CONCORD — The longest serving state elections head in the country faces a desperate fight for survival after a Democratic rival crushed him in a party caucus last week.
Over a 42-year career, Secretary of State Bill Gardner beat back leaders in more than 20 states trying to knock New Hampshire off its first-in-the-nation presidential primary pedestal.
He sued the state’s largest and most powerful municipal lobby convincing the New Hampshire Supreme Court to order it to refund more than $50 million of excess profits to cities and towns.
But now Gardner, 70, faces the toughest battle of his political life with this first serious challenge in 22 years from a defeated candidate for governor who’s barely half his age.
Former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, 39, of Concord, stunned political observers with his 179-23 thumping of Gardner before a closed caucus of House Democrats on Thursday.
With the final decision coming from the entire elected Legislature on Dec. 5, this has become a very public street fight.
Gardner said after recounts end Tuesday he’s coming out firing against Van Ostern’s claims the office is stuck in the 20th century and no longer gives the voting public enough transparency and accountability.
“This is my opportunity to rebut what he’s been spending eight months of time and a quarter million dollars doing — hitting a punching bag over and over,” Gardner said.
“I don’t have enough time to fully address all these groundless allegations but I’m sure going to try.”
Gardner is a Manchester Democrat, but his many Republican friends in high places are flying to his aid and insist Van Ostern’s promotion could fumble away New Hampshire’s cherished asset.
“The New Hampshire Democrat caucus needs to realize what Colin Van Ostern as secretary of state will mean for the state of New Hampshire,” warned Republican State Chairman Wayne MacDonald.
“He represents a significant threat to our quickly approaching first-in-the-nation primary as well as a radical approach to election processes and procedures.”
Van Ostern says he has hidden support in the GOP legislative ranks and no one could defend the Granite State primary any better.
“It’s short-sighted for anyone to suggest threats to the primary as a way to score political points when there is actually a strong bipartisan tradition of protecting it fiercely and a crystal-clear state law to back that up,” Van Ostern said Friday.
“My wife and I were literally married in Dixville Notch, feet from the ballot room where votes are cast first every four years. You won’t find a stronger defender of our state law than me.”
If all new lawmakers show up Dec. 5 it would take 213 votes to win. This means if Van Ostern holds current support he’s just 34 votes shy of wrapping it up.
Third man out
The long-shot candidate for secretary of state, ex-Manchester Democratic State Rep. Peter Sullivan, exited the race Friday after getting only seven votes.
Sullivan condemned party leaders while refusing to endorse either opponent.
“The current leadership of the New Hampshire Democratic Party has displayed a cult-like devotion to money and fundraising, and a warped obsession with absolute partisan fealty,” Sullivan said.
“This is not the Democratic Party in which I was raised and it is not one in which I can in good conscience remain.”
Those backing Gardner maintain Thursday’s vote doesn’t paint a complete picture.
Former Gov. John Lynch was in that closed House chamber with Gardner and said neither one asked for a vote.
“Bill did not ask anybody to vote for him. He talked about fairness, he talked about the office being nonpartisan and asking them to give him an opportunity to give him a forum to address all these allegations,” Lynch said.
“Colin, who I like, has spent eight months campaigning for this, and Bill is adamant he would not start until after the recounts are done. Now he’s got less than two weeks to work with.”
Gardner said in an interview that the Dec. 5 vote is the one that matters and his confidence is not shaken.
“I did not feel it was any kind of setback,” Gardner said.
The Union Leader has reported Van Ostern’s strong supporters among House Democratic leaders executed a change in the rules to have the caucus make this recommendation despite a 1997 law that says this election shall be held “regardless of party affiliation.”
This nonbinding vote also resulted in seven blank ballots and another nine who earlier in the day voted on the House speaker recommendation but not on this choice.
Lynch said the vote came as no surprise given how it was orchestrated.
“I think the party leaders and Colin — who, in fact, engineered this non-binding vote — knew exactly what they were doing and knew exactly what the outcome was going to be,” Lynch said.
Van Ostern acts like someone who knows this isn’t wrapped up yet.
“This is just one step of the process. I’m gratified to have such widespread support in the caucus but I want to be the next secretary of state for all of New Hampshire,” Van Ostern said.
“I think it is really important this is going to be a nonpartisan office.”
Van Ostern was pleased his victory came on the 42nd anniversary of a Democratic caucus vote in 1976 when challenger Gardner replaced the late Secretary of State Bob Stark with his upstart showing.
Three weeks later, Gardner won his job for the first time.
A leading Democrat with whom both Van Ostern and Gardner confided said the challenger out-hustled the master to this point but it’s not over.
“Colin is very good at the inside game. I don’t think he’s a really good general election candidate,” the Democratic insider said. “Look at 2016. He under-performed against Chris Sununu, but that’s what this race is now. You’ve got to close the sale with both parties to win it.”
While Gardner was doing the job and battling with town clerks over holding Town Meetings on winter storm days, Van Ostern was campaigning full time.
He hosted more than 200 state legislative candidates at his Free & Fair Forums; pushed the state party to pass an anti-gerrymandering platform plank; and championed random audits, automatic voter registration and a nonpartisan director of elections.
“There are plenty of New Hampshire lawmakers who care more about doing what’s right for the communities they represent than doing what political party leadership tells them to do,” Van Ostern said.
Gardner questions if Van Ostern even knows that for 15 years he’s had a professional, apolitical elections director.
In New Hampshire, 97 percent of business transactions are available online compared to the national average of 53 percent, the state has a cutting edge vital records app that states all over the country are modeling, and more than 3,200 election workers came to training sessions in 2017-18, Gardner said.
However, Gardner’s role serving on the ill-fated Trump voter integrity commission had the entire congressional delegation and party leadership fuming at him.
“Colin talked about how he would handle the challenges of the future, while Bill Gardner spent almost 20 minutes playing defense. Everyone acknowledges Gardner’s contribution,” said State Rep. David Meuse, D-Portsmouth, in a Facebook debate.
“Without him, it’s doubtful our first-in-the-nation presidential primary would have survived. But lining up with those on the right who conspired to make it more difficult for an entire class of voters to vote proved to be unforgivable.”
At table or on the menu?
Gardner knows some will not accept he took the commission spot to convince the panel there was no voter fraud problem in New Hampshire.
“I know many may never forgive me for having done that, but it was better that New Hampshire be represented than not,” Gardner said.
“It is better to be at the table than on the menu.”
Democratic leaders attacked Gardner for his role in altering voter registration laws to tighten up the definition of domicile with SB3, which threatened chaos at the polls coming in the midst of a 2018 court fight.
“The only people who ever bray about Gardner being a Democrat are Republicans — and how they love to shout about how swell they are for adoring Gardner the Democrat,” posted Susan Bruce, a liberal activist.
“The reason you all love him is because he’s become a patsy for the GOP and their voter suppression agenda.”
Ex-Rep. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, said Gardner helped block the GOP from adopting even more restrictive changes.
“And yet N.H. is the easiest state to vote in (in) the nation — no ID required, votes counted that night (no provisional balloting like in other states), no one turned away from the polls from voting — all thanks to work by Bill Gardner though the years,” Splaine said.
Gardner critics point to nonpartisan surveys that don’t put New Hampshire in the top 10 easiest states in which to vote.
State Rep. Jan Schmidt, D-Nashua, broached on Facebook what for months has been a negative portrayal of Gardner from opponents as someone whose best days are behind him.
“Really, listening to him give testimony, he’s lost half the time and keeps talking about history,” Schmidt wrote. “He needs to retire and it would be kinder of folks like Jim Splaine to advise him to go while he still has his respect.”
Lynch said he hopes lawmakers focus on keeping the office apolitical and avoiding partisan warfare over it, given the history of the New Hampshire House flipping from one party’s control to the other’s in four of the five past elections.
“Everyone coming into Bill’s office knew they were getting nonpartisan advice and support. I don’t think we ought to risk losing that,” Lynch said.