Longtime N.H. Secretary of State Faces Highest-Profile Challenge in Years

  • Bill Gardner Holly Ramer—AP

  • Colin Van Ostern John J. Happel—John J. Happel

For the Valley News
Published: 11/10/2018 11:22:13 PM
Modified: 11/10/2018 11:22:15 PM

Concord — Bill Gardner doesn’t look like a man facing a difficult re-election.

New Hampshire’s longtime secretary of state and his team currently are conducting at least 16 legislative recounts from Tuesday’s elections.

Those recounts will grab most of his attention the next two weeks. That won’t leave him a lot of time to prepare for what may be his most challenging re-election bid in years, as he runs for another two-year term.

All 400 state representatives and 24 state senators will vote to either re-elect Gardner or choose one of his challengers when they gather at the Statehouse on Dec. 5 for Organization Day.

The 70-year-old Gardner, who’s been the Granite State’s top election officer for 42 years, said he won’t start campaigning for re-election until all the recounts are finished.

“You have to have candidates feel there’s integrity and trust in the process,” he explained.

Gardner’s highest-profile competition for the job come Organization Day is Concord’s Colin Van Ostern, the 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Since news of Van Ostern’s bid broke on Town Meeting Day in March, the former executive councilor has been on the campaign trail, such as it is when the entire electorate fits in Representatives Hall.

“(I’ve spent) a lot of time talking to returning legislators, incoming legislators, about some of the policies that we could implement to modernize the office, add more accountability, better stand up for the rights of every eligible voter, and also listen a lot,” he said.

Van Ostern made a point of dispelling rumors he would use the secretary of state’s office to position himself for another gubernatorial run in two years.

“If I’m elected to this job, that’s going to be my only focus. I’m not running for anything else in 2020,” he said.

Gardner, known nationally as one of the chief guardians of New Hampshire’s treasured status as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state, was a former Democratic state representative before he was first elected as secretary of state in 1976.

But his impeccable reputation among lawmakers has taken a hit with Democrats the past two years, thanks to Gardner’s participation on President Donald Trump’s controversial and now-disbanded voter fraud commission. Many Democrats have also voiced displeasure over Gardner’s support for two GOP-sponsored bills passed into law the past two years that tighten the state’s voter eligibility requirements, which many characterize as voter suppression measures.

Republican lawmakers have been some of his biggest supporters in recent years.

“Republicans love Bill Gardner,” outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Hinch said.

But thanks to Tuesday’s election results, there will be a lot fewer GOP lawmakers in the New Hampshire Legislature going forward. Democrats flipped both chambers, and, pending official results after recounts, currently are on track to hold a 14-10 majority in the state Senate and a 233-167 majority in the House.

“Bill has a lot of friends in the Democratic caucus,” said current House Minority Leader and likely incoming House Speaker Steve Shurtleff. “He’ll get a sizable vote, but my feeling is that Colin will take a strong majority in the Democratic caucus.”

Van Ostern discounted the conventional wisdom that the shift in the Legislature appears to favor his bid.

“I think most observers who think that this is a partisan race on strict partisan lines are wrong,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to legislators across party lines, and I don’t think this is or should be a partisan office.”

Since announcing his candidacy in March, Van Ostern has been campaigning actively. His ‘Free and Fair New Hampshire’ political action committee raised donations and spent the money to promote his proposals to reform and modernize the office, including holding more than 200 forums around the state with legislative candidates

“To be clear, all the grassroots contributions that we received go towards staff, and towards online organizing. We have not contributed to any candidates or party committees. We don’t take out ads or endorse candidates,” Van Ostern said. “I get that it’s novel and it’s new, because no one’s run seriously in a couple of decades”

He compared his bid to Gardner’s first campaign for secretary of state.

“That’s the way Bill Gardner did it in 1976, when he asked everyone for every vote and worked hard for this. And frankly I don’t think this election will hinge on how many years he’s been in office or how many forums we hosted,” he said.

But the other candidate challenging Gardner, former state Rep. Peter Sullivan of Manchester, also a Democrat, has criticized Van Ostern for the amount of money he’s raised to run for secretary of state. Like Van Ostern, Sullivan is positioning himself as a reformer, promising to bring transparency and accountability to the office.

Gardner, in defending his record, pointed to a study by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, which concluded that New Hampshire election officials ranked first in the nation in impartiality, transparency, distributing information to the public and performance.

“We’re at the top,” he said.

And he highlighted the numerous training sessions his office held with elections officials in August and September to prepare for the 2018 contests.

The state set a midterm turnout record, with some 580,000 people voting in this past week’s elections. Gardner emphasized that voter turnout is the most important measure of success.

“It’s always been my view that the number of people who come, the more that come out, that’s what you want and that’s what you strive for,” he said. “It’s always been my goal for us in New Hampshire to be at the top, and we have found ways to do it.

And he highlighted a lack of roadblocks to voters at the polls.

“Anyone who shows up at the polling place, anyone who’s 18 and qualified, even if that person doesn’t have anything to show who they are or that they actually live here, they can vote. That is not the case across the country, but it is the way it is here,” Gardner said.

But Van Ostern didn’t give Gardner praise for the record voter turnout.

“That is a credit to voters. Voters showed up,” he said. “It’s also a credit to our local election officials, who frankly deserved better support and communication than they’ve had from the Secretary of State’s Office in the last couple of years. Obviously there’s been a lot of confusion lately.”

(Several town clerks last month were upset that Gardner didn’t have a contingency plan in place when a Superior Court judge issued an injunction to one of the new voting laws.)

Van Ostern also added that credit should go “to a lot of staff at the Secretary of State’s Office who work hard, put in long hours, and do a good job.”

The salary range for the secretary of state’s job is $88,026 to $116,953, based on seniority.

Paul Steinhauser can be reached at Steinhauserpaul@gmail.com.

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