The man who guards New Hampshire's first in the nation primary

Bill Gardner has spent more than four decades ensuring New Hampshire's Primary stays first....
Bill Gardner has spent more than four decades ensuring New Hampshire's Primary stays first. (Source: Gray DC)(GRAYDC)
Published: Feb. 11, 2020 at 4:10 PM EST
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Granite State voters are once again the first in the nation to cast presidential ballots. Political insiders in the state often credit one man for ensuring that is and will remain the case: Bill Gardner.

The typical voter here may not know his name, but candidates and presidents past and present do. The 71-year-old became the official guardian of New Hampshire’s primary poll position in 1976, when the legislature elected him Secretary of State, and he' been re-elected cycle after cycle ever since.

"It’s a very special, privileged position to be in," he said in a one-on-one interview a little more than a week ahead of the primary.

New Hampshire law calls for the primary to be on Town Meeting Day in March, but also calls for the date to be moved up in the calendar if necessary to remain first.

Over the years, Gardner fended off states and national party leaders who wanted to move primaries ahead of or within a few days of the Granite State’s.

"I’ve followed the law, that’s all," said Gardner of his efforts to dissuade would be challengers to New Hampshire's status over the years, "are we just going to let a state that was bigger, or had better weather take it from us?"

This year, questions about whether the state should play such a pivotal role given its lack of diversity are louder than ever. Asked about those criticisms, Gardner didn't directly address race, but said New Hampshire's voters take their responsibility and civic duty seriously. That he said, benefits citizens and candidates.

"People are looking for the best person," Gardner said.

He points to hard data on turnout, and colorful stories to make the case that voters are more engaged here. Gardner contends New Hampshire's brand of retail politics can help lesser known candidates rise, "you don’t have to have the most fame, or fortune to win the New Hampshire Primary."

Gardner concedes the political landscape, eroded by big money, constant presence of cameras, and the rise of large rallies at the expense of living room chats. "

We’re not the same as we were 20 years ago," he said. But, he argues the state is still a throwback to a time when presidential retail politics was king.

Despite spending a career protecting the institution, in one sense, Gardner has never had the full primary experience many voters here take for granted. While technically a Democrat, Gardner tries to avoid partisanship, and tells us he has never actually attended one of the state’s signature candidate campaign rallies.

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