×

Gardner’s Role As Secretary of State in Doubt

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, file photo, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner speaks at a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in Manchester, N.H. The Legislature will vote on Dec. 5, 2018, whether Gardner or Colin Van Ostern will be secretary of state for the next two years. Gardner has held the office for 42 years. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer, File)

  • FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2016, file photo, Democrat Colin Van Ostern answers a question during a gubernatorial debate at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. The Legislature will vote on Dec. 5, 2018, whether Bill Gardner or Van Ostern will be secretary of state for the next two years. Gardner has held the office for 42 years. (Thomas Roy/The Union Leader via AP, Pool, File)



Associated Press
Sunday, November 25, 2018

Concord — A few hours before the New Hampshire Legislature selected a secretary of state in 1976, longshot candidate Bill Gardner rounded a corner in the Statehouse and came upon a television reporter interviewing his opponent.

“Now that you’ve been elected secretary of state, what’s the first thing you’re gonna do?” the reporter asked Republican Arthur Drake, a former lawmaker widely expected to win.

But lawmakers instead picked Gardner, that year and every two years since. What started out as stunning quickly became status quo — until now.

Fellow Democrat Colin Van Ostern, born about two years after Gardner took office, is challenging the 70-year-old incumbent on a platform of modernizing the office, holding it accountable and resisting what he views as attempts at voter suppression. The full 424-member Legislature will vote Dec. 5, but Democrats in the House backed Van Ostern by an overwhelming margin in a non-binding caucus vote earlier this month.

“I’ve heard fairly consistently that many lawmakers simply believe the office is not working the way it needs to be,” said Van Ostern, a former Executive Councilor and 2016 candidate for governor. “That manifests in so many different ways, but it is far behind what our citizens and voters and lawmakers expect in 2018. It’s time for a change. No one’s entitled to the job, and given how significant the issues have been in recent years, a change of leadership will give us all a chance to strengthen the office moving forward.”

Long revered for protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Gardner has faced harsh criticism from Democrats for supporting Republican legislation to tighten voter registration rules and for serving on President Donald Trump’s commission on election fraud. Gardner insists “it was better to be at the table than on the menu,” but he knows some lawmakers won’t forgive him.

“They won’t even talk to me, some of the people. They just can’t get beyond that I would actually do it,” he said. “But I did say in the caucus, ‘I can assure you: I brought my values and I brought New Hampshire values with me when I served.”

During his campaign, Van Ostern raised more than $200,000 through his “Free and Fair New Hampshire” political action committee and hosted more than 200 forums with legislative candidates around the state. Gardner, who has never accepted political donations, said his job duties — including overseeing recounts after the Nov. 6 election — left him little time to campaign.

“For eight months there’s been a campaign against a punching bag,” he said. “He’s had all this money and all this time, and it’s my turn.”

The race has produced a flurry of op-eds on both sides. Ryan Buchanan, an incoming state representative for Concord, wrote that Gardner “lacks the strength” needed to make necessary changes to ensure free and fair elections.

“As a new representative the only way I even know how to navigate some of this is because Colin Van Ostern’s campaign has provided me and other candidates more clarity in understanding the secretary of state’s complicated forms and financial filing systems, more policy overviews about the office and more nonpartisan education in how our N.H. voting laws work than any other source I’ve seen in the past year,” wrote Buchanan, a Democrat.

Republican National Committee member Steve Duprey and former Democratic National Committee member Terry Shumaker co-wrote a column arguing Gardner deserves another term in part because his nonpartisan approach has helped protect the New Hampshire primary from encroachment by other states.

“We believe the key to his success has been that he was not a partisan Democrat or Republican with political ambitions, but a dedicated public servant who is fully trusted by both parties to do the right thing without concern for his own political future or that of any particular presidential candidate,” they wrote.

Gardner echoed that.

“That trust is so important to be able to garner the type of information that helps us make the decision, because the other states are not going to make it easy for us,” he said.

Van Ostern rejected the notion that a change in leadership jeopardizes the primary.

“It really is New Hampshire’s voters and our culture of democracy that deserves most of the credit for our primary tradition more than any one person,” he said. “And, as a result of that culture and tradition we have a state law that is explicitly clear that requires the secretary of state to set the date a full week before any similar contest, and I will follow the law with fierce and iron-clad determination.”

New Hampshire, along with Main and Tennessee, is one of only three states where the secretary of state is chosen by the Legislature.

In Maine, Democrat Matthew Dunlap has been in office since 2013, after a previous stint from 2005-2010. He has faced and defeated Republican challengers but only once faced a fellow Democrat, a spokesman said.

Like Gardner, he also took heat for serving on Trump’s commission but ultimately won praise for refusing to turn over voter information the panel requested.

He also successfully sued to gain access to documents he said showed the commission found no evidence to support the president’s claims of widespread voter fraud despite being created with a “pre-ordained outcome.”

New Hampshire Democrats took control of both legislative chambers in the Nov. 6 election, and will hold a 233-167 majority in the House and 14-10 in the Senate.