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Former three-term U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff has died at 85, remembered as dedicated public servant

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Former U.S. Rep. William “Bill” Zeliff, an innkeeper-turned-politician who served three terms in the U.S. House in the 1990s, has died, his wife has confirmed.Sydna Zeliff told WMUR her husband passed away at 930 p.m. Monday in Florida, following a period of declining health.“He loved New Hampshire,” she said. “He had a great love for the state.”Gov. Chris Sununu called Zelliff “a true public servant, always had a smile and was a tireless advocate for the Granite State and our ‘Live Free or Die’ spirit.”Zeliff was 85 and had been a resident of Jackson for many years as owner of the Christmas Farm Inn, along with Sydna Zeliff.Mrs. Zeliff said they sold the Christmas Farm Inn in 2000 and relocated to Florida.The couple has three sons and seven grandchildren, Sydna Zeliff said.Bill Zeliff was a native of East Orange, New Jersey who came to New Hampshire in 1976 to run the well-known Mount Washington Valley resort following a career in sales and marketing.He became involved in New Hampshire Republican politics in the 1980s, running unsuccessfully for the New Hampshire state Senate in 1984 and then serving as a delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, which nominated then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for president.Zeliff ran for the U.S. House to represent New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District in 1990, winning a close three-way Republican primary, and went on to defeat Democrat Joe Keefe in the general election.He was reelected in 1992 and 1994, and then decided to run for governor in 1996, but lost in a GOP primary to former New Hampshire Board of Education chair and attorney Ovide Lamontagne. Lamontagne was defeated by then-state Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in the general election.While in the U.S. House, Zeliff chaired the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice and was a Deputy Republican Whip. He was known as a fiscal conservative and advocate of budget reform.Zeliff was a military veteran, serving in the U.S. Army Reserve.During his political career, Zeliff was a friend and ally of former Gov. John H. Sununu.Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu remembered Zeliff fondly.“Congressman Bill Zeliff was a dear friend,” the governor said. “My entire family joins the people of New Hampshire in mourning his passing. He was a true public servant, always had a smile and was a tireless advocate for the Granite State and our ‘Live Free or Die’ spirit. Our thoughts are with Sydna and the family. He will be missed.”“Bill was a dedicated public servant and beloved member of New Hampshire’s business community,” Shaheen, who is now of course a U.S. senator, wrote in a statement. “He always had Granite Staters’ best interests at heart and served New Hampshire families in Congress with honor and distinction. My thoughts are with his wife, Sydna, and all of his loved ones at this difficult time.”For two of Zeliff’s six years serving the 1st Congressional District, the 2nd District was represented by fellow Republican Charlie Bass.In an interview Tuesday, Bass said, “Bill Zeliff was known as the innkeeper from Jackson. He was a hard worker. He loved the art of politics.”Bass said that while issues were important to Zeliff, his top priority was constituent service. “He loved meeting people, getting involved in the political process, being everywhere for everyone,” Bass said. “He was always cheerful. He loved to get around the state and he was successful at it.“If we all could be as communicative and as effective as Bill Zeliff was, we’d probably would have been in office a lot longer,” Bass said. “We’ll miss him. He was a great asset to the Republican Party and the state of New Hampshire and his country.”Bass said Zeliff will be remembered for his “A-to-Z” plan – an effort Zeliff made in 1994 with New Jersey Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews to allow 56 hours of House floor debate for members to take their proposed budget cuts directly to the full House membership for up-or-down votes, without going through the leadership-controlled committee process.“The A to Z plan gives us the opportunity to set aside power politics” and deliver “a body blow to big government spending,” Zeliff said at the time.“It received national attention,” Bass said. He said he recalled Zeliff was still talking about the plan during an event in Concord just two years ago.Zeliff also received a national attention as the House Republicans’ point person in a 1995 probe of the 1993 siege by government agents on a compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas. When the compound burned to the ground, 75 people were dead, including 25 children.Zeliff denied accusations that he and his staff allowed National Rifle Association officials have a role in preparations for the investigative House subcommittee hearings.Bass said Zeliff’s background as a small business owner and a leader in the hospitality industry in New Hampshire gave him perspective on many issues facing Granite Staters.David Cuzzi, a Concord-based government and public affairs consultant, was an intern in Zeliff’s congressional office before working on the staff of Zeliff’s successor, former U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu, who later was elected to the U.S. Senate.“He was the epitome of the back-slapping, larger-than-life politician,” Cuzzi said. “I can’t point to anyone who is in office now that has that quality. He legitimately enjoyed helping people.“Bill should rest comfortably knowing he truly made the town of Jackson, the North Country, the state of New Hampshire and our country better places,” Cuzzi said.New Hampshire Commissioner of Business and Economic Affairs Taylor Caswell recalled getting his start in political and public policy affairs as a legislative assistant in Zeliff’s office in 1992. The legislative director at the time was former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Marshall Cobleigh.Caswell was later elevated to legislative director.“He prioritized constituent service above everything else,” Caswell said. “He really saw his role as an advocate for the people of New Hampshire.”“The legislation was obviously important but he cared the most about making sure that we were following up, helping people, responding so that no one was left hanging.”But Caswell said he recalled Zeliff as a supporter of “Corrections Day,” a creation of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to have Congress step in at certain times during the year to “correct” rules and regulations that were deemed unnecessary.“He was the kind of guy you wanted in the whip’s office,” Caswell said. “He was so affable. He would go grab somebody and talk them up for a little while and by the end of the conversation, they’d be voting the way you wanted them to.”Caswell said it was an honor for him earlier this year to receive on Zeliff’s behalf the Raymond S. Burton Public Service Award – named after the late longtime Executive Councilor – for public service to the citizens of New Hampshire.“Bill really looked up to Ray,” Caswell said. “For Bill to get that award before this occurred was a happy memory here at the end.”“There is a group of us who were with Bill for most of his time in Congress, and most of us are still in the business in one form or another,” he said.“We had experience with a guy who probably won’t go down in history as great legislator but really was somebody who cared very deeply about the people he represented,” Caswell said. “Not a bad way to be remembered.”

Former U.S. Rep. William “Bill” Zeliff, an innkeeper-turned-politician who served three terms in the U.S. House in the 1990s, has died, his wife has confirmed.

Sydna Zeliff told WMUR her husband passed away at 930 p.m. Monday in Florida, following a period of declining health.

“He loved New Hampshire,” she said. “He had a great love for the state.”

Gov. Chris Sununu called Zelliff “a true public servant, always had a smile and was a tireless advocate for the Granite State and our ‘Live Free or Die’ spirit.”

Zeliff was 85 and had been a resident of Jackson for many years as owner of the Christmas Farm Inn, along with Sydna Zeliff.

Mrs. Zeliff said they sold the Christmas Farm Inn in 2000 and relocated to Florida.

The couple has three sons and seven grandchildren, Sydna Zeliff said.

Bill Zeliff was a native of East Orange, New Jersey who came to New Hampshire in 1976 to run the well-known Mount Washington Valley resort following a career in sales and marketing.

He became involved in New Hampshire Republican politics in the 1980s, running unsuccessfully for the New Hampshire state Senate in 1984 and then serving as a delegate to the 1988 Republican National Convention, which nominated then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for president.

Zeliff ran for the U.S. House to represent New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District in 1990, winning a close three-way Republican primary, and went on to defeat Democrat Joe Keefe in the general election.

He was reelected in 1992 and 1994, and then decided to run for governor in 1996, but lost in a GOP primary to former New Hampshire Board of Education chair and attorney Ovide Lamontagne.

Lamontagne was defeated by then-state Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in the general election.

While in the U.S. House, Zeliff chaired the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs and Criminal Justice and was a Deputy Republican Whip. He was known as a fiscal conservative and advocate of budget reform.

Zeliff was a military veteran, serving in the U.S. Army Reserve.

During his political career, Zeliff was a friend and ally of former Gov. John H. Sununu.

Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu remembered Zeliff fondly.

“Congressman Bill Zeliff was a dear friend,” the governor said. “My entire family joins the people of New Hampshire in mourning his passing. He was a true public servant, always had a smile and was a tireless advocate for the Granite State and our ‘Live Free or Die’ spirit. Our thoughts are with Sydna and the family. He will be missed.”

“Bill was a dedicated public servant and beloved member of New Hampshire’s business community,” Shaheen, who is now of course a U.S. senator, wrote in a statement. “He always had Granite Staters’ best interests at heart and served New Hampshire families in Congress with honor and distinction. My thoughts are with his wife, Sydna, and all of his loved ones at this difficult time.”

For two of Zeliff’s six years serving the 1st Congressional District, the 2nd District was represented by fellow Republican Charlie Bass.

In an interview Tuesday, Bass said, “Bill Zeliff was known as the innkeeper from Jackson. He was a hard worker. He loved the art of politics.”

Bass said that while issues were important to Zeliff, his top priority was constituent service.

“He loved meeting people, getting involved in the political process, being everywhere for everyone,” Bass said. “He was always cheerful. He loved to get around the state and he was successful at it.

“If we all could be as communicative and as effective as Bill Zeliff was, we’d probably would have been in office a lot longer,” Bass said. “We’ll miss him. He was a great asset to the Republican Party and the state of New Hampshire and his country.”

Bass said Zeliff will be remembered for his “A-to-Z” plan – an effort Zeliff made in 1994 with New Jersey Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews to allow 56 hours of House floor debate for members to take their proposed budget cuts directly to the full House membership for up-or-down votes, without going through the leadership-controlled committee process.

“The A to Z plan gives us the opportunity to set aside power politics” and deliver “a body blow to big government spending,” Zeliff said at the time.

“It received national attention,” Bass said. He said he recalled Zeliff was still talking about the plan during an event in Concord just two years ago.

Zeliff also received a national attention as the House Republicans’ point person in a 1995 probe of the 1993 siege by government agents on a compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas. When the compound burned to the ground, 75 people were dead, including 25 children.

Zeliff denied accusations that he and his staff allowed National Rifle Association officials have a role in preparations for the investigative House subcommittee hearings.

Bass said Zeliff’s background as a small business owner and a leader in the hospitality industry in New Hampshire gave him perspective on many issues facing Granite Staters.

David Cuzzi, a Concord-based government and public affairs consultant, was an intern in Zeliff’s congressional office before working on the staff of Zeliff’s successor, former U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu, who later was elected to the U.S. Senate.

“He was the epitome of the back-slapping, larger-than-life politician,” Cuzzi said. “I can’t point to anyone who is in office now that has that quality. He legitimately enjoyed helping people.

“Bill should rest comfortably knowing he truly made the town of Jackson, the North Country, the state of New Hampshire and our country better places,” Cuzzi said.

New Hampshire Commissioner of Business and Economic Affairs Taylor Caswell recalled getting his start in political and public policy affairs as a legislative assistant in Zeliff’s office in 1992. The legislative director at the time was former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Marshall Cobleigh.

Caswell was later elevated to legislative director.

“He prioritized constituent service above everything else,” Caswell said. “He really saw his role as an advocate for the people of New Hampshire.”

“The legislation was obviously important but he cared the most about making sure that we were following up, helping people, responding so that no one was left hanging.”

But Caswell said he recalled Zeliff as a supporter of “Corrections Day,” a creation of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to have Congress step in at certain times during the year to “correct” rules and regulations that were deemed unnecessary.

“He was the kind of guy you wanted in the whip’s office,” Caswell said. “He was so affable. He would go grab somebody and talk them up for a little while and by the end of the conversation, they’d be voting the way you wanted them to.”

Caswell said it was an honor for him earlier this year to receive on Zeliff’s behalf the Raymond S. Burton Public Service Award – named after the late longtime Executive Councilor – for public service to the citizens of New Hampshire.

“Bill really looked up to Ray,” Caswell said. “For Bill to get that award before this occurred was a happy memory here at the end.”

“There is a group of us who were with Bill for most of his time in Congress, and most of us are still in the business in one form or another,” he said.

“We had experience with a guy who probably won’t go down in history as great legislator but really was somebody who cared very deeply about the people he represented,” Caswell said. “Not a bad way to be remembered.”



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