacher contracts.
"We appreciate getting the view from the right, even if it's wrong," said Patrick McKeown, a Central teacher who is about the only gang member still working. A special-education teacher, McKeown quips that his job with challenged students equips him for dealing with the group.
McKeown said most of the regulars know each other from the same North End circles - dinner at the Puritan Backroom, Sunday Mass at St. Catherine of Siena, groceries at the Bicentennial Drive Hannaford.
Had the North End Dunkin' Donuts been a normal version of this city's much-loved franchise, it's likely the doughnut gang would have never gotten together. But the gang's small dining area is only about 50 square feet in size, too small for booths but amenable to small circular tables that invite the rearrangement of chairs, along with friendships.
Wieczorek started patronizing the Dunkin' Donuts about 10 years ago, after leaving the mayor's office. At first, Wieczorek gravitated toward the more Republican regulars, such as Manchester lawyer Jack Shea.
But he eventually landed in the orbit of a table that included Sheehan-Lord, her husband, Bob Lord (retired Central history teacher), McKeown, George Tosatti (retired hospital administrator) and John Hussey, the former Central Latin teacher and New Hampshire Sunday News sports columnist who died in 2008.
"He's basically surrounded by Democrats," Lord said. "It's how he learned to work across the table with (Democratic Gov.) John Lynch."
After the 2008 death of Wieczorek's wife, Susan, he started appearing more frequently.
"I think he finds companionship here, in all honesty," Shaheen-Lord said. "It seems he comes here to relax and enjoy himself."
They like to rib him, for example, over his name being attached to the turnpike toll-evading Ray Wieczorek Drive or strange Republican ideas such as the birther conspiracy.
The gang said Wieczorek toes the Republican Party-line in their tete-a-tetes. And he rarely discusses Executive Council matters before meetings. The one exception was clemency for convicted murder Pam Smart, which he opposed.
McKeown said he understands Republican thinking after spending years with Wieczorek, and he thinks vice-versa with him. Rarely are tempers stoked or minds changed. "We shed more light here than heat," McKeown said.
For his part, Wieczorek, who is 84, calls his friends a good bunch.
"They're my Dunkin' Donut buddies," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, worrying that one - Ned Gelinas - was due for a heart bypass operation today.
Lord said he holds no hostility against Wieczorek for past political brawls. For one, Wieczorek campaigned promising he would say no to interest groups. Second, he blames Wieczorek's former aide, Rich Girard, for a lot of the hostility of the Wieczorek years.
Has politics changed today? Lord says it has: Congressmen fly into Washington on Tuesday and out on Thursday, making personal contact among rival camps less likely. And I can't envision a future coffee klatch between Lynch and outgoing House Speaker Bill O'Brien.
But locally? As Wieczorek and his gang show, love of city can transcend politics.
One day, Mayor Ted Gatsas may pal around with parent-group detractors (whether in costume or out) and the teachers union. And if they do so, it may very well be at the Dunkin' Donuts, corner of Webster Street and Hooksett Road.
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Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in Thursday editions of the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.