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Race for N.H. Secretary of State Comes Down to the Wire

Josh Rogers / NHPR

Wednesday is the day lawmakers will pick New Hampshire’s next Secretary of State, and both candidates—42-year incumbent Bill Gardner and his challenger, former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern—are hustling for support. 


When allies of Bill Gardner filled the lobby of the Legislative Office Building to rally support before Wednesday’s election, a few things were conspicuous. One is that Bill Gardner himself wasn’t there. Former Governor John Lynch, who has become a point man in Gardner’s effort to keep his job, said many details of this race remain in Gardner’s own hands.


“I haven’t talked to him in terms of how many people he’s called. I don’t know what his vote count is, he’s doing a lot of this work by himself, as he has done since 1976.”


Even so, this rally could be called Gardner-esque. It featured a roster of political elders, with a strong tendency to look backward:


"Fifty years ago this year I was elected my first term."


"I think I am the second-oldest serving alive town clerk in the state of New Hampshire."


"I came to these halls in 1972, I'm the last living member of the class of 1972, but better than that I had Bill Gardner as a student when he was 13 years of age at Bishop Bradley high school."


That was former lawmaker Jim Splalne, Wolfeboro Town Clerk Pat Waterman and Lou D'Allesandro – New Hampshire's current longest-serving state senator.


So the old guard of state politics is where Bill Gardner’s support runs strongest. And former GOP Governor Steve Merrill was the first of many rallyers to argue the focus of this race should be Gardner’s long record, and what they see as his resolute non-partisanship.

“Make no mistake about it ladies and gentlemen, we need Bill Gardner, to hold the first-in-the-nation primary and to keep the standards of New Hampshire what they’ve always been.”


This argument has served Bill Gardner for decades, and may still do the trick this year, but he’s never faced a rival as determined as Colin Van Ostern.


“We don’t have the same level of accountability and transparency in that office. There is an urgent need to modernize the office."


That was Van Ostern on Saturday night in Concord. He was having what his campaign was calling a non-partisan conversation at a community center. These have covered everything from vital records, to election administration, to the office’s website design.

Credit Josh Rogers / NHPR
Colin Van Ostern speaks with a state representative in Concord over the weekend.


For nine months, Van Ostern has been working state reps one by one, first focusing on candidates, then those who won election. The methodical approach helped him beat Gardner by an 8-1 margin in a vote by House Democrats last month. Van Ostern insists he’s taking nothing for granted.


"Secretary Gardner is a much better politician than people give him credit for and I suspect it will be a very close race."


For that to be the case, Bill Gardner will likely need some support from the new crop of lawmakers Van Ostern has worked to cultivate. As Gardner supporter Jim McConaha left the State House rally, he said the generation gap could be a challenge.


“I think that’s a big factor. Their world is different than mine. It’s pretty damn hard.”


Lawmakers will choose the next Secretary of State on Wednesday.


Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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