Five former N.H. governors endorse Bill Gardner for secretary of state

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner speaks to legislators at Room 100 at the State House on Tuesday, November 27, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

For the Monitor
Published: 11/28/2018 2:38:25 PM

Five former governors – four Republicans and one Democrat – are backing Bill Gardner’s bid for a 22nd two-year term as New Hampshire’s top election official.

The governors – Republicans John H. Sununu (1983-89), Judd Gregg (1989-93), Steve Merrill (1993-97) and Craig Benson (2003-05), with Democrat John Lynch (2005-13) – signed an open letter released Wednesday that highlighted Gardner’s non-partisan independence and urged Granite Staters to “contact your Representative or Senator and ask that they vote for Bill Gardner on December 5th.”

“Sadly, the effort to replace Secretary of State Bill Gardner is not about new ideas or forward thinking,” they wrote. “It’s about politics – plain and simple.”

Gardner is grappling with his most difficult re-election in decades as he faces with challenger Colin Van Ostern, a former two-term executive councilor and the 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Gardner, a former Democratic state representative, enjoys the support of most Republican state lawmakers but is being opposed by many in his own party.

Early next month all 424 re-elected and newly-elected state lawmakers are sworn in and then proceed to vote for secretary of state. Democrats recaptured both chambers of the General Court in this month’s election and will hold a sizeable 233-167 majority in the House and a 14-10 advantage in the Senate.

Van Ostern overwhelmingly won a non-binding test vote earlier this month among House Democrats, which served as a very loud wake up call for Gardner and his supporters.

“We have each witnessed Bill Gardner, regardless of the makeup of New Hampshire government, execute (his) duties with absolute independence and incorruptible motive,” the governors wrote. “Whether we have agreed with his position on a particular issue, Bill Gardner’s perspective is one steeped in historical understanding, not partisan allegiance.”

Lynch, the only Democrat to sign the governors’ letter, had previously endorsed Gardner and introduced him to lawmakers ahead of the secretary of state’s appearance at this month’s Democratic House caucus.

Two former Democratic governors who are now U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen (1997-2003) and Maggie Hassan (2013-17), say they were not asked to sign the letter. Both senators have said they decided not to weigh in on the secretary of state’s race.

“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,” Hassan said in a statement. “I’m confident that New Hampshire will continue to have the first in the nation primary no matter who the legislature selects.”

Shaheen’s office had no further comment.

Gardner’s once impeccable reputation with members of both parties has taken a hit the past two years with Democrats. They are furious over his participation last year on President Donald Trump’s controversial and now disbanded voter integrity commission. Shaheen and Hassan, as well as the rest of the state’s all-Democrat congressional delegation and Democratic Statehouse leaders, called on Gardner to quit the commission.

Gardner acknowledged that some Democrats “may never forgive me” for serving on the commission. But he argued that “it was better that New Hampshire be represented that not and was bringing the New Hampshire values and my values to that commission. And it’s better to be at the table than on the menu.”

Many Democrats are angry with the secretary of state for his support for two GOP sponsored bills passed into law the past two years that tighten the state’s voter eligibility requirements, which many Democrats characterize as voter suppression measures.

Pushing back against his critics, Gardner has repeatedly pointed to this month’s election, highlighting that the state had the highest turnout of any midterm vote.

Since announcing his candidacy in March, Van Ostern’s been actively campaigning for the job. His “Free and Fair New Hampshire” political action committee raised over $200,000 in donations and spent the money to promote his proposals to reform and modernize the office, including holding more than 200 forums around the state with legislative candidates.

“I think we need a more modern and accountable secretary of state’s office and we need to do a better job of protecting the rights of every voter, and every local official who helps make our elections work well,” Van Ostern has argued in making his case.

While Van Ostern has said he would keep it a non-partisan office, most Republicans view him as a partisan Democratic operative.

The former governors, in their letter, cited Gardner’s efforts to protect New Hampshire’s treasured century-long status as the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House.

“Secretary Gardner has fiercely and successfully defended the primary throughout his tenure and has proven to be a trustworthy steward. Certainly, politics has an obvious place in New Hampshire’s landscape. But it has no place in the Secretary of State’s office,” they wrote.

“Make no mistake, the effort to replace Bill Gardner is a strategic political operation that threatens the independent foundation of the office, and New Hampshire’s privileged place in the selection process.”

Several of the former governors who signed the letter, as well as members from the state’s business community and veterans groups are expected to hold a news conference Monday on the steps of the State House to highlight their support for Gardner’s re-election.

Van Ostern said New Hampshire’s former political leaders are welcome to “resist change” based on their past experiences working with Gardner, but the state Constitution gives the choice to the incoming Legislature and no else.

“I agree that he served well for many years, but I’ve also heard from countless lawmakers and local officials that the actions and judgment coming from the Secretary of State’s office in this current decade show a clear need for change,” Van Ostern said in a statement. “No one is entitled to this job, even after 42 years; This is why we have elections.”

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