The Man Who Keeps New Hampshire First
CONCORD, N.H. -- A few weeks ago, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner received a phone call from someone in Utah whom he'd never met.
The caller passed along some troubling news: The state House of Representatives had just approved legislation that would, in theory, allow Utah to hold its presidential primary a week before New Hampshire’s.
“Well,” Gardner replied. “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”
For anyone who has had even a brief interaction with Bill Gardner, this understated response to the latest challenge to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary would not come as a surprise.
It’s not that he isn’t fervent about protecting the Granite State’s special status, which has been in place since 1920. Gardner is, in fact, borderline fanatical about doing just that.
But Teddy Roosevelt’s famous advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick” has worked rather nicely for the preternaturally modest and well-liked secretary of state throughout his 38-year tenure.
Just about every four years, a new would-be usurper -- sometimes several of them -- rises to challenge New Hampshire, seeking to leapfrog it on the primary calendar. The arguments for doing so are familiar: the northeastern state is too small, too homogenous, and too entitled to play such an outsized role in electing the next president.
And every four years, New Hampshire wins.
“We never took it from anyone else, and it’s not artificial,” Gardner said of the primary’s place at the head of the line. “It evolved and became something. It happened to end up being first for over half a century and then it became something that a lot of people thought was a good thing -- that the little guy has a place to have a chance.”
No living person, in any state, embodies more completely the unique ritual by which Americans have chosen their presidents over the last four decades than Gardner does.
A walking encyclopedia of the primary’s history, he can turn a question about criticisms of the state’s lack of racial diversity into a half-hour soliloquy on the role that New Hampshire residents played in the civil rights movement -- a monologue he cut down to about 10 minutes when he delivered it privately to Barack Obama after the Illinois senator came to his office to file for the 2008 Democratic contest.
At 65, Gardner’s memory for detail remains astonishing, as he is inclined to recount word-for word conversations he had decades ago. And once he is in mid-story, it is nearly impossible to divert his attention.
The manner in which he does his job is almost exactly the same now as how he did it during the Carter administration. A believer in paper ballots, hard-copy files and verbal communication, Gardner doesn’t have a computer in his personal office on the second floor of the state capitol, where he often greets walk-in visitors with a smile and a story.
A copy of the New Hampshire Manual for the General Court (the veritable Bible of state governance) is rarely out of reach. And never far from his mind is RSA Section 653:9 of state law, which stipulates that New Hampshire’s presidential primary “shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election.”
Despite his perfect record at beating back challenges from other states, Gardner remains vigilant against future fights in the vein of Utah’s recent push, which fizzled out in the state Senate.
“I’m always concerned about it,” he said.
Still, Gardner has little cause for being truly worried, as both national parties have taken steps to safeguard New Hampshire’s special status in following the Iowa caucuses.
Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee passed new rules for the GOP nominating contest, which mandate that the process begin no earlier than Feb. 1, while preserving the privileges of the four so-called “carve out” states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- and boosting penalties for rule-breakers.
Gardner always waits until the rest of the calendar is set before naming the primary date, which varies year to year depending on circumstances, and he has never once had to make a change after declaring it publicly.
His defense of the state’s traditional role in the process is as sincere and intense as ever, and he argues that it is even more essential in the post-Citizens United era.
“Look at what’s happening in campaigns -- it’s all money,” he said. “The one-day national primary, from an academic standpoint, you can make the case. And you can say, ‘That’s democracy at its purest. Everyone has the same vote on the same day, and no one has any more influence than anyone else.’ But when you get into the details of that, it’s just going to be fundraisers for two years and buying on the major media markets of the country these ads. And the testing of the character, the unscripted moments are kaput.”
Near the beginning of a two-hour-long interview last week, a longtime member of Gardner’s small staff entered his office with a note, which let him know that Tom Rath -- a longtime Republican operative and one of the most powerful figures in New Hampshire politics -- was on the phone.
Gardner waved off the aide.
“OK, I’ll call him back,” he said before returning to the point he had been making about the New Hampshire colonists who played prominent roles in the nation’s founding.
Indeed, Gardner is far more in his element when talking about the past than he is in discussing the future. And one topic he’d clearly prefer not to discuss is how much longer he intends to keep his job, which the state legislature votes to reappoint him to every two years.
Asked whether and when he might consider retiring, Gardner shifted in his seat uncomfortably.
He noted that his sparsely furnished office looks just about exactly the same as when he started -- lack of computer and all.
“I said to myself that I may only be here two years,” Gardner recalled of the day he became secretary of state at the age of 28 after winning an upset victory. “I want to walk out of here as easy as I walked in.”
For New Hampshire politicos, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to imagine a world in which Bill Gardner is not in charge of protecting the primary.
The idea appears to be just as unfathomable to Gardner himself.
“I don’t have any plans for a certain time,” he said. “God willing, I’ll be OK to be here for a while.”
He took a long pause and collected his thoughts.
“When it’s time, it’s time,” he added.