Once more, NH elections chief plays a primary role

AP News

10/21/2011 4:11:26 PM - AP News

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner was a stickler for the rules from the start. In 1976, after the state Legislature chose him to oversee state elections, the Republican speaker of the House moved to swear in Gardner, just 28, immediately, but the young Democrat asked whether that was proper procedure.

Without realizing the microphone in front of them was on, the speaker sneered, "Do you want the job, kid, or not?"

Gardner did and, 35 years later, he still does. He's the nation's longest-serving secretary of state, and every four years his influence in election matters extends far beyond New Hampshire.

State law requires that New Hampshire's presidential primary be held at least seven days ahead of any other state, and it gives the secretary of state exclusive authority to select a date.

For the 2012 election Florida and then Nevada jumped ahead of the dates national GOP leaders had promoted. Gardner responded with a challenge, announcing last week that he was prepared to schedule New Hampshire's primary in early December to avoid squeezing it between the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and Nevada's Jan. 14 date.

Nevada officials initially scoffed at Gardner's threat, but by Thursday they said they were reconsidering. A vote on setting the date is expected Saturday in Reno. Gardner appears to have won the standoff _ again.

Similar scenarios with other states have played out for decades. The perception that the bookish, bald Gardner is, at 62, some kind of political supreme sparked a series of tongue-in-cheek Tweets about his supposed powers.

"Until he took office, pieces of legislation were called Toms," wrote New England Cable News reporter Lauren Collins.

"God wanted to create the world in 11 days. Bill Gardner said seven," wrote Las Vegas political reporter Jon Ralston.

The quips gave Gardner a laugh. But he insists it's the primary that's important and powerful, not him.

"I just want to preserve the tradition of the New Hampshire primary," he said, "and that tradition allows for the little guy to have a chance at the dream in America that anyone's son or daughter can someday grow up to be president."

He didn't plan on a career in politics. A lifelong Manchester resident, he began raising roosters and hens as a kid, selling the eggs for pocket money. He majored in zoology at the University of New Hampshire and at least flirted with the idea of becoming a farmer.

As UNH senior class president in 1970, spurred by seeing friends get drafted and killed in Vietnam, Gardner became an advocate for lowering the voting age to 18. That cause in part inspired him to run for the state Legislature two years later. He spent four years on the committee that oversees campaign laws, and when the secretary of state died in office, he decided to seek the position. He has been re-elected every two years since by Republican and Democratic legislatures alike.

He doesn't accept campaign donations. He doesn't attend political events. He takes nothing for granted _ in 35 years, he has not decorated his office. His door is open to anyone, from lawmakers and reporters to the priests who lobbied him against setting a primary date that conflicts with Orthodox Christmas.

Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, calls Gardner an even-handed broker and the most respected person in New Hampshire.

"In New Hampshire, a lot of times top activists will become very close to candidates, and their loyalties go to the candidates rather than to the state and the primary. They have many, many times tried to persuade him to do things that would be advantageous for their candidate and not necessarily for the state," Levesque said. "His rejection of that is pretty strong, and it's noteworthy."

Gardner turns to state history to back up his firm stance against states that try to usurp New Hampshire's special status. It's been holding the nation's first primary since 1920, and Gardner sees the state as a model of hands-on democracy.

"We don't pick who gets on the ballot," he said. "We don't allow just big-shots to run. We have a very open process here _ and there's no other place like this."

Steve Sebelius, political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, blamed the 2012 calendar mess in part on Gardner.

"Revered by the political media for his decades in control of the nation's first primary, Gardner combines arrogance and a comically inflated sense of the Granite State's importance in mind-bogglingly equal measure," Sebelius wrote in a column.

Gardner doesn't blink at such criticism and, supported by state law and lawmakers, he doesn't have to.

Some years ago, Gardner and former Gov. Hugh Gregg were driving through northern New Hampshire to deliver some of Gardner's chickens when a hen in the backseat started cackling in a way that meant an egg was imminent.

Gardner crawled over the seat, picked up the warm egg and handed it to Gregg. "When they're ready," he said, "they're ready."

Gardner moves when he's ready, too. Unflappable then, unflappable now.