John Durkin and today's politics

Remembering a singular politician and evaluating some questionable advertising


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Former U.S. Sen. John A. Durkin died a couple of weeks ago, having suffered from dementia for some time. Durkin was one of the most interesting politicians of recent New Hampshire history, if only for the unique nature of his election.

Having served as an assistant attorney general, Durkin was appointed insurance commissioner under Democratic Gov. John King, and continued to serve through the administrations of Walter Peterson and then Meldrim Thomson.

Thomson, however, not only did not reappoint him, he had him escorted out of his office by the State Police! Durkin then sought and obtained the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1974.

Norris Cotton, longtime Republican senator, was retiring. Congressman Louis C. Wyman, a former attorney general, was the presumptive senator.

But 1974 was the election immediately after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. Wyman and Durkin fought it out, and the result was a virtual tie. Wyman won by a slight margin in the initial vote count.

A recount narrowed the victory, and both sides requested yet another recount. Ultimately, the U.S. Senate took control of the situation, and, after brief hearings, returned the matter to New Hampshire for another election.

Durkin won the rerun by a comfortable margin, but entered the Senate as 100th in seniority. He served out the term without any particular distinction in terms of legislative accomplishment. However, in one notable action, he blocked the nomination by President Ford of retiring New Hampshire Attorney General Warren Rudman to be chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

In 1980, Rudman, now in private practice at this writer’s law firm, sought and won the Republican nomination for the Senate in a primary field of 11. In an interesting footnote to history, I was in the Rudman suite in the Holiday Inn in Concord while Rudman and everyone else went down to the ballroom to report that, while the election returns were encouraging, it was too soon to tell who would win.

The phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Who is this?” I said, “Brad Cook, who is this?” “John Durkin — is Warren there?” “No, he’s downstairs.” “Tell him he won, I lost. I am going to resign early so he gets seniority.”

He gave me the phone number, and when Rudman and the others came back, I gave them the report. Rudman, after initial incredulity, returned the call, and the confirmation came.

Durkin did resign early, and the gracious gesture resulted in a genuine friendship between Senator Durkin and Rudman and the Rudman people – a friendship that would last for the rest of Durkin’s life.

John Durkin was a very bright, humorous and cordial man who served his state in a very unique set of circumstances. His passing ends a singular political career.

*****

With all the important choices to be made by voters, it is a great distraction to deal with the content of ads on TV and radio, when compared with the truth.

Among my list of shameful misrepresentations or silly assertions (quotes are approximate):

 • Worst of all: The ad that says that “Maggie Hassan pays no taxes on her $500,000 house.” Hassan’s husband is principal of Phillips Exeter Academy. They live in a house owned by the academy. It is tax-exempt under New Hampshire law that predated her public service, as property owned by a nonprofit educational institution. They do not accumulate any principal, benefit from any increase in value, and have not done anything wrong. This is nonsense and, frankly, shameful.

 • Silly and wrong: “Charlie Bass voted for many pay increases for himself.” Congressmen cannot vote to increase their pay, only the pay of those elected in the next term. If Bass was re-elected, the voters decided that. Add to that the attempt to paint this moderate Republican as a right-winger and it gets incredulous.

 • Incongruous: “Lobbyist Ovide Lamontagne …” He, as with anyone else testifying on behalf of a client in Concord, is required by law to register as a “legislative representative.” To call him a lobbyist is misleading, as he is a distinguished attorney.

 • How’s that again?: “Businessman Ovide Lamontagne …” Lamontagne is an attorney and a good one, but to say that he is a “businessman” because of his law practice or because he is on boards of businesses or not-for-profits is a stretch.

 • OK, don’t vote on anything: “Carol Shea-Porter voted to take $700 billion from Medicaid.” Or, “Frank Guinta voted to take away your Medicaid.” Interpreting one vote by a person in Congress as a position on all policy is unfair analysis, although it may be technically accurate. Maybe they shouldn’t vote on anything.

 • Who cares? “Annie Kuster even favors a state income tax.” Last time I checked, congressmen cannot vote on state taxes. And that goes for candidates for Executive Council, county offices and other non-legislative offices.

Nevertheless, try to get through all the static and mischaracterizations to figure out who will serve our country, state and localities with the most talent and with the vision we want to guide us. It is too important not to vote.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

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