State Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, who staged a massive sit-in against nuclear power in the 1970s and spent later decades standing up for social justice at the Statehouse, has died. He was 69.
Cushing, D-Hampton, who had been fighting stage 4 prostate cancer, died Monday at his home, the House Democratic office announced. Even as his illness progressed, he was elected House Democratic leader in late 2020, and told his colleagues he would focus on finding common ground in the fight for the common good.
“You should know the physical status of your leader. What that does is, it actually helps inform my approach to the work,” he said as the 2021 session got underway in a windy parking lot due to the coronavirus pandemic. “I will help work with everyone to create a New Hampshire where justice reigns and everyone is treated with respect.”
First elected to the House in 1996, Cushing was serving his eighth non-consecutive term in Concord, where he was known for pushing progressive causes. He spent more than 20 years trying to repeal the state’s death penalty law, finally achieving victory in 2019 when lawmakers overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
That fight was intensely personal. After Cushing’s father was murdered in 1988, a long-time family friend told him he hoped his father’s killer would “fry.” But Cushing’s opposition to capital punishment only deepened after his loss.
He founded Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and as its executive director, traveled the country speaking on behalf of victims against the death penalty.
“If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs and we all lose,” he said on March 7, 2019, when his bill passed the House, three years to the day before his death. “That does nothing to bring back our loved ones. All it does is widen the circle of violence.”
In 2001, he learned from a news article that his father’s killer had tried to get his murder conviction overturned in federal court. Cushing successfully sued to force the state to keep crime victims and their families informed about homicide cases.
“Victims, already ravaged by the monster, should not be further damaged by the Attorney General’s failure to illuminate its tracks,” Judge Gillian Abramson wrote.
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Sununu directed flags in Hampton to be flown at half-staff on Cushing’s day of internment. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised his dedication and offered condolences.
“He chose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Now we must be brave and follow that flame,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, House Democratic policy leader.
House Speaker Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, said it had been an honor to serve alongside Cushing.
“He was highly respected amongst his peers in the House and throughout the state of New Hampshire,” Packard said. “He was a passionate and dedicated public servant — never afraid to take on controversial issues for the sake of bettering this great state.”
Cushing also was a co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance, a coalition of New England anti-nuclear groups that organized what became a galvanizing moment for their movement. On April 10, 1977, he was among more than 1,400 protesters arrested at the site of the proposed nuclear power plant in Seabrook, a small coastal town on the Massachusetts border. Though later demonstrations led by splinter groups turned violent, the earlier sit-in was peaceful and served as a model for other anti-nuclear campaigns across the U.S.
Both sides claimed victory. The plant got built, but it went online a decade behind schedule and billions over budget, and the country stopped building new ones for more than two decades.
“I think more people realize the consequences of the nuclear age,” Cushing said at a rally marking the protest’s 10-year anniversary. “People who did not consider themselves activists are waking up and saying: ‘I was fooled. Nuclear power isn’t clean and it isn’t safe.”’
In recent years, Cushing championed the legalization of medical marijuana, drinking water standards and the the construction of a secure psychiatric facility to serve patients currently held in a prison unit. As the coronavirus spread, he waged an unsuccessful legal fight to allow lawmakers with serious medical conditions to participate in legislative sessions remotely.
“We’re going to be forced into a position of having people unnecessarily jeopardize their lives in order to fulfill their responsibilities as lawmakers,” Cushing said last year. “This is not about personality. It’s not about politics. It’s about public health.”
Rep. David Cote, acting Democratic leader, said Cushing never put himself first, even during his fight against cancer. Cushing took a leave of absence only five days before his death.
“When anyone else would have put aside all but personal concerns, Renny never retreated from devotion to the progressive causes that had been his lifeblood, or from his service to the people of New Hampshire and the institution of the House,” Cote said. “He was a citizen of New Hampshire, but also a citizen of the world, who loved humanity both individually and in the abstract. He held no grudges but took no prisoners. He lived by the ideals of justice and mercy.”