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Bill Gardner -- He's the longest serving secretary of state in U.S.

December 13. 2014 5:18PM

Inside a Concord bar, near the State House, two young state representatives, Steve Duprey, R-North Conway, and Bill Gardner, D-Manchester, were downing 50-cent draft beers. They were talking about who would run for secretary of state for New Hampshire.

It was 1976. Bob Stark, the long-time secretary of state, had died from cancer earlier that summer. Deputy Secretary of State Ed Kelly took over Stark's duties, but said he had no interest in putting his name before the Legislature to run for the job, as had been the tradition. Kelly's decision put the position up for grabs for the first time in decades.

Between Duprey and Gardner, the one best positioned to win an election for secretary of state was Duprey. For starters, Republicans were expected to keep the majority in elections that year. Though he was young, Duprey was already a committee chairman. He would likely face some competition inside the Republican caucus, but whomever they selected, by all accounts, would be the next secretary of state.

A Democrat like Gardner shouldn't stand a chance. In fact, the last Democrat to be elected secretary of state was in 1923. But during their bar bull session, Gardner told Duprey that despite the political reality, he felt the job was what he was meant to do with this life. By the time the 1976 House elections were held, Gardner would be 28. He was running for his third term as a state representative. He loved elections and political history and the institutions that made them work. Time spent serving on the House Election Law Committee writing up rules and processes for an unprecedented special election for U.S. Senate was a thrill for Gardner.

Duprey, though, was still interested in the position. He wasn't sure how long he would have the job, but it did sound rewarding. Meanwhile, Duprey's father and mentors at the State House said that law school was a better career path for him.

Eventually, Duprey told Gardner he wouldn't run and was soon headed for Cornell Law School. Gardner was in as a candidate.

Just four years earlier, in 1972, 18-year-olds were given the right to vote. Now there were so many under 30-year-olds - roughly 40 of the 400 member New Hampshire House - that a bipartisan "Youth Caucus" was formed in 1975. One caucus founder, Rod O'Connor, D-Dover, said age was the only requirement to be a member. Other than that, "there were no hard and fast rules." Caucus meeting were often held at the local Legion bar.

These young legislators were a new generation whose formative experiences were based in the civil rights era. Many were drawn to politics because of Vietnam or the fallout from the Watergate scandal.

This collegiality among younger House members ended up being critical to Gardner's chances at winning. Gardner began writing letters and personally visiting House members asking for the job. He said he would be non-partisan and focus on being competent. He especially reached out to Republican members, since they held a 230-194 majority.

In the Republican caucus, two legislators sought the post. Longtime state Rep. Arthur Drake, R-Lancaster, resigned as House appropriations chair to run for secretary of state. Drake defeated state Rep. Ken Smith of Moultonborough in the caucus, but tellingly there were 10 write-in votes for Gardner.

On the day of the vote, a story in the Nashua Telegraph called Drake the favorite for the job and didn't even mention Gardner. To the surprise of many people, Gardner won 218 to 174 in the House.

Enough Republicans had switched their votes to Gardner, who many would say simply outworked Drake.

Gardner now is the longest serving secretary of state in the nation and in state history. Earlier this month, he was re-elected to serve in his 20th term. He was unopposed.

Next year, Gardner and Duprey, the state's Republican National Committeemen, will be among the select few who carry the burden of preserving the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Presciently, on Gardner's second day as secretary of state in 1976, an Associated Press reporter stopped by his office for an interview. The last line of the story reads: "he feels like he's going to be around for a long time."

James Pindell covers politics for WMUR. You can see his breaking news and analysis at scoop and on WMUR-TV.

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