CONCORD — After what felt like the longest election cycle ever, the nation’s longest serving secretary of state said Thursday he will seek a 23rd two-year term in New Hampshire.
First elected by the Legislature in 1976, Bill Gardner faced little competition until two years ago, when he defeated former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern by just four votes. He kept quiet about his plans for the next biennium until he finished overseeing recounts for the most recent elections.
“Three months ago or a year ago or even three weeks ago, I didn’t know if I was going to do it or not,” he said in an interview.
Gardner, 72, has built a reputation for fiercely defending New Hampshire’s position at the front of the presidential primary calendar. This year’s Feb. 11 contest was under extra scrutiny after the leadoff Iowa caucuses descended into chaos, with technical problems and results that remained muddied for days.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which created challenges for municipal elections and traditional Town Meetings in March, followed by the September state primary and November general election. The state temporarily expanded eligibility for absentee voting for those concerned about the pandemic, and extensive safety measures were in place at the polls. All of that influenced his decision, Gardner said.
“Because of the anxiety out there and the second-guessing about what needed to be done to make it successful, many people had ideas about it and were expressing them vehemently,” he said. “The way we did it was going to be tested.”
In the end, things went smoothly, thanks to the hard work of local election officials, Gardner said. His goal should he win another term remains simple:
“I’m going to maintain the integrity and independence of this office,” said Gardner, a Democrat who neither accepts campaign donations nor gets involved in political activity.
“That to me is extremely important in protecting the nonpartisian tradition of this office,” he said.
In recent years, Gardner came under fire from Democrats for his participation in President Donald Trump’s commission on voter fraud and for backing GOP legislation to tighten voter registration rules. That created an opening for Van Ostern, who campaigned for months on a platform of modernizing the office, holding it accountable and resisting what he viewed as voter suppression measures.
Former state Rep. William Pearson, a Keene Democrat who had been considering a run, said Thursday he will not seek the position. The House clerk’s office said no one else has come forward yet. Voting is set for Dec. 2.