CONCORD — Many area lawmakers are supporting Colin Van Ostern for New Hampshire Secretary of State over longtime incumbent Bill Gardner. The contest will be decided Dec. 5. A third hopeful, Peter Sullivan, dropped out Friday.
The race now appears to be a two-man contest. Incumbent Gardner, 70 (D-Manchester), is currently being challenged by former executive councilor and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, 39, (D-Concord), and until Friday, former state Rep. Peter Sullivan, 51 (D-Manchester).
In New Hampshire, the secretary of state is elected by the Legislature. And next month, newly sworn-in members of the House and Senate, 424 legislators in total, will make that decision.
After Dec. 5, there will be 233 Democrats and 167 Republicans in the House and 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans in the Senate.
In November’s election, the Democrats took control of both chambers of the Legislature. The new state lawmakers get sworn in Dec. 5, and they will vote for secretary of state that same day.
There is no official ballot of people running. According to Speaker of the House Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), names are simply called out from the floor at the time of the vote. Chandler was defeated in the election and will not be voting for secretary of state.
Sullivan’s exit from the race comes a day after the New Hampshire House Democratic Caucus voted to support Van Ostern. According to New Hampshire Public Radio, the vote was 179 for Van Ostern, 23 for Gardner, and Sullivan received 7.
Van Ostern was pleased with the results. He put a statement out on Facebook Thursday.
“We’re grateful to receive such broad support in today’s Democratic caucus vote, but this was just one step in the process — looking forward talking with Republican legislators as well in the coming weeks!” he posted on Facebook. “It’s time to modernize and bring new accountability to N.H. Secretary of State’s office and protect the rights of every eligible voter and local election official.”
Meanwhile, Gardner said he didn’t ask for lawmakers to support him during the caucus but instead at the voting day. Reached by phone Tuesday, Gardner explained that a party caucus vote for secretary of state has not happened in 21 years because a bill passed in 1997 discouraged such votes from taking place as a measure to ensure the office would be as non-partisan as possible.
Despite that 1997 law, Democrats at the caucus changed the rules during the caucus and added secretary of state to the list of officials to be recommended. The original slate consisted of the speaker of the house, clerk of the House and sergeant at arms. Gardner said at the caucus he was given 20 minutes to speak and the chance to answer questions. He said the vote was “inappropriate” and “shouldn’t be happening.”
While there, he congratulated the newly elected lawmakers and told them they were part of an historic election which exceeded the turnout for previous New Hampshire mid-term and presidential primary elections. He also said that until the recount processes across the state are complete, he would not have time to make a full case for why he should continue serving.
“I told them I’m not asking for your vote today; I will ask for it at the Dec. 5 organization day as the state constitution and state statutes say,” said Gardner, recalling what he said at the caucus.
Gardner said now that recounts are over, he will be reaching out to lawmakers to explain how he’s been running the office over the past four decades.
Rep. Ed Butler (D-Hart’s Location) said he is throwing his support behind Van Ostern.
“I think it’s time for a change and time for modernization of the office,” said Butler. “It’s definitely not a done deal, and it’s going to be a tight vote.”
Representative-elect Harrison Kanzler (D-Conway), who was elected for the first time on Nov. 6, said the caucus at the State House was much like candidate forums that are held locally. Listening to the three helped him form an opinion.
“I was one of a handful of people who left the ballot blank,” said Kanzler. “I didn’t feel it was right necessarily for the party to make a recommendation for a non-partisan position.”
Kanzler said on Dec. 5, he will be backing Van Ostern because he was persuaded by Van Ostern’s ideas. He said Gardner might still win as he has built many relationships with his years of service and dedication to the job.
Buco, who backed Gardner, said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” with the results, adding Gardner has a “mountain to climb” in order to keep his position. Buco said he objected to Van Ostern’s saying he would support lawmakers who support his bid for secretary of state.
“I was turned off by that from the beginning,” Buco said.
During a recent candidate forum, Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) said he would support Gardner.
Representative-elect Anita Burroughs (D-Bartlett) said she voted for Van Ostern for several reasons. First is that Gardner joined President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission; second, he supported a bill that would make it harder for students and out-of-state military personnel to vote, and he didn’t make needed improvements after an audit was conducted a decade ago.
“State government is a big business, and you’ve got to run a really tight ship with clean books,” Burroughs said.
Rep. Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom) said he’s supported Van Ostern from the beginning and has even been helping Van Ostern with his campaign. Knirk said they they worked together to make non-partisan redistricting a platform on the Democratic platform. Also, Knirk said that while Gardner has done a great job, it’s time for “new blood.”
Representative-elect Susan Ticehurst (D-Tamworth) and Representative-elect Stephen Woodcock (D-Conway) said they were undecided.
Rep. Lino Avellani (R-Wakefield) said Republicans will caucus on Nov. 29, and at that point, he’ll listen to Gardner and Van Ostern state their cases.
During his campaign, Van Ostern has been busy fundraising — something that drew mild criticism from Gardner when he came to the Sun.
According to NHPR, Van Ostern spent more than $200,000 on his campaign.
Gardner, who has been secretary of state for 42 years, said: “When I ran for that office, I said I would not use this as a steppingstone for any other office. This was going to be non-partisan. This was going to be an office that made sure that every person who ran for office in this state was going to be treated the same.”
Van Ostern met with the Sun on Sept. 6 to discuss what he’d like to see the office become. He also addressed his need for fundraising.
“I think there’s a real need and opportunity to modernize the office to better support local election officials and better operate with them,” said Van Ostern, adding he offers the chance to end political gerrymandering and corporate campaigning, and to turn away from “voter fraud nonsense” that has led to cumbersome laws.”
During the phone interview, he also pushed back against allegations from Van Ostern that the Secretary of State’s Office is behind on the times. He said that 93 percent of transactions on the corporate division are completed online, which is about 40 percent more than most states. He also said the vital records division has an app that is widely used and that the federal Centers for Disease Control use as a model.