'King Bill' Gardner abdicates his throne
Longest serving Secretary of State in the United States retiring
Last week New Hampshire’s Secretary of State announced that he was retiring from the office he has held since 1976. Gardner is the longest tenured Secretary of State in the country. The state legislature elected him to his 23rd consecutive term in December 2020. In New Hampshire, the Secretary of State is a constitutional office that is appointed directly by the state legislature. Gardner was a Democrat legislator in the early 70s when New Hampshire was the reddest of Republican states. He entered politics a reformer determined to make voting, “free, fair, and equal”.
Long time friend and fellow legislator, Jim Splaine, described Gardner’s early days in politics as follow.
The 1970s at the N.H. State House were quite exciting for those of us who were young. It didn't seem to matter whether a "D" or an "R" was next to our name. There was no line of demarcation of who we could be friends with. And a young Bill Gardner showed a remarkable ability to find common interests with people twice, even three times his age. Vietnam, fighting racism and poverty and recovering from a decade of assassinations were more important than finding ways to hate one another.
Gardner will be most remembered as the guardian of the New Hampshire first in the nation presidential primary. Primary elections began at the state level as a progressive movement reform over a hundred years ago. The motivation was to bring presidential elections out of smoke filled convention back rooms and in the hands of the voters. The first New Hampshire Primary was held in 1916. New Hampshire scheduled their primary as first in the nation in 1920 and has held that position ever since. In 1948 New Hampshire passed legislation allowing registered voters to directly cast votes for presidential candidates. The Eisenhower election in 1952 is widely recognized as the start of the modern New Hampshire first era. Gardner has been the warrior guardian of the New Hampshire first tradition since 1980. He has fought back attack after attack from among the many states and against both political parties to unseat New Hampshire’s first primary position.
In a Washington Post interview last week, Gardner had the following observations about the New Hampshire primary.
“There’s a reason why it’s here,” he said of his state’s longevity in helping to pick presidents. “This wasn’t a sapling planted on the main street of a town. It happened here naturally and happened here without New Hampshire ever taking from anyone else. … The people were willing to pay for it when it was not a national event.”
Gardner has been unchallenged as Secretary of State since 1976, until 2018. By my reckoning Gardner is what I view as an old style Democrat. He cut his teeth in the reform minded 70’s during and following the Nixon administration. Democrats in New Hampshire in the 70’s and 80’s maintained conservative values that I wish more Republicans today would display. Politics was common sense, local and personal. Gardner has never changed, but politics in the Granite State has. Gardner’s problems with New Hampshire Democrats grew out of his participation in President Trump’s 2017 commission concerning election integrity and voter fraud. Gardner spoke on the situation during a press conference on his retirement last week reported by WMUR.
Gardner said during a lengthy and at times rambling news conference in his office Monday that he is frustrated with Democrats' efforts in Congress to – in his view – take away the power of the states to conduct their own elections. The voting rights bills Gardner referred to are stalled the U.S. Senate.
In March, Gardner slammed the Democrats’ For the People Act as an attempt at a federal takeover of elections. He said that if the bill became law, the New Hampshire’s authority to set the date of its presidential primary would be put in a “perilous position.”
He had the same view of the scaled back Freedom to Vote Act" in October.
The For the People Act and the Freedom to Vote Act are attempts by Congress to expand voter registration and access and restrict circumstances removing of voters from the rolls. Gardner’s joining the Trump voter fraud commission, combined with his criticism of Congressional voting reform legislation, prompted former Executive Councilor and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern to run for secretary of state in 2018. Many in New Hampshire found Van Ostern’s opposition to Garnder as bringing partisan politics to a traditionally bipartisan position. It most definitely felt like political payback for Garnder’s squabble with the state’s two Democrat senators.
WMUR summerized the Democrat dust up as follows.
In 2017, the vice chairman of the commission, staunch Trump supporter and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, charged that voter fraud in New Hampshire resulted in U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan’s close election victory over former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in November 2016.
Sens. Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen immediately called for Gardner to step down from the panel, charging that Kobach’s claims were further proof that the Trump commission was set up solely to legitimize Trump’s claims that widespread voter fraud, including in New Hampshire, cost Trump the popular vote the previous year.
"Secretary Gardner's association with this partisan commission risks tarnishing his long legacy of fighting for the New Hampshire Primary and promoting voter participation, and it would be in keeping with his distinguished record to immediately relinquish any role with this commission," Shaheen and Hassan said at the time.
But Gardner flatly rejected their call, saying, “It’s hypocritical to ask me to step down as a member of a federal commission. Have they ever stepped down from a Senate committee or a committee that they serve on because they disagreed with someone on the committee?”
Gardner expressed concern for the erosion of public trust concerning our election process.
“It’s sad today that so many people in this country have reached the point in time when they do not believe that our president was elected legitimately,” Gardner said. “And when there have been attempts in the past to deal with it – the percentages now are much higher than before, but it was at least a half-a-dozen years before the previous president became president that national polling firms found repeatedly high percentages of people believing there was a lack of integrity in our elections.
“For our future, this is extremely important," he said. "Because if it's like what happened to that commission where basically it was not allowed to exist.... It was denounced, condemned, there over 25 court cases involved -- and I felt that it was an opportunity to get everybody together to see everything and hopefully people could walk away with a better feel about it.”
Gardner – without referencing Trump or the 2020 presidential election – said, “Now, it’s just getting worse. It’s worse than 10 years ago, five years ago -- and it is a crying shame in the country.
Garner as Secretary of State is a New Hampshire institution. Selfish of me to feel that he is retiring at the very time his integrity and common sense are most in need. Wish only the best for a well earned retirement. In 2024 folks up here will be thinking “where have you gone Bill Garnder? Our state has turned our lonely eyes to you for as long as most can remember.
You can read in more detail about Bill Gardner and the New Hampshire Primary with the following links.
Washington Post on Gardner and the NH Primary
WMUR on Gardner and the NH Primary
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Thanks for highlighting this fellow. With the nationalization of our politics and media, I don't feel like we hear enough about the folks doing good work and serving the public at the local level.
Never heard about him, until I read your piece here. He seems to be a rarer and rarer breed of public servant, with integrity beyond reproach. Especially in an era of increased partisan tribalism. Obviously, I don't know as much about Gardner and his record as you do. But I'd think that Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling would be of similar company, all being dedicated, honorable public servants.