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New N.H. Gov. holds open house

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Granite State free-for-all

Newly sworn in, governor opens State House to public

By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff | January 7, 2005

CONCORD, N.H. -- Gerry Gold told the new governor about the virtues of the hiking trails around Lake Sunapee. Lucy Comstock-Gay thanked him for visiting the center for the disabled where she works. And Lois Ford, a bakery owner, simply pumped Governor-elect John Lynch's hand and gushed, "Thank God, you're a Democrat!."

Hours after his swearing-in yesterday, the newly minted governor set aside two hours for what he deemed a crucial act of state, throwing open the State House to all comers for a session of shmoozing.

Lynch, who ousted a Republican incumbent in a stunning upset in November, presided over the occasion with obvious relish, high-fiving with children and posing for photograph after photograph, as other elected senior officials milled about with constituents in an odd juxtaposition of pomp and informality.

The free-for-all open house in the stately Executive Council chambers was an effort to put a citizen-friendly stamp on government. But it was also a not-so-subtle signal that Lynch plans to run his administration in a radically different fashion than his predecessor, Craig Benson, who roared into office promising to run the state as a business, but met with criticism that his headstrong executive style resulted in a closed government.

In his opening remarks to the several hundred well-wishers who braved a snow squall yesterday for the meet-and-greet, Lynch intimated as much. "This is an effort to convey to all of you and all the people of New Hampshire that the government of New Hamsphire belongs to the people of New Hampshire," he said.

The gathering was a mix of New Hampshire, with the Seacoast, the southern tier, and rural areas represented in a smorgasbord of home-schooling mothers, firefighters, state workers, and lawyers, among others. As they milled about, a band blared out swing music that echoed festively in the chamber.

The congenial intent of the event was not lost on one visitor.

"It's so nice to have a governor who believes government is a calling, not a nuisance," Tom Hansen, 65, a retired Holiday Inn clerk, told the new governor after waiting in a receiving line that snaked from the council chamber and into the hallway.

Lynch, 52, a Democrat and a former businessman, ousted Benson in a narrow win that set a historical precedent: It was the first time a governor had been denied a second term in New Hampshire in 78 years. His victory followed a hard-fought campaign that Lynch successfully turned into a referendum on what he called the cold-shoulder style of Benson, which Lynch said ignored the concerns of the people and created a corporationlike oligarchy.

In particular, Lynch hammered away at several embarrassing incidents on Benson's watch, including a gubernatorial appointee who was found to have illegally collected thousands of dollars in brokerage fees.

For all the differences Lynch sought to highlight, the two shared remarkably similar biographies: Both were businessmen who made fortunes in New Hampshire, both were political neophytes before seeking office. Both also spent lavishly on the race, each pitching in more than $1 million of their own money.

Lynch took 51 percent of ballots, but Democrats hailed the victory, along with John Kerry's win here, as a rebound for their party. Lynch's win marked the return of a Democratic leader to the State House. Before Benson, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen had held the office for six years.

In conceiving the idea of a gubernatorial open house, the new administration was borrowing from a rich tradition in American politics, said Peter Wiley, director of management consulting for the National Governors Association. Maine's governor has traditionally held an open house, and this year West Virginia's will host one, Wiley said.

The White House has not had such an open gathering in many years. In 1829, a mob broke furniture and dishes in its excitement to greet Andrew Jackson. Jackson fled out a back door.

Yesterday's proceeding was considerably tamer, as citizens patiently waited in line to speak to Lynch, who wore a bright red tie that seemed to announce his arrival on the scene of government.

Administration officials said the idea for the open house belonged to Lynch, who had looked at the inaugural schedule and realized activities were scheduled during the workday. To make it possible for working people to attend, he scheduled the event for 4:30 p.m.

Yesterday Lynch was careful to share the stage, allowing other top office holders to address the crowd before the meet-and-greet. Executive councilors, a Supreme Court justice, and top legislators offered congratulations to the new governor. None mentioned Benson by name, but many suggested that they hoped Lynch would prove a dramatic contrast to his predecessor.

"Now we have a governor who has opened the State House to the public again," said Ruth Griffin, a member of the executive council, which approves many gubernatorial appointees and state contracts. "Isn't it great to have a government that is open and welcomes all the people of the state of New Hampshire . . . one that is open and aboveboard."

Jennifer Donahue, a political analyst at Saint Anselm College, said the open house was a shrewd move for Lynch, because it underscored his campaign message.

"It is a symbol for people to grab onto," Donahue said. "He is trying to in every way possible to show that this administration is responsive to voters' desires, which really is what he claimed that Benson had not done in his administration. [it] was the centerpiece of his platform and perhaps the reason he succeeded."

Lynch and his wife -- Susan, a physician -- were among yesterday's longest lingerers, chatting about policy and family stories with visitors even after the band had packed up and departed and chairs had been reassembled around the imposing executive council table.

Ford, the visitor from Walpole, was impressed. "This sets the perfect tone for an open administration," she said. "I think the distinction between administrations has already been made."

From The Boston Globe

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