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Stephen Merrill, former New Hampshire governor, dies at 74

Mr. Merrill, with his wife, Heather, and son, Ian, in 1994.
Mr. Merrill, with his wife, Heather, and son, Ian, in 1994.Mark Wilson/Globe staff/1994

Former New Hampshire governor Stephen Merrill, a fiscal conservative and formidable campaigner who served two terms in office during the 1990s, died Saturday, according to his family. He was 74.

No cause of death was released in a statement from the family.

Mr. Merrill was elected as governor in 1992 and reelected in 1994 in a landslide with 69 percent of the vote. He had previously served as attorney general for the state and as legal counsel and chief of staff to then-Governor John Sununu, the father of the current governor, Chris Sununu.

Known for his humor and pugilistic campaign style, he opposed broad-based taxes and championed smaller government with fewer regulations. He came up with the phrase, “New Hampshire Advantage,” which is still used by state Republican leaders to describe their governing philosophy.

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“Steve Merrill was a master packager,” Patrick Griffin, a longtime political consultant, told WMUR. “He was one of those guys who could give you the movie trailer in five words. He could succinctly take a metaphor and turn it into something that means something and something that stuck emotionally.”

Although he was a conservative, he surprised many Granite Staters when he bypassed the Legislature and used an executive order to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1993.

The occasion was previously called Civil Rights Day because of conservatives’ displeasure that King opposed the Vietnam War.

“The time has come to acknowledge that Martin Luther King made a significant contribution to civil rights. The rest of the nation has perceived and honored that contribution and New Hampshire should also,” the Republican governor told the Globe in an interview.

“Martin Luther King has said it’s always the right time to do the right thing,” Mr. Merrill said as he signed the order.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the Legislature formally changed the holiday’s name, the last state to do so.

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Under his watch, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate dropped as its economy strengthened, as it did in much of the nation during the mid-1990s. Although Mr. Merrill fostered an image as the public’s guardian against taxes, he created the business enterprise tax when faced with a budget shortfall as he entered office. The measure extended taxes to a large number of employers who were previously exempt.

In 1996, near the height of his popularity, Mr. Merrill, was wooed by all of the GOP candidates for president. Not only would he throw his support to Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, but he would become his national campaign manager in his unsuccessful bid to unseat President Clinton.

Senator Bob Dole listened as he was endorsed by Mr. Merrill.
Senator Bob Dole listened as he was endorsed by Mr. Merrill. Tom Landers/Globe staff/1995

“We’ve put together a great organization in this state,” Dole said upon naming Mr. Merrill as his manager, “and this, as I see it, is sort of the icing on the cake. But it’s not just limited to New Hampshire. Governor Merrill will be speaking out across the country on our behalf.”

Mr. Merrill would become a chief spokesman and confidant of Dole’s, much as his mentor, John H. Sununu was for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Born June 21, 1946, Mr. Merrill grew up in Hampton, N.H. He earned a bachelor’s of arts degree in history from the University of New Hampshire (he had the distinction of being the first Wildcats grad to serve as New Hampshire governor) and a law degree from Georgetown University.

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He served in the Air Force in the 1970s.

Many of his former colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, praised Mr. Merrill after his death was announced. Governor Chris Sununu directed all flags on public buildings and grounds in New Hampshire to fly at half-staff.

“Governor Steve Merrill was a dear friend who had an incredibly positive impact on the citizens of our state,” Sununu said in a written statement.

“Steve faithfully and honorably served New Hampshire families through a life in public service,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who succeeded him in the governor’s office, tweeted Saturday. “Steve was a reliable confidant who offered insight and advice — one Governor to another.”

Another Democrat, former state representative Deborah Arnie Arnesen, now a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, praised both his campaigning talents and his flexibility on fiscal and social issues, even if they did not agree on most matters. Mr. Merrill defeated Arnesen in the 1992 gubernatorial race.

“I spent hours with Steve fighting ‘mano-a- mano’ for the governorship,’‘ she wrote on Facebook. “He was smart, charming and politically savvy (My luck, to have been handed a very talented competitor).”

After retiring from public life, Mr. Merrill worked at Choate Hall & Stewart before heading Bingham Consulting Group, an international unit at the Boston law firm Bingham Dana.

Mr. Merrill’s family said additional information about remembrance services will be forthcoming.

Former New Hampshire Supreme Court chief justice John Broderick told the Union-Leader of Manchester, “I loved Steve Merrill. There’s no other way to say it.”

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The two, one a stalwart Republican the other an ardent Democrat, were close friends for four decades.

“He was a really gifted public servant,” said Broderick, who was appointed as an associate justice by Mr. Merrill. “He was a talented lawyer, and you couldn’t ask for a better friend.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.