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Vote First or Die

The ultimate New Hampshire supremacist.

If someone ever publishes a how-to guide for journalists covering the New Hampshire presidential primary, it will likely include the following pieces of advice. First, skip the overrated Wayfarer Inn and stay at the Manchester Radisson. Second, always try to rent a vehicle with four-wheel drive. And, lastly, when visiting Bill Gardner to ask him a few questions about the primary, never park your car in one of the two-hour-metered spaces on Concord’s Main Street. If you do, you’re sure to get a ticket—because, when it comes to talking about New Hampshire’s role in presidential elections, Gardner seldom finds himself at a loss for words.

Ever since 1976, when the then 28-year-old Gardner was elected to the first of his 16 terms as New Hampshire’s secretary of state, he has made it his personal and professional mission to safeguard the New Hampshire primary’s prized position as the nation’s first. Every four years, it seems, some state tries to wrest away that honor. And, every four years, Gardner—who is vested with the sole authority to set the primary’s date so long as it’s held seven days before any other similar contest—manages to stave them off. Indeed, Gardner’s stalwart defense of the primary’s kick-off status has made him into something of a state treasure. “Bill can’t die,” says New Hampshire State Representative Jim Splaine. “When he needs it, we’re going to make sure he has a heart transplant.”

One morning not long ago, I visited Gardner in his office on the second floor of the State Capitol. He is a tall man with a balding pate and bulging blue eyes; much to the relief of his admirers, he appears, at the age of 58, to be in good health. Although Gardner is sometimes called one of the most powerful people in American politics, he eschews power’s trappings. His office is one of the few in the Capitol that does not have air-conditioning, and he prefers shirtsleeved dress shirts and rumpled slacks to tailored suits. Combined with his exceedingly mild manner, this makes him resemble a high school history teacher. But he is passionate about the primary. As the minutes ticked away on my parking meter, Gardner explained why New Hampshire deserves to have the first presidential primary—and how he intends to keep it that way.

“ALL THE STATES have something unique,” Gardner said in his flat Yankee accent. “There’s a reason why the Kentucky Derby’s in Kentucky. … And, for New Hampshire, there’s a reason that the primary is here today. It goes way back.”

Indeed, there’s nothing Gardner likes more than explaining just how far back it goes. He started his `lecture on New Hampshire’s “unique political culture,” as he called it, with the year 1774—when Paul Revere came from Boston to Portsmouth to warn people to protect their arms—and continued up to the present day, in which New Hampshire has more people per capita who have either held or run for public office than any other state.” California would have to have over twelve thousand members of its House of Representatives to have the kind of representation we have,” he boasted.

Not surprisingly, Gardner chose to answer the most commonly voiced criticism of New Hampshire’s outsized influence in presidential elections—namely, that the state, which is 96 percent white, is crucially lacking in racial diversity—with a quick tour through the history books. He proudly noted that the first speech on the U.S. Senate floor advocating the abolition of slavery was given by a New Hampshire senator and that Jonathan Daniels, the SNCC volunteer who was shot and killed in Alabama in 1965 while protecting a 17-year-old black girl, hailed from Keene. Even the minor league Nashua Dodgers—which in 1946 became the first racially integrated baseball team in the United States—was grist for Gardner’s argument. “To say we’re not sensitive to the concerns of minorities—our history proves otherwise,” Gardner said, sounding genuinely hurt. Of course, historical arguments only go so far, and, over the years, Gardner has also been willing to mix it up (in a vote-first-or-die sort of way) with various political bigwigs. In 1983, when the Democratic National Committee objected to Gardner’s decision to schedule his state’s 1984 primary in February—preferring instead that it be held in March—Nancy Pelosi traveled to New Hampshire to try to persuade Gardner to change the date. As recounted in Why New Hampshire?, a nearly 300-page history of the primary that Gardner co-authored, Pelosi told him: “You have a future ahead of you—you are a young man and you are doing a very foolish thing by this.” But Gardner didn’t back down—and the primary was held in February. Sixteen years later, Bill Bradley and Al Gore’s campaigns, and even New Hampshire’s own governor and its two party chairs, all pleaded with Gardner to push back New Hampshire’s primary by one week to accommodate the Iowa caucus’s preferred date. But Gardner again held firm. As Why New Hampshire? recalls the denouement: “When Iowans eventually did get the message that the Granite Staters were a stubborn lot led by a steadfast secretary of state, they caved.”

This year, Gardner is once again keeping a vigilant eye on both the calendar and other states. In May, Florida decided to schedule its primaries on January 29. And, earlier this month, South Carolina Republicans moved their primary to January 19. The day before my visit, the Michigan Senate had voted to hold its primaries on January 15. But, despite all this jockeying, Gardner was serenely confident that New Hampshire would remain first. Because the state’s small size means the logistics of holding its primary are fairly simple, Gardner could likely to wait until December to announce a January 8 date. “I’ve never had to change the date once I’ve set it,” Gardner said. “I’ve waited and waited and I’ve never had to change it.”

GARDNER FAMOUSLY maintains an open-door policy in his office. And, that morning, a small group of Ukrainian students studying for the summer at nearby Franklin Pierce College took advantage of that policy and dropped in. Although there were more prominent visitors to the state on that day—both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were stumping nearby—Gardner had no desire to see them. For all his love of his state’s primary, he doesn’t attend any political events, only seeing the candidates when they come to his office to pay the $1,000 fee required to appear on the primary ballot.

As Gardner stood in the foyer of his office, he regaled the Ukrainians with stories of the visitors who had preceded them. “If you sat in the corner, you’d see an average person, you might see a vice president,” he said. “It’s kind of unique that way: If you want to be the president of our country, you start in a small place like this.” For more than half an hour, Gardner went on in this vein—pointing to the pictures on the wall of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas. He even talked about Franklin Pierce. Although the students began shuffling their feet and their chaperone repeatedly checked his watch, Gardner did not seem to notice. It wasn’t until an aide appeared at his office door and informed the students that they were late for their next appointment that Gardner emerged from his reverie. “Senator D’Allesandro says you have to stop talking,” the aide informed Gardner. And, with that, he finally did.