CONCORD — Five former New Hampshire governors took a public stand in support of long-serving Secretary of State Bill Gardner on Wednesday, with an endorsement published in major media throughout the state.
That’s just the beginning of a campaign to mobilize high-profile Gardner supporters as he struggles against a well-organized challenge from fellow Democrat Colin Van Ostern, a former executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate.
A rally at the State House and other events are being organized on Gardner’s behalf.
The letter in support of Gardner was signed by former Democratic Gov. John Lynch, along with former Republican governors Steve Merrill, Craig Benson, Judd Gregg and John H. Sununu.
Former Democratic governors Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, now U.S. senators, did not sign the letter and said they are staying neutral, at least publicly.
“This is a matter for the Legislature to decide as they evaluate the best way to uphold New Hampshire’s longstanding tradition of clean and fair elections while also working to ensure that we modernize the secretary of state’s office as well as our voting systems and practices,” said Hassan.
“I’m confident that New Hampshire will continue to have the First in the Nation primary no matter who the Legislature selects.”
A spokesman for Shaheen said, “Sen. Shaheen is not getting involved in the race.”
The former governors who did sign the letter accuse Van Ostern of attempting to politicize the office and claim that New Hampshire’s presidential primary is at risk.
“Regardless of party affiliation, we strongly urge you to contact your representatives or senator and ask that they vote for Bill Gardner on Dec. 5,” the letter states, alluding to the vote that will take place for all constitutional offices on Organization Day for the Legislature.
Van Ostern, who has the overwhelming support of the newly elected Democratic majority in the House and Senate, responded on Twitter, stating “the New Hampshire constitution gives this choice to our incoming 424 citizen-legislators, not to governors from decades past.”
“Secretary Gardner’s 42 years deserve praise, but his actions and judgment in this decade are not what they once were,” according to Van Ostern. “It’s time for an accountable secretary of state who protects rights and liberties.”
Former WMUR political director Josh McElveen, now head of a communication consulting firm, coordinated the letter-writing campaign by the former governors.
“It’s not that I had to recruit them in any way, shape or form,” McElveen said. “They all expressed their support for Bill personally and I did what I could to translate that into written form because I feel as strongly as they do about the independence of the office.”
McElveen said he is donating his time on his own initiative to coordinate a show of support for Gardner.
“To his credit, he has not been trying to run a political campaign,” McElveen said. “So I reached out to Gov. Lynch and other supporters and continue to do so.”
Lynch introduced Gardner to the closed-door caucus of newly elected Democratic representatives on Nov. 15, when they voted 179-23 in a straw poll to support Van Ostern on Dec. 5.
The popular four-term governor will be among those appearing at the rally in support of Gardner, tentatively scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 3 at the Legislative Office Building, according to McElveen, who is lining up other governors, veterans’ groups and sympathetic lawmakers like Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro.
“Bill has been busy with the election so I just went out on my own and did what I could do to support his reelection,” said McElveen. “It’s not about Bill or any one person. It’s about the office and what its role should be.”
Van Ostern continues to push for a forum with both candidates, something Gardner has declined.
“The election of our next secretary of state is one week from tomorrow, and I’m happy to join a joint forum with Bill Gardner on any day before the vote,” he tweeted late Wednesday.
“No one is entitled to this job, and lawmakers would benefit from a free exchange of ideas between the candidates.”