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Van Ostern political fundraising spurs bill to block PACs from secretary of state race 

  • Colin Van Ostern, foreground, watches proceedings from the balcony of the House Chamber at the Statehouse, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Concord, N.H. In New Hampshire's secretary of state race that could affect the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary standing, lawmakers decide whether to go with longtime veteran, William Gardner, or Van Ostern, a challenger younger than the 42 years Gardner has served. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • Colin Van Ostern waits to go into the gallery before the vote on the Secretary of State at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 1/17/2019 5:11:27 PM

It was the most expensive Secretary of State race in New Hampshire history. Now, some lawmakers are pushing to scale back the public fundraising. 

A bill debated Thursday would prohibit candidates for New Hampshire’s secretary of state and treasurer from forming political advocacy committees to raise money, months after Colin Van Ostern amassed more than $200,000 in an unsuccessful bid to take down incumbent Bill Gardner.

The legislation, House Bill 374, would prevent the candidates from soliciting donations or being involved in the decision making for other PACs.

In March 2017, Van Ostern created Free and Fair New Hampshire, a PAC to help his campaign against Gardner in an election where only state legislators were able to vote. Most of the $212,000 spent went to printing and mailing costs as well as salaries for a four-person campaign staff, according to filings with the Secretary of State. The donations came largely from small-dollar individual donations, though some in-state and out-of-state donors contributed more than $1,000.

At a hearing before the House Election Law Committee on Thursday, supporters argued that soliciting donations for a position elected by the legislature was inappropriate. And they said that banning the PACs from future elections would remove money and political influence from a position meant to be neutral.

“This bill is not about the three good people who ran for secretary of state last year,” said Jim Splaine, a former legislator from Portsmouth speaking in support of the bill. “This bill is about process.”

The bill was modeled after a law in Maine, a state that also elects its secretary of state through the legislature and prohibits political contributions, Splaine said.

But barely a month after the Dec. 5 result that saw Van Ostern miss victory by two votes, lingering frustrations punctuated the hearing.

Supporters said Van Ostern’s political action committee opened his campaign to the possibility of influence.

“People want favors when they throw a lot of money at you,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry. “We know how that works. ... Why would we want our secretary of state beholden – and our treasurer – to donors with big money supporting them.”

But to others, like Rep. Will Pearson, that fundraising was the only tool available to take on an incumbent like Gardner, now serving his 22nd term in office and whose position, Pearson argued, gave him a built-in advantage. 

“Would you believe that during the most recent secretary of state election that the secretary of state did indeed invite legislators to his office, he used staff in his office to advance his own campaign for the election?” the Keene representative asked a sponsor of the bill, rhetorically.

The bill brought both sides of the contentious election effort into the fray. Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan testified in favor of the bill, stressing that he was doing so out of concern for the process and not December’s narrow victory.

Scanlan said contributions by legislators to a successful secretary of state candidate could create a conflict of interest when it comes to overseeing elections. And he said the donations could allow outside companies to influence policy or vendors.

“The secretary of state has to be above reproach,” Scanlan said. “He has to run the office without being partisan.”

Van Ostern, who did not attend the hearing, defended his PAC in a statement Thursday, saying that it was created in part to organize informational events on voting with citizens.

He echoed concerns over an incumbency advantage, charging Gardner with campaigning from his office on state time and using state employees to arrange re-election efforts.

And he criticized the bill as inefficient, arguing that it would not prevent other types of fundraising that don’t involve PACs, which aren’t as transparent.

“The practical implication of this legislation would be to remove all contribution limits and public disclosure, increase the influence of untraceable and unaccountable dark money in New Hampshire politics, and do nothing to impede anyone from raising or spending money itself,” Van Ostern said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Still, Splaine said the bill was meant to achieve an ideal process.

“I think this is protecting everyone, and keeping that individual aloof,” he said.

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