Governors past and present honor Steve Merrill at Statehouse

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire governors past and present honored one of their own Friday, remembering Republican Steve Merrill for talents both political and personal.

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Merrill, who served for two terms in the 1990s, died Sept. 5 at age 74. He coined the term “New Hampshire Advantage,” in reference to a belief in local control, low taxes and a spirit of individuality.

“He really defined, not himself, but New Hampshire and truly made us a gold standard,” current Gov. Chris Sununu said at a gathering for Merrill outside the Statehouse. “He understood it wasn’t about big government and big systems, it was about the individual, and he had a way of translating that in such a special way, and making everyone feel like, eye-to-eye, they were truly part of that New Hampshire process we hold so dear.”

Merrill served as legal counsel to Sununu's father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, who also appointed Merrill as attorney general from 1984 to 1989. Joining his son and other mourners at a memorial service outside the Statehouse, the elder Sununu said Merrill helped him navigate serious legal issues without taking himself too seriously.

“More than anything else, I really did need somebody who wanted to go through all of that and have fun in the process,” he said. “Steve Merrill was the ideal choice.”

Merrill, who was born in Connecticut, grew up in Hampton and graduated from the University of New Hampshire. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 to 1976. He was elected governor in 1992, was re-elected two years later with 70% of the vote and surprised many with his decision against seeking a third term in 1996.

Former Gov. Craig Benson said Merrill had almost a sixth sense for entering a crowded room and immediately knowing what was required of him.

“In a matter of seconds, he could figure out whether he had to pay condolences, give praise, give people excitement and innovation and motivation, and he could do it on a dime,” he said. “I've never seen anyone else who could do that.”

Known for his sense of humor, Merrill recounted a favorite memory from his time in office last summer, during a celebration of the Statehouse’s bicentennial. He described shopping at a farm stand in Concord and encountering a woman who was puzzled that others seemed to recognize him. When he told her he was the governor, she apologized and said, “I don’t live around here.” It turned out she was from Hooksett, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Statehouse.

“I could live with Montana, all right? Hooksett, I can’t live with,” Merrill said to laughter. “So every time I see the Statehouse, I think of that day.”

Like the best comedians, Merrill was not only funny but deeply insightful about human nature said former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who considered Merrill a mentor. And he was unfailingly loyal, she said, recounting how he drove back to Concord at 2 a.m. to offer her support while she awaited the results of her first primary.

“As attorney general, he fought tirelessly for victims of crime. As the governor, he stood up for taxpayers and as a friend, he would never let you down,” she said. “Steve Merrill helped me in the tough times, and he wasn’t just there when I won, he stood by me when I lost, and that is the definition of a true friend.”

Some of the most personal remembrances came from former state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who considered Merrill his best friend for more than four decades.

“He was the single most interesting person I have ever known,” he said.

Merrill “was a politician who wanted to win you over, not knock you over. We could learn from him,” said Broderick, a Democrat, who said former President Bill Clinton called him this week to offer condolences.

“Then he talked to me about Steve Merrill with genuine affection,” he said. “That doesn’t happen much in America anymore.”

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