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Former Governor Merrill Dies; He Coined Phrase 'N.H. Advantage'

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Former New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill has died.

Merrill, a Republican, served two terms as governor, from 1993 to 1997. He had previously served as New Hampshire Attorney General.

He was 74.

In a statement Saturday, Gov. Chris Sununu called Merrill "a dear friend who had an incredibly positive impact on the citizens of our state."

"He will be missed by everyone who knew him," Sununu said.

Merrill was known for his fiscally conservative politics and his outgoing personality. He was attorney general in the 1980s to former Gov. John H. Sununu, the current governor's father.

The elder Sununu recalls having a good time working with Merrill, who he said had an easygoing approach to bipartisanship.

"He loved to have fun, loved to wisecrack and make a joke,” John H. Sununu said in an interview with NHPR Sunday.

Concord businessman Steve Duprey was state Republican Party chair while Merrill was governor for two terms in the 1990s, and calls him the “best of a New Hampshire public servant” – not overly ambitious, with an encyclopedic knowledge of state trivia and a commitment to bipartisanship and good humor.

"Usually he was the butt of his own jokes, and that really put people at ease,” Duprey said in an interview. “He was a terrific guy."

Merrill grew up in Hampton and graduated from UNH – the first governor with that alma mater, according to his cousin, attorney Jim Merrill of Bernstein Shur. In an interview, he remembered Steve Merrill as a brilliant, humble lawmaker with a “sunny disposition.”

"I don't think he gets the due he's deserved," Merrill said. "I have never seen a more gifted political leader up close and personal in my life." 

He said the former Gov. Merrill gave him his first job out of college at the Statehouse.

"It mattered to him to be in New Hampshire and of New Hampshire,” Jim Merrill said. “I learned a lot about the political process, a lot about giving back. …He took a chance on me."

Steve Merrill is credited with coining the phrase "New Hampshire Advantage" to describe the state's tax structure and approach to politics.

It's maintained a grip on New Hampshire politics to this day, particularly among Republicans who argue that the state's lack of a broad-based sales or income tax should be preserved at all cost.

The elder Gov. Sununu said Merrill worked hard to preserve that tradition for his fellow conservatives.

"Steve understood that 'live free or die' is more than just a fancy slogan, that it really underscores how much we in New Hampshire value freedom and liberty,” Sununu said.

Though the “NH Advantage” has become a mainstay in partisan state politics, Jim Merrill says the former governor used it to work across the aisle.

"Maybe not throwing a punch first, but kind of, you know, maybe extending a hand,” Merrill said. “I think that's something we could use a little bit more of these days, and that's something I think he did very well."

Details on funeral arrangements were not yet available as of Sunday afternoon.

Watch Gov. Sununu joke about former Merrill's official State House portrait in 2019.

This post was updated Sunday.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Dan is NHPR's news director.
Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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