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House Democrats Throw Support Behind Van Ostern to Replace Gardner as Secretary of State

Casey McDermott, NHPR
Colin Van Ostern, a former gubernatorial candidate and executive councilor, announced plans to challenge Gardner in March.

New Hampshire House Democrats have put Secretary of State Bill Gardner — a 42-year incumbent and a longtime Democrat himself — on notice that he could be out of a job soon.

At their first caucus after last week’s elections, the House Democratic caucus voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to back Colin Van Ostern as their preferred nominee. The former gubernatorial candidate and executive councilor garnered 179 votes to Gardner’s 23; a third candidate, former Manchester lawmaker Peter Sullivan, got seven votes. 

(Want to catch up more on the race for Secretary of State? Hear all three candidates make their pitch for why they're best for the role on this recent episode of The Exchange.)

Speaking to reporters after the caucus, Van Ostern stressed that Thursday's vote is not the final say — the full Legislature, representatives and senators from both parties, will weigh in when they meet for Organization Day on Dec. 5.

“It’s great to hear such widespread support within one caucus, but I’ve also been doing a tremendous amount of outreach in recent months with Republican members, with Senators, and we’re going to continue to do that in the coming weeks,” said Van Ostern, who has spent months securing support among both new and returning Democrats, and who has also spent more than $200,000 so far on his campaign for Secretary of State.

Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR
A draft of the rule change that Democrats approved on Thursday, allowing for a preliminary vote on the Secretary of State nomination.

Party leaders stressed that Thursday's results were non-binding, and members would be free to make their own decisions when the official vote takes place in December.

A vote on the Secretary of State was not initially on the agenda heading into Thursday’s caucus, however, and its inclusion was a point of some contention at Thursday’s meeting.

Before Thursday, such a vote had not taken place for decades – in part because Gardner has not been challenged, let alone by two candidates from his own party, for years. Instead, the Legislature has fallen into the habit of holding off on considering his re-election until both chambers, and both parties, could weigh in all at once.

Gardner told reporters that Wednesday night was the first he heard the caucus was considering a vote on the Secretary of State nomination during Thursday’s meeting. Sullivan, too, said he was disappointed in the last-minute push for a vote.  

“It was a premature caucus. It was held to try to rush the caucus into a decision before they had all the facts and all of the information at their disposal, and that’s unfortunate,” Sullivan said. “Today would have been a good opportunity for a three-person forum, without a vote being taken.”

Sullivan also vowed to double down on grassroots campaigning — making personal phone calls to each legislator, sending handwritten postcards and generally approaching the endeavor "like we're running for selectman" — between now and the final vote in December. 

"There are a lot of people who literally heard from me for the first time today," Sullivan said, "and I’m not giving up."

Before the caucus finalized plans to vote on Secretary of State, some Democrats inside the room also objected, citing concerns that a partisan vote would be inappropriate and that holding it at the last minute – while Gardner was also tied up overseeing a number of recounts – was unfair.

Once the vote was formally placed on the caucus agenda, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley – who was running the show as party leader – allowed all three candidates to give 20-minute speeches followed by 10 minutes for questions from legislators in the room.

Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman lays out the rules of the Secretary of State selection process, inside the lobby of the Secretary of State's office.

Gardner went first, followed by Van Ostern, then by Sullivan. That order was determined after Buckley wrote “1,” “2,” and “3” on scraps of paper and asked each candidate – or a staffer in the case of Gardner, who was still out of the building attending to a recount vote when the order was determined – to pick one out.

While the incumbent Secretary of State came up short in the Democratic caucus vote, he has been able to count on glowing public endorsements from luminaries of both political parties: Former Gov. John Lynch made a surprise appearance at the State House Thursday to voice support for Gardner inside the caucus room, and top politicos have been penning columns and letters of support in local newspapers for months.

The latest of those came in the form of a bipartisan op-ed published by Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey and former Democratic National Committeeman Terry Shumaker, arguing that Gardner’s “non-partisan approach” and longtime record of protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary made him worthy of another term in office. 

Thursday’s vote came almost exactly 42 years since House Democrats first voted to elect then-28-year-old Gardner as Secretary of State.

“The Democrats […] voted unanimously to support Rep. William Gardner of Manchester for Secretary of State," an item in the Nov. 15, 1976, edition of the Portsmouth Herald read. “The Democrats said Gardner’s management background would help the secretary of state’s office.”

From here, Gardner will likely need to rely on near unanimous support from Republicans if he hopes to hold onto his job.

And the secretary hopes to continue making his case to the rest of the Legislature in the weeks ahead. That includes plans to hold a forum after Thanksgiving where he can respond more fully to some of the specific critiques his opponents have raised about his track record and his office at large.

"Let's go through these allegations and lay everything out on the tabfle, and as a matter of fairness — because I'm in the midst of these recounts, we just had the election nine days ago," Gardner told reporters in the hallway outside of the caucus room. "Obviously, I need to respond to some of these things, and I couldn't do it all in 10 minutes."

But on Thursday, Gardner didn’t have much time to dwell on the significance of the caucus vote. He left the State House shortly after delivering his remarks to the caucus and wasn’t present when the results were announced – he had to get back to the recounts. 

Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.
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