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NH secretary of state makes case for 22nd term to lawmakers

November 28, 2018

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Secretary of State Bill Gardner made his case for a 22nd term to new lawmakers on Tuesday, defending his decades of service and bristling at a suggestion that he debate an opponent who has spent an unprecedented eight months criticizing him.

First elected by the New Hampshire Legislature in 1976, Gardner is the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state. He’s faced virtually no opposition over the decades, but now is being challenged by fellow Democrat Colin Van Ostern, a former executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate running on a platform of modernizing the office, holding it accountable and resisting what he views as attempts at voter suppression. The full 424-member Legislature will vote Dec. 5, but Democrats in the House backed Van Ostern by an overwhelming margin in a non-binding caucus vote earlier this month.

While Van Ostern raised more than $200,000 and held hundreds of forums around the state, Gardner didn’t start actively reaching out to lawmakers until the Nov. 6 election and ensuing recounts were over.

“I had a job that was more important than my own election,” he told incoming lawmakers Tuesday.

Incoming Rep. Matt Wilhelm, a Manchester Democrat, told Gardner that he considers the secretary of state’s race the New Hampshire’s most important election this year. Wilhelm said he was “a little concerned” that only about two dozen lawmakers attended Tuesday’s presentation and question-and-answer session. He asked Gardner if he’d consider attending a forum or debate with Van Ostern.

“We haven’t had a chance to hear from both of you side by side,” he said.

Gardner noted that Wilhelm had hosted Van Ostern at his home over the summer and said it wouldn’t be fair for them to share a stage given that he only has a few days to campaign.

“Why do you want him next to me when you’ve heard him at your house?” he asked Wilhelm.

Long revered for protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, Gardner has faced harsh criticism from Democrats for supporting Republican legislation to tighten voter registration rules and for serving on President Donald Trump’s commission on election fraud. He told lawmakers that New Hampshire’s high voter turnout is proof that its election system works well, and he pushed back against criticism that his office is outdated and hasn’t been audited properly. While there has not been a state audit in more than a decade, the office underwent a federal audit in the last two years, he said.

Van Ostern argues that no one is entitled to the job, and said many lawmakers have told him they’d “benefit from a free exchange of ideas between the candidates.”

“I’d be happy to join a forum like that anytime, and it’s a shame Secretary Gardner has chosen not to,” he said.

But Gardner’s supporters worry Van Ostern will politicize the office. Gardner said the trust he earned by pledging to not use the office as a stepping stone for higher office has helped him negotiate the often-fraught scenario of protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary from other states.

“There have been times I’ve said no to the Republicans, there were times I said no to the Democrats, there were times I said no to both of them at the same time,” he said.

Democrat Henry Noel, a newly-elected House member from Berlin, said after the presentation that he hasn’t made up his mind on who will get his vote.

“It’s tradition versus modernization,” he said. “I’m still trying to sort it all out.”

Van Ostern said he hopes lawmakers will recognize what’s at stake.

“This election is about how we can better protect the rights of every voter and every local election official at this critical time for our democracy, and how we can replace the confusion and controversies we’ve seen in recent years with a modern, accountable and well-functioning Secretary of State’s office,” he said.

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