Friend of WTI, Rep Renny Cushing, Continues His Life Work Despite Cancer Diagnosis
Renny Cushing: Dying while legislating
Diagnosed with stage four cancer, the House Democratic leader continues to do his life’s work
By Amanda Gokee -May 12, 2021
New Hampshire Bulletin - Renny Cushing doesn’t have a lot of time.
Last year, he got the diagnosis no one wants to hear: stage four prostate cancer. Cushing found out after he had been hospitalized for acute kidney failure. By then, the cancer had already metastasized in his bones and lungs.
There are many ways someone might choose to spend the last months of their life: reading, traveling, resting. But in the hospital, Cushing was thinking about the upcoming election. Did he still have time to get his name off the ballot? Who was he going to get to run in his place? He didn’t know.
The doctor told Cushing that, left untreated, he would have anywhere between nine and 18 months to live. Cushing has since been fighting for more time. Treatment, so far, has been a mixed bag. A treatment he started in October was working, until it wasn’t. Now he’s part of a phase two clinical trial.
Cushing didn’t end up finding a replacement candidate or withdrawing from the race. Last November, he ran and won, not an easy task in the purple town of Hampton. But the Democrats lost the House, and the minority leadership position was open. It would be a contested race. The conversation about whether to run is one that some people would have with their family, a spiritual adviser, their close political allies. Cushing spoke to his oncologist.
In October, Cushing started a new cancer treatment. In November, he was elected House minority leader.
“I told the caucus, ‘If you elect me, I will lead you through defeat.’” That’s what he’s spending his last months doing.
Time is limited. Cushing has been told to leave his calendar in the hands of the legislative staff aides.
“I shouldn’t control my schedule because I’m really good about double booking,” he said.
Cushing has been involved with politics in New Hampshire since he was a teenager, but there’s more he hopes to do. He has a progressive agenda he still wants to push through, even though the Democrats don’t control the House, Senate, Executive Council, or governor’s office. And much that he hoped to champion last session was put on pause because of the pandemic.
“There’s no end of the work to do,” he said.
Cushing said Elvis Presley had a belt buckle that read TCB, “Taking Care of Business.” He wants one that says DWL: “Dying While Legislating.”
“This is my first time dying, so I’m doing the best I can,” he said. “And, you know, I’m living. I’m going on living.”
Cushing still lives in the sea green clapboard house where he grew up with his seven siblings, part of a big Irish Catholic family. The paint is peeling in places. It’s the house where he and his wife, Kristie Conrad, raised three children – all daughters who are now adults. One lives in Dover; the other two have since left the state.
Cushing’s grandparents came to Hampton for their honeymoon in the 1920s and never left. When Cushing was growing up, people were constantly coming and going: There was always an extra plate at the table, a corner that could fit a sleeping bag. It was a good place to grow up. “I know the gift of unconditional love,” Cushing said.
In high school, he became a jock. Cushing likes to say that he majored in football. But he also started speaking up about problems in the community and the world. After his cousin came home from Vietnam with stumps instead of legs, Cushing became aware of the war in a new way. He started reading and learning more about it and came to believe it was a mistake.
He began working with a few teachers in town and civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein on the “Dump Johnson” movement, supporting antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential election. And Cushing started fighting to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, since he believed that younger voters would help elect an antiwar candidate. That was the first time he went to Concord to testify in Representatives Hall. He was 15.
“We got clobbered,” he said.
But a few years later, the 26th Amendment passed, and Cushing, then 20, voted for the first time. The antiwar candidate, George McGovern, lost.
Even so, “there was some small little satisfaction I took walking to that ballot box, knowing I get to vote, even though it took a few years,” Cushing said.
Another formative part of Cushing’s adolescence had nothing to do with New Hampshire politics and everything to do with an itch to see the world. At 16, he left home with $40 and a cardboard sign that read, “Any ride, anywhere. Please.” He crossed the country catching rides in cars and on freight trains; he’ll tell you that there’s an art to hopping freight trains. He dreamed of New Orleans but ended up in juvenile jail in Berkeley, California, after he was caught sleeping in a bush.
He went home a few weeks later, but he wasn’t done traveling. Over the years, he made it to Mexico and Canada, picked oranges in Wildwood, Florida, and picked grapes for $7 a ton in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He did finally make it to New Orleans, where he ran out of money before hopping on yet another freight train. It took him to Atlanta, where he got a gig working on the back of a trash truck.
“This was three years after Dr. King had been assassinated standing in solidarity with garbage workers in Memphis,” Cushing said. “There were signs. The vestiges of American apartheid were there.”
The people working on the truck were Black. Cushing was the exception. He noticed that they picked up trash from the white part of town twice a week, but just once from the Black neighborhoods. Being there taught him about dignity, he said.
A little portrait of Martin Luther King is installed over Cushing’s desk in his home office, where he logs into his computer to lead the House Democrats on Zoom.
It was in Mexico that things really changed for Cushing. He saw the military dictatorships up close when he hitched through Central America. He was in Oaxaca, Mexico, picking tobacco, when the 1973 military coup happened in Chile. President Salvador Allende took his own life after Augusto Pinochet and the junta seized control. Cushing heard the news on the town’s lone transistor radio and afterward a man turned to him and said: Siempre cuando hay un hombre quien trata de ayudar a los pobres, lo matan: “Whenever someone tries to help the poor, he gets killed.”
That was when Cushing realized he had learned enough from his travels. He was ready to go home.
“I thought, this has been really good, Renny, you’ve got a great education. Now, maybe it’s time to go back and make the revolution,” he said.
Cushing got back to Hampton in 1974. By 1976, he and Conrad had become founding members of the Clamshell Alliance, a group that was protesting the Seabrook nuclear station. For Cushing, it was about nothing less than defending democracy: People voted against having a nuclear plant, but construction plans backed by one of the state’s most powerful corporations rolled forward. Cushing’s sympathy was with those affected by the plant, who didn’t know what eminent domain was.
“It was corporate corruption, and it became so basic, so pervasive that it became invisible,” Cushing said. “And in many ways we’re living with the consequences of it to this day.”
A demonstration opposing the nuclear plant turned into the largest mass arrest in state history: 1,414 people were taken into custody. Cushing worked on the cause for a decade. The friends he made during his days at the Clamshell Alliance are among his closest.
“When you end up being arrested and jailed and all of your dreams smashed, when you go through that process, you are bonded forever with the people with whom you shared that experience,” he said.
“When you select your family,” he said, “those people are my family.”
That Cushing has spent the better part of his life talking about death was not so much a choice: Cushing’s father, a schoolteacher, was murdered in Cushing’s childhood home.
The home he has since reclaimed, the home where he will spend his final days.
On June 1, 1988, an off-duty police officer, Robert McLaughlin, knocked on the door of the Cushing family home. When Cushing’s father opened it, McLaughlin fired two shotgun blasts into the schoolteacher’s chest, killing him.
McLaughlin and his wife lived kitty-corner to the Cushing home. The way Cushing tells it, that morning came around and McLaughlin decided that would be the day he would kill a Cushing.
It was also the day Renny met Barbara Keshen, the homicide attorney who was assigned to the case.
“Mr. Cushing and Robert McLaughlin had had some sort of exchanges throughout the years. They were neighbors, they knew each other,” Keshen said.
Cushing links it to Gladys Ring, another neighbor, who was pulled over and charged with resisting arrest in September 1976 on her way to novena, a Catholic prayer service. Cushing went to see her after his father told him that Ring had been beaten up by police.
“I could see the bruises on her arm. She was freaked out,” he said.
Cushing and his brother Michael got a petition together, which stirred up a “hullabaloo” in town.
“At the end of the day, the cops said, ‘What’s the word of a 67-year-old lady against a cop?” The cop in question was McLaughlin.
Cushing had opposed the death penalty before his father was killed, but afterward he found himself in a strange position where he felt obligated to speak out against it. He worried that his silence would be taken for tacit approval.
That’s what he spent the next 20 years doing. Those who know Cushing describe him as indefatigable. He would just keep working on it, in the face of defeat after defeat.
Keshen, who most recently served as the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, became a close friend and ally in the fight to abolish the death penalty.
The first thing you learn from Cushing is patience, Keshen said. They needed it in the years to come as they worked to get enough votes for repeal.
“He firmly believed that if people didn’t get the message that repeal was the right thing to do it was because we weren’t expressing the message appropriately, not that people were mean or vindictive,” Keshen said.
Cushing spoke about his experience as the family member of a murder victim often, and Keshen believes that perspective created connections with people and helped them “evolve.” Cushing explained that a state-sanctioned execution would not fill the empty seat at his family’s table. The killer had already taken his father, and Cushing had decided long ago that he would never let his values be taken away from him.
“It’s not about forgiveness,” Cushing said. “You do it, from a victim’s perspective, to hang on to your own ideals.”
Our criminal justice system, he says, is so much about winning and losing. It’s about punishment instead of truth-telling and healing. Those are the things he sought in the wake of his father’s death.
Cushing toured the country and internationally talking about his father and the death penalty. Reliving that traumatic experience in public over and over did take a toll.
But in 2019, New Hampshire’s death penalty was finally repealed, with enough votes to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto. Keshen is not alone in crediting Cushing for that step. He had been working toward that moment for decades.
“He is one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met,” Keshen said. “Very smart, very committed to all kinds of justice. He has made New Hampshire a much better place in a million ways.”
Paul Twomey, who volunteers as legal counsel for the House Democrats, said Cushing still has boundless energy.
“When he’s committed to something, he will stay with it forever,” he said.
He talks with Cushing on the phone nearly every day, and there’s always something else that needs doing, from ensuring remote access to House hearings for disabled legislators to medical marijuana for cancer patients to the fight for environmental protections after toxic PFAS chemicals were found in wells near the Coakley Landfill on the Seacoast.
‘When you are old’
These days, Cushing has been reading Yeats. And he likes Neruda’s love poems. He calls himself an aging romantic and a fading revolutionary. He says the poetry sustains him, now that he has to spend one day a week in the hospital for his cancer treatment.
That poetry has seen him through the years: from his childhood in a big, loving family, throughout his vagabond days hitchhiking across the United States and into Central America, and now that he’s dedicated his life to public service. He has carried the little poetry books with him on the road for the past 20 years.
It was a Yeats poem that accompanied Cushing during his days hitchhiking through Latin America. His then-girlfriend inscribed “When You Are Old” on the first page of the Spanish dictionary that Cushing used to teach himself the language.
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” it begins, “And nodding by the fire, take down this book / and slowly read, and dream of the soft look / your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.”
The poem is about unrequited love, “how Love fled,” but Cushing speaks of his own life in terms of fulfillment, not frustration.
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of love I have in my life,” Cushing said. “I love people. I’m very lucky. Growing up in a family of seven you learn a couple things. One, I learned that love is not finite.”
And unconditional love, he said, will get you through anything.