By John Toole
---- — DERRY – Democrat John Lynch will leave the governor’s office after eight years with an enviable approval rating.
A recent University of New Hampshire poll found two of every three Granite Staters giving him a thumbs up. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents agreed he is doing a good job.
Yet he watched the Democratic sweep election night with no regrets about his decision to step down.
“No,” he smiled and laughed when asked if he had second thoughts that night. “I love being governor of the state of New Hampshire. Part of me thinks I would like to do the job forever. But I also think eight years is long enough and I think it is time to give somebody else the opportunity to do it.”
Lynch, who last week celebrated his 60th birthday, was a successful businessman and university trustee — but political unknown — when he wrested the governor’s office from one-term Republican Craig Benson in 2004.
After the all-business Benson, voters warmed to the Democrat with the warm smile, firm handshake and caring personality.
Lynch has presided over New Hampshire during one of the worst economic periods in the nation’s history and encountered many natural disasters, including floods, a tornado and storms that caused massive power outages for days on end.
But he will depart as one of the mostly highly regarded governors ever, with low unemployment compared to other states, and surveys consistently ranking the state among the safest, most livable and best places to raise kids.
He has learned something about Granite Staters from those years in office.
“How people really come together when there is a need, when there is a crisis,” Lynch said.
It’s not just the disasters, but when the NH Food Bank calls for help.
“The food shows up and the volunteers show up,” he said. “People rally around when there is a need.”
Lynch pauses, a lump in his throat, when he talks about his worst day in office.
“I think my worst day on the job was the day (Manchester police officer) Michael Briggs was killed,” he said. “I think that was the hardest.”
Right up there were the days he learned Franconia Officer Bruce McKay and Chief Michael Maloney of Greenland were killed in the line of duty. So, too, are the days a soldier from New Hampshire has fallen in Afganistan or Iraq.
“Those are difficult days,” he said.
A highlight was visits with fourth-graders, who spend their year in school studying about the state. Lynch said he will leave meetings with people, no matter how important they think they are, to see the students.
The T-shirts and caps the students have given are cherished.
“That is the most fun thing I get,” he said.
Students sometimes give other tributes. A class from the Broken Ground School in Concord learned Lynch loved the musical group Gary Lewis and The Playboys, then changed the lyrics to a song of theirs to fit Lynch’s own story.
It made it to YouTube and Lewis later e-mailed Lynch’s wife, Susan.
Lynch dismisses questions about regrets, saying he doesn’t dwell on those. But he concedes disappointment over failing to get a state constitutional amendment to address education funding.
Then there is the Interstate 93 widening.
Lynch said he wished the state was in position to close a $250 million shortfall to complete widening the highway to four lanes both north and south.
He opposed eliminating a $30 vehicle registration surcharge he maintains would have provided most of the funding for the work. He said a gas tax increase or using some revenue from toll increases also could finance the work.
“If we move forward aggressively on the project, it can be completed by 2016 and the time is right,” Lynch said, citing a favorable environment for construction spending.
Lynch sees I-93 widening aiding economic development, a cornerstone of his administration through his years in Concord.
He continues to emphasize the importance of affordable education. He said more students need to be encouraged to pursue studies preparing them for high-paying technology and manufacturing jobs.
Lynch isn’t convinced casino gaming is coming to Salem or elsewhere in New Hampshire anytime soon.
“A lot of that is going to depend on where the House is,” Lynch said. “Whether this moves forward or not is an open question and a big issue.”
He remains opposed to expanded gaming because of concerns about unchecked proliferation and potential political influence on legislators by gaming interests.
Lynch is unconcerned by the shifting political tides that have seen voters alternately bouncing Democrats and Republicans out of the Statehouse.
“I think the message from the people of New Hampshire is they want us to be centrist and moderate in the decisions we make and in developing the positions on issues,” the governor said. “I think most people in New Hampshire are hanging around the middle, which is where I am.”
Lynch believes voters chose a good successor in Maggie Hassan.
“I think Maggie will do a good job. She is very pragmatic in her approach,” Lynch said.
He hopes the state will stick to its strategy of keeping state spending and taxes low, striving for high quality of life, investing in education and job opportunities and protecting the environment. He’s convinced what that will mean.
“We’ll continue to be a good state,” he said.
Lynch said he has absolutely no interest in pursuing political office in Washington. He said he has no set plans, but is likely to work in the private sector.
He said he would consider teaching, as he has before at Dartmouth College, about the differences and similarities between business and government.
“In the private sector, you get to choose your customers,” he said. “In the public sector, you don’t get to choose your customers. Your customers are basically everybody.
“In the private sector, you get to choose your products. In the public sector, you don’t get to choose your products. You don’t get to even price your products. Often times that decision is made for you by the federal government,” he said.
In both business and government you have to identify the needs of customers, figure out how to meet those needs in the most efficient way possible and build up a team, Lynch said.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” he said.
Lynch will leave office with the respect and admiration of the people of New Hampshire, and with respect and admiration for them.
“I really appreciate the trust the people of New Hampshire have placed in me,” Lynch said. “It’s been a real honor to be governor. I loved being governor. The people of New Hampshire have been so supportive as I get out and about, I just thank them for the opportunity.”