New Hampshire Sec. of State Bill Gardner always gets his way

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The Nevada Republican Party learned a tough lesson this week: if you take on New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and his state’s first-in-the-nation primary, you will lose.

On Saturday, Nevada Republicans folded under pressure and voted to move their caucuses to February 4. Nevada is one of the four states sanctioned by the Republican National Committee to hold its presidential nominating contest earlier than other states. Initially, the caucuses were scheduled for late February, making Nevada the third state that Republican hopefuls would be competing in.

But when Florida, which is not meant to be an early state, jumped the line and moved its primary to January 31, the whole schedule was thrown into disarray. South Carolina and Iowa moved up their contests to January to maintain their placement, and Nevada moved its caucus date to Saturday, January 14.

That did not sit well with Gardner, who has served as New Hampshire’s secretary of state for the past 35 years. State law gives him sole control over setting the date of the primary. It also requires that there be seven days between its primary and any other similar contest. A January 14 Nevada primary would make that impossible.

Gardner responded with a statement requesting that Nevada delay its primary by at least 72 hours, which would allow New Hampshire to hold its primary on January 10 and still have the required seven-day window. If Nevada failed to comply, he threatened to move the New Hampshire to early December.

The Nevada GOP stood firm, but it quickly became clear that there was little support for their position. Five of the Republican presidential candidates vowed to boycott the Nevada caucuses if the date were not moved. Iowa Republicans denounced Nevada’s intransigence. The Republican National Committee stepped in and asked Nevada to move their date back. Ultimately, Nevada caved.

Through all this, Gardner came to be seen as a larger than life figure, single-handedly able to hold the entire primary schedule hostage to his particular demands. Nevada political commentator Jon Ralston referred to him as “King Bill,” and a new Twitter hashtag, #billgardnerfacts, was born to describe his mythic feats.

“God wanted to create the world in 11 days. Bill Gardner said seven,” quipped Ralston on Twitter. “Bill Gardner did not go to UNH, UNH went to bill Gardner,” joked another tweeter.

It was Gardner’s moment in the spotlight. But the man who has served as secretary of state for the past 35 years prefers to stay in behind the curtain.

At the thought of a profile being written about him, he practically recoiled.

“Oh, come on, oh—,” he said, sounding disappointed and somewhat confused.

He sighed.

“Well, I’d rather you do a story about New Hampshire and the primary — tell that story,” he said.

“Come here and watch it. Do a story about a lesser known candidate or somebody who believes they have something important to say to the country and don’t get a lot of attention …  it might be more fun, actually to do that,” he added somewhat sheepishly.

Indeed, an hour and a half of conversation, even with Gardner doing most of the talking, turned up little information about the man himself. What did come out of it was an intriguing history lesson.

When it comes to history, Gardner is a wonk. Friends say it is his great passion. For instance, long-time Gardner friend Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s committeeman to the RNC, described a fun weekend Gardner had hanging out with Ken Hechler, the 97-year old former West Virginia secretary of state who is one of the last surviving members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and one of the only members of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King.

“That’s Bill’s idea of a great time,” said Duprey, “to connect to somebody who has stories going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

“If you ask him the answer to any question,” said Ross Miller, Nevada’s secretary of state for whom Gardner is something of a mentor, “it will immediately come back to some story that will probably begin with the Magna Carta, continue on through John Adams’ personal history, and end with a present day conclusion relating to what the answer should be.”

Indeed, when asked by The Daily Caller what it was he liked about his job, Gardner’s answer began in 1831, when a New Hampshire lawyer named Frederick Augustus Sumner first suggested the idea of holding a national convention. Gardner traced the story from when a man came into his office a decade ago and told him the tale. Gardner did not believe the man, but he tracked the story down, and confirmed it.

“That’s a round about way of answering the question of why I like it here. I’ve had a lot of little experiences like that that have been fun,” he concluded twenty minutes later, before cutting himself off and immediately launching into the story of how he tracked down Sumner’s life history.

Gardner’s lifelong friend Robert Ambrose, who also served as his deputy for 25 years, said that was pretty typical of Gardner. Shortly after Gardner was elected New Hampshire’s secretary of state, one of the first elections he presided over — a primary for the state Senate — came out a tie, and “under New Hampshire law,” Ambrose explained, “the tie is broken by lot.”

“So, in Bill’s office he had a little … leather jug with two numbered balls in it,” Ambrose recounted, “and to break the tie, the secretary of state historically would shake the balls and he would ask somebody to call the number. If yours came out first, you ended up winning the primary.”

“So Bill brought everybody in and had the press there, and he started shaking the leather thing,” he went on, “and he got into the history of the leather jug, and he started talking. He went on for like 10 minutes.”

One of the candidates was so nervous that “she was shaking, and she started to faint.”

“And Bill just kept shaking the jug, talking about the history of the jug, and this poor woman started keeling over,” Ambrose said, “and Bill just kept talking and talking and talking about the history of how old this jug was, and all the important races that had been ties that it had broken.”

“I think [people would] understand him if they heard that story,” Ambrose concluded.

In New Hampshire, Gardner has earned praise for his success at putting on elections, and the fairness with which he does so.

“It will be a very sad day when he is not secretary of state, because I don’t think anybody could fill his shoes at this point,” said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican political consultant.

A registered Democrat, Gardner proudly told TheDC, “I’ve never taken a contribution, I’ve never held a fundraiser, I’ve never endorsed a candidate, I’ve never gone to party events, rallies — I’ve separated all of that.”

When he was first running for the post he said he told people that he would ensure that elections would be “fair and open.”

“That’s what I said when I ran the first time, and that’s what I’ve tried to live by since I’ve been there,” he stated.

By all accounts, he has succeeded.

“Year in, year out, decade in, decade out, he has just run the office absolutely impartially, and run elections that way, and there’s never a hint of any scandal or favoritism or anything wrong,” said Duprey.

After 35 years, Gardner has become something of an institution, transcending any sort of political hierarchy.

Miller, Nevada’s secretary of state, told a story about going to dinner with Gardner while visiting him in New Hampshire. Before leaving for the banquet, Miller realized that he had left his briefcase in Gardner’s office. But instead of heading back to get it, Gardner “called Governor [John] Lynch’s office and asked, knowing that the governor was coming to the banquet, if the governor could bring the bag,” Miller said.

“So a little while later, the governor shows up with his security detail, and he’s got my bag,” Miller explained. “And he looks at me, and he says, ‘you know I thought when I’d been elected governor that I had elevated myself in the state … It turns out I’ve only been promoted to Secretary Gardner’s personal runner.’”

For Gardner, stubbornly following the rules when it comes to the primary is a matter of tradition, and, just as importantly, a way to keep the process fair. The purpose of the seven day rule is so that if someone who is relatively unknown comes to New Hampshire, excels at retail politics, and either wins the primary or exceeds expectation, that person has time to capitalize on that momentum before another state holds its election contest.

“For me,” said Gardner, “it helps to keep the American dream alive, that anyone’s son or daughter can one day grow up to be president. That’s what this does. You don’t have to have the most fame or the most money to come here, and you have a chance. You can’t do that in California or Florida or Texas or New York.”

Moreover, Gardner said, the first-in-the-nation primary is a New Hampshire tradition, and it is a tradition for a reason.

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘well it should be shared — maybe another state, a small state should have the first in the nation.’ But it would be unofficial,” he argued.

“It would be like Baltimore or New Orleans saying that ‘you know, we’re historic harbors, it’s not fair that the Statue of Liberty is always in New York Harbor, it should be towed to Baltimore for a few years, or it should be towed to New Orleans because we’re historic — it’s not fair that it’s just in New York Harbor all the time.”

As the Nevada GOP learned, this is a subject Gardner is not to be trifled with.

“Bill is very likeable. He’s not a yeller and a screamer or anything like that,” explained Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who has worked with Gardner for many years.

“He’s very soft spoken, very precise, very thoughtful, listens, but he can be pretty direct when he wants to defend something … and in the case of the primary, in particular, he’s extremely adept at defending it.”

“You’re always negotiating with Bill, not the other way around,” said former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. For other states, Dunlap said it’s simply not worth the energy because “Bill’ll fight them. He’ll fight them till the last trumpet blows.”

Almost thirty years ago, current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went toe-to-toe with Gardner. It was 1983 and Pelosi was the chair of the compliance and review committee for the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

“She found out that our primary was going to be on a certain day that she said would violate the rules of the Democratic National Committee, and she called and asked if she could come and talk to me about it,” Gardner recounted.

“So she came here in October of ’83 and explained to me why I had to change the date of the primary. And I explained to her why, because of our state law, it had to be when I had set it.”

“And when she was leaving,” he went on, “she turns to me and she says, ‘you’re a young man. You probably think you’ve got a political future ahead of you. Well, if you do this, you will not be represented at the convention, and you will never be elected to anything again.’”

But when the convention rolled around in 1984, New Hampshire’s delegates were allowed in. Gardner has been reelected 14 times since then.

“Nobody’s ever been able to trump him, and I don’t think anybody will,” said Duprey.