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Former Manchester Lawmaker Adds Name to Race for N.H. Secretary of State

NHPR Staff

Dissatisfied with both the incumbent and his well-financed challenger, another Democrat is putting himself forward as an alternative to longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

Former Manchester Representative and Alderman Peter Sullivan says he respects Gardner’s 42 years years of service in the position but believes it’s time to put someone more forward-thinking in the role.

“He deserves our gratitude for bringing the Secretary of State's office into the 20th century. The problem is that he left it there,” Sullivan said. “The office is in desperate need of modernization and it needs to be more cognizant of the different challenges that we face in New Hampshire in 2018 than we saw in 1976.”

At the same time, Sullivan isn’t happy with the campaign to unseat Gardner that was recently launched by former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern.

Van Ostern, also a Democrat, has raised more than $45,000 in a first-of-its-kind political committee meant to advance his bid for Secretary of State. Because lawmakers have the final say in choosing the position, that fund will be used to bankroll legislative candidates who support Van Ostern’s agenda.

“This shouldn't be a quid pro quo,” Sullivan said. “The election should be based on who has the best ideas, the best agenda, the best temperament for the position. It shouldn't be based on who handed you a $50, $100 check for your own state rep campaign."

While their campaign tactics might differ, both Sullivan and Van Ostern have similar priorities for the office: modernizing its approach to business filings, expanding voting access and giving towns more control over local election scheduling. Both also want to work with the Legislature to reform the state’s redistricting process.

Sullivan says he has been mulling a bid for Secretary of State “for some time now.” But part of what drove him to step forward at this point is disappointment over Gardner’s recent involvement in the Trump administration’s now-defunct election integrity commission, led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

“It was part of that broader problem of Bill being out of touch with the political realities that we're dealing with now," Sullivan said. "I'm not sure what compelled Bill to decide to participate in the Kobach commission. It was the wrong move.”

Gardner, for his part, has said he hoped the commission would be a beneficial vehicle for studying why so many people are disenchanted with the nation’s election process and working on solutions to encourage greater voter engagement.

Sullivan, like Van Ostern, also said he disagreed with Gardner’s approach to mitigating scheduling issues presented by a recent string of snowstorms that have shown up just in time for town elections.

Gardner, backed up by the attorney general’s office, maintains that New Hampshire law does not allow anyone to reschedule those elections. Sullivan says local officials, not the state, should have the final say.

“Should there be some guidelines? Yeah, absolutely. You don't want a moderator or board of selectmen deciding to move the election when there's no real valid reason for doing so,” Sullivan said. “But the last two years, we've seen serious storms on Election Day, and it's crazy to expect people to put their life at risk to be able to go for their local selectman or school board member.”

Both candidates, and the incumbent, will have plenty of time to differentiate themselves in the months ahead — lawmakers won’t finalize the position until after this fall’s elections, when a new Legislature is in place.

Casey McDermott is an editor and reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, where she works with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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