The town has not seen the likes of her before or since.
First elected to the Portsmouth School Committee in 1976, Mrs. McLaughlin served as its chairwoman from 1978 to 1980. A Republican, she was elected to the Portsmouth Town Council in 1988, 1990 and 1992, serving as president from 1992 to 1994. She also served on the Zoning Board of Review and was moderator on the administrative board of the Portsmouth Water and Fire District from 1995 to 1998.
The Town Council recognized her longtime service to Portsmouth at the start of a recent meeting. “Barbara was involved in town politics for years and years,” said Town Council President James Seveney, who praised Mrs. McLaughlin’s work ethic and dedication. “She even served on the Charter Review Committee — and we know how hard that is.”
Mrs. McLaughlin was an outspoken advocate for the town’s best interests, whether it be on a zoning matter, a school expenditure or a change to the town charter. She did her homework before meetings and made a sport out of staring down lawyers who appeared on behalf of their clients.
With Mrs. McLaughlin at the helm, Portsmouth was not about to be bullied by out-of-towners.
A development group that wanted to build a hotel and condos by the hundred at the former Weyerhaueser waterfront property in the 1990s no doubt expected little trouble from the locals. Sitting outside in their limo until the last moment, the developer and legal team made a grand entrance — and then it all went downhill fast.
One hired “expert” after another faltered under the McLaughlin grilling — No, they weren’t familiar with that section of the town code; no, they hadn’t actually experienced West Main Road traffic when Raytheon let out; and no, they hadn’t taken into account rights-of-way to the water or Pheasant Hill neighbors.
That project went nowhere.
Mrs. McLaughlin could be defiant, even when it came to her own smoking habit. While presiding over the zoning board, she’d often puff away with a “No Smoking” sign displayed nearby. (Later, while serving as Town Council president, she would call breaks during meetings so she and other members could smoke.)
Although she possessed a tough exterior, Mrs. McLaughlin would occasionally let down her guard and show her vulnerable side. During one election night at Republican headquarters, she couldn’t bear to watch the results come in for Town Council, telling a reporter that it was her least favorite day of the year. Mrs. McLaughlin needn’t have worried, as she was the top vote-getter that night.
Mrs. McLaughlin moved to Southbury, Conn. in 1999 and remained active in politics, serving on that town’s board of selectmen for several terms. But we’ll claim her as Portsmouth’s own, and hope her legacy of fighting tooth and nail for the town’s best interests serves as a shining example for other local politicians.