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It's his primary objective

New Hampshire's secretary of state puts his state first -- on the presidential campaign calendar, that is. He's held firm since 1976.

March 02, 2007|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Concord, N.H. — BILL Gardner was at it again, mucking up Democrats' timetable for picking their presidential nominee by insisting on the date he wanted for New Hampshire's vote.

So one day, frustrated party leaders sent an emissary to the state Capitol to deal with the balky secretary of state. Gardner, however, would not bend. He was adamant about preserving New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary by pushing the contest forward a week, rather than have it share its election day with Vermont.

The result was a lecture that still rings in his ears nearly 25 years later: You're a young man and probably hope for a bright political future. If you do this, you will never be elected to another office.

The party's emissary, Nancy Pelosi, was right. She went on to much bigger things (and can't recall the conversation). Gardner, 58, is still in the same office -- and utterly delighted at life's fortune. And why not? Gardner is probably the most influential figure in national politics you've never heard of.

He is the one and only person in New Hampshire with the power to schedule the state's presidential primary. It has been first since 1920, making the vote a signal event on the national political calendar -- and giving voters of this tiny state an enormous say every four years in deciding who sits in the White House.

It has been Gardner's mission, his obsession, since 1976 to preserve the state's preeminence, and nothing -- not lobbying, not threats, not even the occasional flicker of self-doubt -- can dissuade him from doing whatever it takes to make sure New Hampshire's primary always, always comes first. (By mutual understanding, Iowa holds the first caucuses, eight days beforehand.)

"What's been established as a tradition is a tradition," Gardner says with a certitude as plain and simple as the peanut-butter-on-whole-wheat sandwiches he packs in his brown-bag lunch.

This does not go over well outside the state. Politicians elsewhere perennially complain about the outsize influence of voters in this far-off corner of the country, who reward the top finishers with an important burst of momentum. They hatch plans to diminish New Hampshire's sway. The latest calls for a Democratic caucus in Nevada three days prior and New Hampshire sharing its primary day, tentatively set for Jan. 22, with Republicans in Wyoming.

Privately, people use the words "stubborn" and "arrogant" to describe Gardner and his insistence on keeping his state's privileged position, saying he treats it like a God-given right.

But Gardner ignores outsiders. "Nobody's going to protect New Hampshire but New Hampshire," he says unapologetically. The state's small size and proficiency at running elections means he can stall until there is no choice but to let the Granite State go first. One year he waited until almost Christmas to schedule the primary. This time, with the nominating calendar even more front-loaded, he has threatened to hold the 2008 vote in 2007.

That makes Gardner -- or Billy, as he is widely known -- extremely popular in his native New Hampshire. He is in his 16th two-year term, making him the second-longest-serving secretary of state in the nation's history. Lawmakers elect him and have kept him there, even though Gardner is a Democrat and, until last month, Republicans ran the Legislature.

He even survived the 1984 Reagan landslide, besting the head of the state GOP at a time when Republicans held 300 of 400 seats in the lower chamber and 18 of 24 state Senate seats.

"He's one of the most trusted people in state government, in a place where you don't throw that word around," said Tom Rath, a Concord attorney and one of the state's Republican elders.

THOSE who know the unassuming Gardner smile at his fearsome reputation outside New Hampshire. He is a political animal -- the sort who drops the 1916 presidential race into casual dinner conversation -- but one who tends toward hibernation. He usually eats lunch at his desk, goes home nights to read history (most recently "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin") and prides himself on shunning political events.

A tall, bald man with bulging blue eyes, Gardner takes a utilitarian approach to dress: button-down shirts, dark slacks, nondescript ties, and a parka instead of sport coat when it is cold. His home in Manchester, about a half-hour commute from the Capitol, is a weathered two-story Colonial he designed himself.

He has never held a fundraiser or accepted a campaign contribution; when an old friend, a retired GOP lawmaker, started knitting him sweater vests, Gardner insisted on paying for the yarn.

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