He's Defended the N.H. Primary for Decades. Why? 'It Gives the Little Guy a Chance'

Nov 12, 2015

For the past two weeks, presidential candidates have been handing in the paperwork needed to qualify for the New Hampshire primary ballot. In doing so, they also come face to face with Secretary of State Bill Gardner, whose office oversees the election. He's also the man most responsible for ensuring that New Hampshire has retained its first-in-the-nation status when it comes to the presidential primary calendar.

When Florida Senator Marco Rubio stepped into Gardner's office last week, it was for a fairly simple purpose: to put his name on the primary ballot. But he also got an impromptu history lesson, courtesy of the secretary himself.

“We are doing it this year on the desk of the person who actually wrote the legislation in 1913 creating the New Hampshire Primary, and his picture is right behind you there, the one on the right and that is the straw hat. And the family has given this,” Gardner as Rubio prepared his filing papers.  

For Rubio it was the straw hat. For businessman Donald Trump, the centuries old ballot boxes. For Martin O’Malley it was the antique desk. 

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Gardner has perfected this routine over the nearly 40 years he’s been in office. His duties are wide-ranging, but he’s best known for his perfect record in keeping New Hampshire’s presidential primary at the front of the nominating calendar every four years.

 Walk into his State House office, and you'll find plenty of photos of candidates filing through the decades. But in Gardner's personal work space there’s nothing: No family photos, no college diploma, not even an A.C. in the window during summer months. Just as it's been for four decades.

“I said to myself, I want to walk out as easy as I walk in," Gardner explained. "So  you’re sitting in the same chair, the desk is in the same place.”

Every candidate to come into the Secretary of State's office to file signs a souvenir voters notice, kept by Bill Gardner.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Always ready with a story

In person Gardner is far from flashy: wire rimmed glasses, cardigan sweaters, soft spoken. But the man does love to talk. When he took over the office, he hung up a "Welcome" sign and started an open door policy.

And if you do happen to be one of the many who stop in for a visit, you can bet you’ll leave knowing a little more about New Hampshire history.

During my sit-down with him, I didn’t get a single question in before Gardner launched into a history quiz, about the nation's first presidential election.

It was classic Gardner: A bit of history, a bit meandering, very earnest. 

Related: Decades-Long Defender of N.H. Primary Dips into his Vault of Political Tales

Gardner's his favorite stories are about the New Hampshire primary, however offbeat. Like the time, in 1980, when a gorilla named Colossus G. Benson tried to file for the primary.

“But the chimp got a little agitated and ended up jumping on that stand up desk, hanging from that light out there, completely in white – white pants, white tie,” Gardner said laughing.

A longtime friend of Gardner, former state representative Jim Splaine, said the secretary shows every candidate the same respect when he or she comes through his office.

“If you are going to run in New Hampshire even if you don’t stand a chance, you have to file. He will meet you, he will talk to you, he will treat you like the important person that you are the day that you file,” Splaine said.

Even if it’s not a presidential candidate, Gardner has a knack for making people feel welcomed.

By the end of our three-hour interview, Gardner’s cell phone rang three times, his secretary walked in twice to leave him messages and someone sat waiting outside his office for more than an hour. But through it all, Gardner's attention didn’t wander for a second.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham got a lesson on the centuries-old ballot boxes when he came in to file on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

In the eye of the political storm

This is Gardner’s moment, every four years when the primary rolls around.  And although his duties are wide-ranging, he’s best known for his perfect record in keeping New Hampshire’s primary first.

And Gardner will be quick to tell you, he has the law on his side. Since 1975, New Hampshire law requires the primary be held at least a week before any similar election.

But he’s also brought a personal passion to the effort.

“If you had a national primary, it would be only fundraising, all fundraising and then buying on the major media outlets in the country," Gardner said. "This gives a chance for people to see how someone reacts in an unscripted moment – it gives the little guy a chance.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio meets with Secretary of State Bill Gardner when filing for president in N.H. on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2015.
Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR

David Scanlan, Gardner’s long-term deputy, said the secretary’s impeccable patience and tactical savvy allow him to hold off on setting the primary before any other state.

“He has an uncanny ability to just see the moving parts of how New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary is run," Scanlan said. "He’s able to see the potential threats from other states, he knows the players.”

And they know him. Though not all are fans. 

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean recently described Gardner as “autocratic.” And in states where officials have tried to horn in on New Hampshire’s early voting…Gardner’s name is uttered with scorn.

Former Chair of the Nevada Republican Party, Amy Tarkanian, got a taste of Gardner’s stubbornness in 2011 when her state failed to move up its caucus date after Gardner threatened to push the New Hampshire primary into December. 

“You know I understand there is tradition and people value that but I think it would be more helpful if he had conversations with people and didn’t act like he was king of the hill,” Tarkanian said.

Businessman Donald Trump jokes with Gardner earlier this month.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

A steady record of success

Although Gardner is notorious for his bullishness when it comes to the primary, he insists New Hampshire has earned this position.

“History speaks for itself; it’s a pretty good record,” Gardner said.

Since 1952, thirteen out of the last 16 presidents have won the New Hampshire primary. The other three were runners-up.

But his unrelenting focus on the primary also leaves Gardner open to occasional criticism that he neglects the other duties of his office.

The secretary of state is appointed by the Legislature every two years and is responsible for maintaining the state’s vital records, state archives, election laws, securities regulation and various corporate filings.

But a 2007 audit faulted Gardner’s department for its money management, out-of-date computer system and lack of a sufficient monitoring infrastructure.

Still, Gardner has survived – and thrived.  He has not been seriously challenged for his job in decades.  Early in his career he served in the Legislature as a Democrat. Now, he's as apolitical as you can get.

Donna Sytek, former Republican speaker of the New Hampshire House, said his ability to make friends on both sides of the aisle has provided him that job security. Sytek should know.  She ran unsuccessfully against Gardner for the secretary position in 1984 under a Republican majority.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has a laugh while filing for the N.H. Primary.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

“Most secretaries of state are elected statewide, so that’s a stepping stone to being governor or being senator or something, but he has never looked at it as a stepping stone to anything. To him this is the destination,” Sytek said. 

And one he’s not likely to leave.  Gardner said he has no plans to retire soon. The presidential primary is scheduled for February 9. And the following day, it seems safe to say, Gardner will already be thinking ahead to the next one…in 2020.