By Dave Solomon

In a day of high drama at the State House, Bill Gardner, the nation's longest serving Secretary of State, held off a formidable challenge by former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, eking out a four-vote win to another two-year term.

Gardner, the underdog in this race for the first time in decades, pulled off a remarkable upset, beating Van Ostern on the second ballot of voting by House and Senate members, 209-205.

First elected in 1976, Gardner told the New Hampshire Union Leader he was hoping for one more term, bringing him to the 100th anniversary of the state's First-in-the-Nation Primary in 2020.

Gardner appeared to pull off the upset when the first round of balloting produced a result of 208 votes for Gardner and 207 for Van Ostern, with one vote cast for a third candidate.

But newly-elected House Speaker Steve Shurtleff declared an impasse, ruling that neither candidate achieved the necessary 50 percent plus one of the 416 votes cast. He called for a second round of voting after a recess to give supporters time to lobby to flip votes for their candidate.

Newly-elected Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat, moved to allow both candidates to speak, but was overruled by Shurtleff, who called the motion out of order and was supported by a voice vote of the joint session.

In the second round of voting, 415 votes were cast.


Powerful backing

Gardner had the support of all Republicans and many powerful Democrats, like former Gov. John Lynch and Manchester Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, the dean of the Senate. Many newcomers and incumbent Democrats supported Van Ostern.

Lynch introduced Gardner to the closed-door caucus of newly elected Democratic representatives on Nov. 15, who then voted 179-23 in a straw poll to support Van Ostern.

Gardner said last week that the straw vote was not necessarily an accurate indication of how he would fare on Dec. 5. He pointed out that 55 elected Democrats at the Nov. 15 caucus did not vote for Van Ostern. Some were absent, a handful voted for a third candidate, some left before the secretary of state straw vote and seven left the ballot blank.

As a Democrat, Gardner often got losing votes in the Republican majority caucus in the earlier decades of his 42-year career, only to prevail when the full House voted. State law was changed in 1997 to end partisan nomination for secretary of state, which is why the Nov. 15 vote was essentially a non-binding expression of support, not a formal party nomination.

During the decades he served, Gardner built a reputation as a stalwart defender of New Hampshire's place on the primary calendar against heavy pressure from national party organizations and larger states. Supporters of his candidacy warned that the state's status as a launching pad for presidential campaigns would be put at risk by Van Ostern's election.

Van Ostern argued that defending the primary has been a team effort among New Hampshire Democrats and Republicans over the years and would continue to be.


Supporting voices

Retired judge Ned Gordon of Bristol, a longtime Gardner friend and now a Republican state representative, was among those who seconded Gardner's nomination.

"While we may not always agree with Bill Gardner, his integrity is above question. He always done what he thinks is right for the state," he said.

"To his credit, Colin has pointed out things that could be changed, but I would like to see Bill end his career graciously and be in office for the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary, which he has worked so hard to preserve and has so benefited New Hampshire over the years. For him, this is not a job, it's a calling."

Van Ostern began his campaign for the Secretary of State position soon after he lost the gubernatorial race to Gov. Chris Sununu in 2016, working on behalf of many Democratic representative candidates and helping them raise money.

Gardner did not actively campaign, having been re-elected by majorities of Democrats and Republicans for decades, but in the past two years he antagonized many of his fellow Democrats with his support for election laws they opposed, his participation in President Donald Trump's Commission on Election Integrity and his position on controlling the scheduling of town elections.

Nashua Rep. Paul Bergeron, city clerk for 16 years and a longtime friend of Gardner's, was among those seconding Van Ostern's nomination. He alluded to the town election controversy.

"This is about standing up for our communities and local officials, accountability, efficiency and checks and balances, not one man's judgment," he said. "Local officials need a partner in the Secretary of State, but we've seen arbitrary decisions that have hurt our voters, endangered public safety and threatened local control."

Bergeron claimed voting machines are old and not reliable, and replacement parts are not being manufactured, "But the Secretary of State has not proposed alternatives systems," he said.


Elected by lawmakers

Unlike most other states, where the Secretary of State is chosen by the electorate, New Hampshire's top election official is chosen in a vote of representatives and senators.

The Democrats hold a 233-167 advantage in the House and a 14-10 majority in the Senate.

Gardner, who is also a Democrat, needed to split the Senate, hold on to his Republican support in the House and make up ground with Democratic state representatives, which he apparently was able to do.

Van Ostern's path to victory was much cleaner: just carry the Democrats by the same decisive margins he did in the straw vote, which he apparently failed to do.

"I regret not winning but I am really proud of what we did," Van Ostern told reporters. "I am really proud that no one has done this in my lifetime. There really hasn't been a competitive race for secretary of state since Bill won the office in 1976."

Gov. Chris Sununu, applauded the result.

"Everyone in New Hampshire should stand up and rejoice that politics and money did not drive the result today," he said after the vote. "I'm very proud of the legislature for doing the right thing."

Gardner reveled in his status as victorious underdog, claiming at one point that he actually won twice, given the two votes.

"I was the underdog from the beginning," he said. "I didn't spend anything; I had eight days to pull this off, eight work days. I didn't raise any money and I didn't spend any money."


Other votes taken

As expected, current Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, was elected House Speaker for the 2019-2020 session, in a mostly party line 237-152 vote, after which his opponent for the speakership, Merrimack Rep. Dick Hinch, moved that Shurtleff's election be unanimous.

Rep. Douglas Ley of Jaffrey will be the new Democratic majority leader, while Rep. Dick Hinch of Merrimack will lead the Republican minority.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, was unanimously elected President of the New Hampshire Senate. Soucy was nominated by Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord. The nomination was seconded by outgoing Senate President and new Minority Leader Chuck Morse, R-Salem.

(c)2018 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)