Teetering Icons

Will political reverberations bring down another one?

Illustration by Peter Noonan

Fifteen years ago this month, the Old Man of the Mountain fell off his perch atop Cannon Mountain in Franconia.

It was an event as shocking and surreal as it was inevitable. Deep down, we all knew that one day the Great Stone Face, the icon of Granite State icons, would be gone. We just didn’t know how, why or when.

Which brings us to New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. In political context, the 69-year-old is as mythological and as long-lasting as the Old Man. He has been in his position since 1976, making him the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state.

Gardner has worked with 10 governors, thousands of legislators, and overseen 10 first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primaries. This last point is where Gardner will go down in history books: No other New Hampshire secretary of state has been asked to administer the state law demanding the state hold the nation’s first presidential primary. Without Gardner at the helm, we simply don’t know whether New Hampshire would have given up the nation’s first primary years ago.

But as for the future, we might soon find out. For the first time since 1984, Gardner will face a serious threat this reelection. He really could lose. Unlike most states, voters don’t decide the post, but the 424-member Legislature will, following the November elections.

If this year’s election swings blue and Democrats take over the New Hampshire Legislature as a result, then Gardner could be dismissed. This despite the fact that Gardner himself is a registered Democrat.

Challengers include the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor Colin Van Ostern and former Democratic Manchester state representative Peter Sullivan. Van Ostern may pose the biggest threat considering his efforts to recruit candidates for the Statehouse and fund them.
Gardner himself invited this challenge. He remains unapologetic about his role on a Trump commission looking into voter fraud. The commission only met twice, but Gardner was so involved that one of the meetings was in New Hampshire. The commission was deemed a sham, perpetuating a myth of massive voter fraud with buses of Massachusetts voters rolling in on election day. Under a cloud of controversy, the commission disbanded.

Van Ostern says that Gardner’s participation on the commission wasn’t an anomaly, but part of a pattern of working with Republicans on items like voter ID that Democrats believe restrict voting.

And when you’ve been around for so long, you’ve had lots of chances to make people mad. It still bothers some, for example, that Gardner flirted with the idea of not letting Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders on the ballot over questions about whether he was a Democrat.

Sanders not only went on the ballot, Democrats gave him a 23 point win in the presidential primary over Hillary Clinton.

It is the Republicans who are largely defending Gardner, including the state Republican Party and Republican governor Chris Sununu. They say Gardner’s longtime service to the state speaks for itself.

There will be time to debate the bigger merits to these arguments in the coming months, but it appears Gardner isn’t fighting fire with Van Ostern’s fire. He won’t raise a dime. Won’t require anything of — or advise — a single candidate in either party.

The election will come, and he will administer it. Then, he says, “I’ll call my friends.”
The question this year is just how many friends he has left.

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