On one side, there’s an ambitious young politician pitching himself as the man to bring overdue reforms to the New Hampshire’s election system; on the other, there’s an elder statesman drawing on deep institutional ties and a long resume in Concord to win over votes.
This might sound a lot like this year’s race for Secretary of State, which pits former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern against 42-year incumbent Bill Gardner. But it also describes Gardner’s first campaign for Secretary of State — back in 1976.
Long before he became known as the protector of the first-in-the-nation primary and the country’s longest-serving Secretary of State, Bill Gardner was an up-and-coming Manchester Democrat, a former UNH class president who was making a name for himself as a cerebral young changemaker in Concord.
And as his friend Jim Normand recalls, “Secretary Gardner was ‘Billy’ — so it was ‘Billy Gardner.’”
Normand and Gardner served together in the Legislature back in the early 1970s, part of a generation of newly inspired lawmakers who swept into office on a wave not unlike the one that hit the New Hampshire State House this year.
Now a Manchester attorney and former executive councilor, Normand recalls Gardner was “serious but congenial” — someone whose interests ranged from his studies at the Harvard Kennedy School to hunting to chicken farming.
“But most importantly,” Normand said, “he was interested in good government.”
In the Legislature, Gardner earned a reputation as a champion for election reform. He rallied behind policies to make it easier to vote and easier for young people to serve in the State Senate — speaking in support of a proposal to lower the age requirement from 30 to 25.
But there was only so much he could do as a member of the minority party. So when a vacancy opened up in the Secretary of State’s office, Gardner — barely 28 years old but already heading into his third term — saw his opening to have a bigger impact.
“It was almost like going into the monastery,” Normand said. “It was a big step for him, and it was something that was going to be a big lifelong commitment.”
Before Gardner could make that dream of leading the state's elections a reality, there were a few hurdles he had to clear first.
For one, there was another rookie state representative who was also cooking up the same idea: The then-Representative from North Conway, Steve Duprey, now a Republican National Committeeman.
“We were having beers at the time, and I thought maybe I'll run for Secretary of State,” Duprey recalls. “I wasn't aware that Bill was thinking of it — then I heard he was, and I said ‘Well, that'll be fine, we're friends, whoever wins wins.’”
When Duprey and Gardner did sit down to chat about the position — during one of many nights of what we’ll call off-the-clock bipartisan socializing — it became clear Gardner saw things differently.
“He said, ‘I hope you decide not to run,’ and I said, ‘Why not, I’m in the other party?’ He goes, ‘Because if you win your nomination, and you're a young person, I might very well lose to you.’”
It turned out to be an easy sell.
“You talked to him for five minutes and knew this is someone who wanted to be Secretary of State and do great things and make it a career," Duprey said. "Which is why it didn't take very long after having a beer with him to decide he should run, I should not even bother running in my caucus.”
After clearing one opponent from the field, Gardner still one more to deal with: a Republican veteran of the State House three decades his senior, Lancaster Rep. Arthur Drake.
Drake was a well-known businessman and chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee who “center[ed] his campaign [for Secretary of State] on his experience and intimate knowledge of state government,” according to a writeup in the Nashua Telegraph.
And while Democrats made gains in the 1976 elections — thanks in part to a plan that Gardner reportedly helped to shepherd, dubbed “Project 201” — Republicans still held the majority. So any Democrat, and especially one as young as Gardner, was going to face an uphill climb to rack up the votes needed to become Secretary of State.
But Gardner had a plan, and he enlisted his friends from the Legislature to help.
“What Bill asked us to do was to talk to people one-on-one,” recalls Gardner ally Shep Melnick, “to call them up, or when they were in Concord for a legislative meeting, just talk to them for a few minutes about his integrity and our experience with him.”
While his friends were making calls, Gardner was making trips — crisscrossing the state to knock on the doors of as many legislators as he could, from both parties, to personally ask for their vote.
And Melnick, who’s now the Tip O’Neill Professor of Political Science at Boston College, says this is where Gardner’s early track record as a politician really paid off.
“Many of us came in there thinking, like the Watergate babies of Congress, kind of shake things up and have very sharp elbows,” Melnick said of his peers’ outlook when they arrived at the State House in the early seventies. “But [Gardner] was really a person who encouraged us to make friends with people we really disagreed with and really develop trust, and that was an important lesson that he taught us — and also a key to his success.”
Heading into the vote on Dec. 8, 1976, most people assumed Drake had it in the bag. A friend of Gardner’s gave a grim forecast to the Nashua Telegraph, saying, “It doesn’t look good for Bill… We’ve got a problem with the numbers.”
But when the results were tallied, the numbers were great for Gardner: He beat Drake 218 to 174, meaning he picked up votes from at least a few Republicans who might otherwise have sided with Drake. One of those votes came from Duprey, the same guy who almost ran against him.
“I'm a pretty partisan Republican, I have been before I could vote, but he made a very good case that it shouldn't be a partisan office, and even back then that it was a mistake to let it be a party line vote,” Duprey explained. “And I think there were enough of us who just felt we hadn't been treated as equals by some of our senior peers, including Rep. Drake — so we just quietly decided to vote for Bill.”
That 1976 campaign for Secretary of State differed from this year’s race in several key ways. First, partisan lines weren’t quite as rigid as they are now — in matters of election law or otherwise.
Moreover, the man trying to play the reformer role that once belonged to now-70-year-old Gardner — 39-year-old Colin Van Ostern — has been waging a full-blown public campaign for the seat, complete with a quarter million dollars in fundraising and plenty of press releases. Gardner, in contrast, did a lot of his campaigning under the radar.
Still, the people who were around for that first contest say the echoes between then and now are hard to ignore.
“It's ironic that Bill Gardner, who got elected as a young Turk and a reformer, is being challenged by somebody who's younger and wants to do what he perceives as reforms,” Duprey said. “Time moves on, but the playbook looks a little bit the same.”
Gardner hasn’t faced an opponent as serious as the one he’s up against this year since 1976, and has managed to sail through re-election with relatively little trouble. Lawmakers will gather once again in Concord on Wednesday to decide whether to give him a 22nd term or go with someone new — and no matter the outcome, in some way, history will repeat itself.