Renny Cushing, longtime lawmaker and activist, dies at 69

By: - March 7, 2022 5:28 pm
Renny Cushing with Helen Prejean

Renny Cushing stands with Sister Helen Prejean in Representatives Hall in 2014. (Courtesy)

Rep. Renny Cushing, the former House Democratic leader and a decades-long champion for criminal justice reform, died of cancer Monday, the House Democratic caucus announced Monday.

Cushing had been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer in August 2020. He was 69.

“He was a citizen of New Hampshire, but also a citizen of the world, who loved humanity both individually and in the abstract,” wrote acting House Democratic Leader David Cote of Nashua. “He held no grudges but took no prisoners. He lived by the ideals of justice and mercy. He cannot be replaced.”

Cushing was serving his eighth two-year term in the New Hampshire House.

A Hampton resident since childhood, Cushing first jumped into politics in protest of the Vietnam War, joining campaign efforts to vote out President Lyndon Johnson and elect Eugene McCarthy. He entered New Hampshire’s activism scene by helping found the Clamshell Alliance, a group opposing the Seabrook nuclear power plant, in 1976.

Cushing’s later advocacy against the state’s death penalty came after a personal tragedy. In 1988, his father was killed at his front door by an off-duty police officer, Robert McLaughlin. Cushing used his unique position to argue against the use of the death penalty in the state – and for its repeal. A bill to repeal the death penalty was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in 2000, but Cushing brought the matter back nearly every year as a lawmaker. In 2019, Cushing led a successful effort to overturn Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of the death penalty repeal bill, a culmination of 30 years of effort. 

For Cushing, that fight was rooted in his convictions. “It’s not about forgiveness,” he said in an interview with the Bulletin last year. “You do it, from a victim’s perspective, to hang on to your own ideals.”

Cushing was a longtime champion of marijuana legalization in New Hampshire, a change he saw as necessary to alleviate racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. He served as chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in 2019 and 2020, and would later be elected the leader of the Democratic Party when Republican lawmakers reclaimed the majority in 2020. 

In his final years, Cushing lived in the same sea green clapboard house that he had shared with seven siblings growing up. 

“I’m very lucky,” he told the Bulletin last year. “Growing up in a family of seven you learn a couple things. One, I learned that love is not finite.”

Cushing’s death came days after he stepped away from political duties as head of the Democratic caucus. In a letter read by his daughter to the caucus on March 2, Cushing said he would be taking the leave of absence in order to focus on his health.

When he took the mantle of House Democratic leader in late 2020, Cushing told his colleagues the circumstances of his diagnosis. They elected him anyway. 

“I told the caucus, ‘If you elect me, I will lead you through defeat,’” he said. 

Bulletin staff writer Amanda Gokee contributed to this report.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]