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2007: NH Secretary of State Bill Gardner

Senior Political Reporter

December 30. 2012 4:37AM

NH Secretary of State Bill Gardner (UNION LEADER FILE)

Bill Gardner says he just does his job.

He knows and appreciates that it's a special responsibility. He knows his role helps to set the course of American presidential history every four years.

But the most striking aspect of the New Hampshire Secretary of State is that he also knows that it's not about him. Although he's been referred to as the most powerful man in America that no one knows, Bill Gardner seems bereft of ego.

That's one reason the Manchester native and resident is viewed widely -- if not universally -- in the Granite State as the right person for the near-sacred job of protecting the pre-eminence of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. He's been the right person since 1976.

His talent -- a seemingly perfect mix of stubbornness, quiet savvy and patience -- was never more evident than it was this year.

And so, for his role in standing firm against an unprecedented onslaught trying to derail the primary's impact by the two major national political parties, by powerful officials and influential voices in other states as well as Washington, Secretary of State William M. Gardner of Manchester is the 2007 New Hampshire Union Leader Citizen of the Year .

Most impact

The annual designation goes to the New Hampshire individual or group of individuals having the biggest effect on the state during the year. The newspaper began awarding the title in 2004.

Gardner, 58, makes it easy for elected state leaders to take a position on how to protect the primary. They simply "support Bill Gardner." He'll take care of it. He always does.

Gardner is obliged to follow a 32-year-old state law that mandates him to set the date of the primary at least seven days ahead of any "similar election." But it's not just a matter of following a script. The date does not set itself. He admits, "I'm not sure you could have a robot do it."

Gardner has interpreted the seven-day law broadly. To him, it should be triggered in the event of any potential dilution of the primary's traditional impact by other states that move up their nominating events too close or try to move ahead of it (with the exception of Iowa).

Delicate balance

Gardner must read the tea leaves in other states to know when he should decide on, and then announce, the primary date. He must act early enough to allow the state's city and town clerks to send out absentee ballots and have them returned in time for the election. He must wait long enough to ensure that no other state can quickly pull together a caucus or primary to steal New Hampshire's thunder.

He must discern the likelihood of other states succeeding in their attempts to crowd New Hampshire and steal the primary's thunder. He must make contacts in other states, read news reports incessantly and keep track of their internal politics. He must know when to speak out and when to keep quiet.

Gardner has been challenged in past primary cycles. In 1983, he was warned not to oppose the Democratic National Committee by future U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In 2000, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and other state political leaders tried to pressure Gardner into changing a primary date he had already set to help them appease Iowa officials.

Both times, he didn't flinch.

This time, the calendar Rubik's Cube was the most complicated ever, but he navigated the minefield slowly and carefully, waiting until Nov. 21 to set the date of the primary for Jan. 8.

Gov. John Lynch said in an interview that winning the Citizen of the Year award "is a great honor for Bill, and he deserves it." Lynch, who won the same award in 2005, said he has known Gardner for 30 years and that Gardner "reflects all that is good about New Hampshire and public service. He loves New Hampshire and cares deeply about our state." Lynch said Gardner "did a real service to our state and our country."

Steadily building

The threat to the 2008 primary began building shortly after the 2004 primary. Former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe appeased powerful politicians in Michigan and Washington who complained that a small, nearly all-white state with no major urban area should no longer have such a huge role in determining presidential nominees.

McAuliffe appointed a commission that set out to "fix" the system. In December 2005, it recommended one or two caucuses be placed between Iowa's leadoff caucus and the New Hampshire Primary. In August 2006, the full Democratic National Committee adopted for its formal rules a calendar placing a Nevada caucus in the second spot. The DNC's rules committee had recommended the change a month earlier, prompting Gardner to say it "diminishes the value of the primary and dishonors our tradition." He also said, with foresight, that the move "is creating an unpredictable situation" because it may also prompt other states to move up their primaries and caucuses.

Through 2007, state after state crowded up to Feb. 5, which prompted Florida, seeking its own limelight, to jump to Jan. 29. That, in turn, prompted South Carolina's Republicans to move to Jan. 19, the same day set by the DNC for Nevada. Officials in Michigan watched, waited and then passed a law setting its primary for Jan. 15. But four major Democratic candidates then removed their names from the Michigan ballot, prompting some leaders in that state to seriously consider ignoring their own primary and holding a caucus close to, or perhaps on the same day as, New Hampshire's primary.

Double-edge sword

Both national political parties threatened to withhold convention delegates from renegade states. The Republicans punished New Hampshire and others by stripping them of half their delegates, but the DNC, in the end, sanctioned the New Hampshire primary.

The Michigan piece of the puzzle was not resolved until Nov. 21, when a court ruling upheld the Jan. 15 primary date and those who had advocating a caucus backed off their threat.

Gardner quickly set the primary for Jan. 8.

"It's interesting how it all came together," Gardner said. He had set up the shortest ever period between the setting of the date and the primary date itself.

Along the way, Gardner became one of the most watched _ and most written about _ non-candidates in American politics. One web site had set up a "Gardner Watch" page to keep tabs on him.

Lynch, who closely followed the twists and turns, said, "We can only control what New Hampshire does. Bill was smart to wait until the last minute to make sure that all of the pieces of the puzzle were in place before announcing New Hampshire's date. I think all of us in New Hampshire should be proud of Bill and all he has done for the state."

Eleven-term state Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, the author of the 1975 state primary protection law, cited Gardner's patience.

"He and I have talked about the issue and the strategy for decades," said Splaine who is also a former three-term state senator. "Ever since Bill's first primary in 1980, that has been a key reason he has been so good at this. He is very patient, and it can be very stressful. He knows that you can't respond to everyone who wants you to do something right away. He did what he needed to do."

Gardner's colleagues also know well that he does what's necessary to protect the primary.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has known Gardner for about a decade through the National Association of Secretaries of State. The group in the late 1990s studied the primary-caucus system and recommended a system of rotating regional primaries that allowed exceptions for Iowa and New Hampshire to hold their events first.

Forever a constant

Galvin said that when the subject of primaries and caucuses comes up at a NASS meeting, Gardner is unwavering.

"Bill regards the primary not just as a New Hampshire tradition to be protected," said Galvin. "He regards it as an American tradition.

"He clearly believes that, whether it is factually accurate or not, New Hampshire voters are keenly alert to ask presidential candidates probing questions. He thinks New Hampshire voters are unique in their level of interest in the process," Galvin said.

"It's a sincerely held passion and he has fought for it, gone to great lengths to defend it," said Galvin. "And there are obviously many people in this process around the country to have a different point of view."

But even they "respect Bill's sincerity and his pluckiness in fighting for his state," said Galvin. "He is a true New Hampshirite. He has a flinty Yankee approach. You can tell him anything and he's not going to change."

With the latest challenge resolved, Gardner knows the next presidential cycle will bring a new set of threats from adversaries again looking to dilute the primary's influence.

"One thing's for sure," he said. "It won't be the same. History shows us that."

But, rest assured, New Hampshire. Bill Gardner, who will likely win his seventeenth two-year term as Secretary of State next December, will be keeping vigil.

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