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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ayotte-Lynch race? No dice

CONCORD – Any political observer sees this potential matchup as the ultimate election showdown in 2016: Kelly Ayotte vs. John Lynch.

In one corner would be Ayotte, the Nashua Republican and ex-attorney general who’s become the first GOP woman to win major office, a U.S. senator, a short list candidate for vice president and a rising national figure. ...

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CONCORD – Any political observer sees this potential matchup as the ultimate election showdown in 2016: Kelly Ayotte vs. John Lynch.

In one corner would be Ayotte, the Nashua Republican and ex-attorney general who’s become the first GOP woman to win major office, a U.S. senator, a short list candidate for vice president and a rising national figure.

In the other corner would sit Lynch, the outgoing, popular governor whose “non-politician politician” approach led to a record-breaking run as the state’s chief executive.

With Democrats winning New Hampshire’s four electoral votes in four of the past five presidential contests, Lynch, 60, would stand a solid chance of knocking off Ayotte and making New Hampshire’s congressional delegation all Democratic for the first time in history.

And it’s never going to happen.

“I have said this often; I have no interest in going to Washington. I respect Kelly and the people who go there, but that is not for me,” Lynch said in an interview.

“I just like being in New Hampshire and have had no future aspirations whatsoever other than being the best governor I could possibly be for the citizens of my state.

“Trust me. I have zero interest in this, now or in the future.”

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said Lynch’s dismissal of anything other than governor throughout his years at the Statehouse proved to be one of his inner strengths.

“He also let it be known that he was not interested in running for the Senate or going to Washington. This made him someone Republican leaders didn’t have to worry about and so they didn’t have to think about trying to knock him down a peg like they tried to do to Gov. Shaheen,” Smith said.

When Shaheen, a popular, three-term Democratic governor, made known she had her eyes on the U.S. Senate, a Republican-dominated Executive Council blocked her at every turn, rejecting appointments, stalling contracts and often keeping her from getting out and campaigning across the state.

By contrast, Lynch dealt with an all-Republican council with deft aplomb in the past two years, never losing a judicial appointment or getting contracts tied up in partisan politics.

Democratic Party Chairman Kathy Sullivan would surely love to see Lynch join Shaheen in the Senate but knows it is not to be in the cards.

When longtime Republican Sen. Judd Gregg announced in 2009 he was retiring, Sullivan approached Lynch about going for the post.

The comparisons were irresistible. In 1992, Gregg left Concord during the depth of a deep, real estate depression to narrowly win a Senate seat over Democrat John Rauh.

Democratic strategists thought for sure Lynch could have made the same gambit and escaped the worst recession since the Great Depression for his own ticket to the most exclusive Club of 100 in the free world.

As Gregg first prepared to accept a commerce appointment in President Obama’s Cabinet, Lynch said he’d name a Republican, longtime Gregg ally and ex-President George H.W. Bush’s personnel chief, Bonnie Newman, to replace him.

At the 11th hour, Gregg backed out of the job.

Sullivan had been a prominent adviser encouraging Lynch back in 2003 to take on Republican Gov. Craig Benson, about whom Sullivan, as Democratic chair, had culled a lengthy, opposition research dossier.

“When they write my political obituary, in my opinion, the best thing I ever did was help defeat Craig Benson and elect John Lynch as governor,” Sullivan said.

It’s fitting Lynch would not only go out on top but reject a political overture to further a second career in elective politics, she continued.

Sullivan remembers when a colleague recently asked the two what Lynch would do with his life, she joked they could start a political consulting firm together.

“I could never do that; I’ve got no interest in that political stuff,” Lynch answered, according to Sullivan.

Others would view that remark as nonsensical; Sullivan said it was vintage Lynch.

“He didn’t see being governor as being political,” Sullivan explained. “That’s really the sort of New Hampshire way. The people liked someone who didn’t see the job as political, a stepping stone.

“He really suited the New Hampshire of the 21st century. Yes, we are a political state; we have elections around here all the time.”

“Once you are elected, they don’t want you to be political – especially the governor; they want you to be an administrator.”

On his way out the door, however, Lynch ramped up his opposition to casino gambling after eight years of being agnostic about it.

A hand-picked Lynch commission concluded the state could net more than $120 million a year from as many as two casinos in the southern tier, although there would be social costs in the tens of millions from it.

Lynch would always say he was waiting to conclude whether expanded gambling would mar the state’s quality of life.

Lynch has decided and the answer is a definitive yes, even as his replacement, Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, eyes one casino as a potential linchpin to help restore some of the budget cuts made in 2011 by the Republican-led Legislature.

“Our brand as a state will change. Connecticut doesn’t even spend money on marketing because it’s become synonymous with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun,” Lynch began.

“I don’t think that is the kind of state we want to be. We want to be a state where we control the brand. I think it’s a bad idea. I don’t think we should move forward with a structural change that would put those metrics at risk because I believe expanded gambling would be a threat to that.”

Both proliferation and corrosive political clout of casino owners also concern him.

“What will happen is the state will enter into an other downturn, another recession, and guarantee that people will say we already have a casino in Salem or Hudson or Seabrook why not put one in Loudon, in Manchester or the North Country,” Lynch said.

“You won’t be able to shut it off.”

Casino owners could exert pressure that extends beyond gambling matters, he concluded.

“We could have a casino owner come to Concord and take a position on a bill and say I am going to have to lay off 1,000 people if you don’t pass it. That pervasive influence will even get worse,” Lynch warned.

After leaving office, Lynch will continue to be seen working with his favorite, nonprofit groups.

“I do intend to stay involved in New Hampshire whether it’s with the Food Bank, the Boys and Girls Club or CHAD (Children’s Hospital At Dartmouth), Make a Wish, Special Olympics,” Lynch said.

“I have been involved with a lot of the nonprofits and hope to actively keep in touch with them going forward.”

As the son of an elementary school teacher and father who ran a local Boys Club chapter, Lynch preaches education as the answer to New Hampshire’s continued economic growth and plans to teach in the coming year.

Lynch also may return to business but only closer to home.

“I really don’t have interest in traveling all over the country and all over the world like I did before,” Lynch said.

“My preference would be to stay right here in New Hampshire, find the right role with a New Hampshire-based company, particularly in the manufacturing area, which is the one I am most familiar with.”

Lynch had that success at Knoll Inc., the East Greenville, Pa., office furniture maker that was losing $50 million a year when he took over in 1993.

In a year, Lynch revamped it into turning a profit of $240 million.

His more immediate plans are just to relax and enjoy the last few days as governor.

“We are probably going to take off a week after the term is over but I have commitments in January,” Lynch said.

“I have the Black Ice Hockey Tournament here in Concord in the middle of January. Susan is in a Dances With Stars local competition at the Concord Community College, so we’ll take a bit of time but then get right back into things.”

But in just a few weeks, life will be different ,and Lynch admits it will take some getting used to.

“I am going to go into serious withdrawal on Jan. 3,” Lynch quipped. “You’ll probably see me walking Main Street, looking for a parade to march in.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashua

Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@Klandrigan).