By Sarah Kneezle
CONCORD, N.H.. 11/16/07 – As states push harder to reverse New
Hampshire’s role in holding the first-in-the-nation primary, Secretary
of State Bill Gardner stands before them, as he has for 30 years, to
guard the Granite State’s vaunted polling position.
This has been a trying year, as states stack up on Feb. 5, and the
most brazen — Florida and Michigan — have tried to leapfrog ahead of
New Hampshire, famous for its independent electorate and “retail”
door-to-door politics.
But if Bill Gardner is anything, he’s a patient man. He alone decides
when New Hampshire primary voters will vote. And he’s not going to say
until a court challenge to Michigan, which has attempted to move its
Democratic primary to Jan. 15 — ahead of New Hampshire’s — is
“Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ‘An ounce of history is worth a
pound of logic,’” Gardner said in his cramped, spare, but still regal
office in the Concord State House. “You can’t replicate this culture
that goes back to the beginning—we (New Hampshire) declared
independence six months before the Declaration of Independence was
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Gardner, one of the most powerful
men in primary politics, graduated from University of New Hampshire
with a degree in, of all things, zoology.
Despite only taking one course in political science, he has served 16
terms as New Hampshire’s Democratic Secretary of State and has a
unique grasp of his state’s political history.
“How did New Hampshire end up like this?” he said with a New England
accent while thumbing the pages of The Life of Edward H. Rollins:
A Political Biography,
a book about a U.S. congressman and
senator from New Hampshire in the 1860s. “The answer is it is a long
In the two-hour interview, the loquacious Gardner takes Oliver Wendell
Holmes’ words quite literally. Whenever he is asked a question about
why his state should hold the first primary, he easily recites from
over 200 years of the state’s past.
“Lincoln wrote a letter to his wife from New Hampshire,” he said with
excited blue eyes. “You can’t take what’s here and grow it. It’s the
shortest distance between the citizens and its government. Candidates
can’t be imperial here!”
He may be right; the state has over 400 members in its House of
Representatives — one for every 4,000 citizens in the state. And like
neighboring Vermont, it elects its governor every two years instead of
the usual four.
Under a 1975 state law, the secretary of state has the power to set
the date of the state primary without approval of the legislature.
Just a year after that law was enacted, a 28-year-old Gardner was
appointed to the post by a Republican majority in the state’s
That means the somewhat modest and soft-spoken 59-year-old has had
plenty of time to craft his poker face; he gives absolutely no sign
when the primary will be held (though pundits are betting it will be
Jan. 8 if Michigan’s date does not move again). He either genuinely
does not know, or, in northern New England’s sardonic tradition, he’ll
tell when he darn well pleases.
“December has never been beyond the realm of possibility,” he said
while pointing to the political purgatory that he’s facing with
Michigan. “As a voter I wouldn’t want it the day after my Christmas.”
Representative Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat who was one of the
original sponsors of the 1975 bill establishing New Hampshire’s as the
first primary, now contributes to a handful of New Hampshire’s many
political blogs.
“I decided on giving the sole authority to the Secretary of State,
without even talking with the man then holding that job about taking
it,” he wrote on a blog post at on Oct. 17. “Yes, in a
galaxy long, long ago we did have a Secretary of State before Bill
Gardner, (But the) fact is, that process of a ‘one-call’ primary date
has worked very well since 1980 when Bill Gardner first used his
authority. He sets our date by using his combination of patience,
intelligence, great human skills, and did I mention patience?”
Bev Hollingworth, a former New Hampshire lieutenant governor and a
member of the state’s Executive Council, has known Gardner since the
1970s when they both served in the House of Representatives. She said
that she thinks he just might be bluffing.
“I think he probably has a date very seriously in his mind,” she said.
“He’s going to keep that very closely to his chest. I think he
wouldn’t tell me. First off, I wouldn’t ask.”
To many state legislators, Gardner is upholding his responsibility to
the state even if they, like the voters, won’t find out when the
primary will be until the last minute.
Among them is Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, who is serving his fifth term
representing District 20. In 1962, he also was Gardner’s ninth grade
civics teacher at Bishop Bradley High School in Manchester and was
elected to the House of Representatives with Gardner in 1972.
“He was a little guy sitting in the front row seat, and all attentive
to duty,” D’Allesandro recalls. “All prim and proper, and had very
good behavior. Some of his colleagues were little rascals, but Bill
was always good—he really liked civics.”
Other than the all-important date of the primary, Gardner still has an
answer for everything, D’Allesandro said. The secretary of state even
wrote a book with former Republican Gov. Hugh Gregg called, “Why? New
Hampshire: The First-in-the Nation Primary State,” in 2003.
It’s not, Gardner insists, that he wants his state to be more powerful
than the rest. In fact, he said that he hopes that more states will
become relevant. But, how might this happen when, it seems, New
Hampshire and Iowa almost always seem to catapult candidates to the
There are hints in Chapters 5 and 13 of the book, “The Primary Isn’t
for Sale,” and “Back off!” Gardner argues that the political system
would benefit if primaries were spread out more rather than brought
closer together, as has happened this year. Then, he said, voters
would get a better grasp of the politics rather than simply following
the media’s lead. He pointed to the so-called Dean Scream, Howard
Dean’s hoarse call to his supporters after losing Iowa — as an example
of the media’s disproportionate influence (what came across as a
maniacal scream on the news actually was Dean trying to make himself
heard over a raucous crowd).
Gardner is not a fan of the alternative pushed by many this year, as
more than 20 states line up for voting on Feb. 5.
“If we had a one day national primary…it would just be a series of
fund-raisers [for candidates],” he said. “Those who run the campaigns
don’t want unscripted events. New Hampshire is the antithesis,
anti-privilege, open primary—anyone can run.”
Its true: anyone with the $1,000 filing fee can run in New
Hampshire—just ask one of the 46 candidates whose name is listed on
the ballot. And that’s the way it’ll be — at least as long as Bill
Gardner is in charge.