After graduating in 1970, Gardner continued his political activism back home in Manchester, winning a seat in the Legislature two years later. He received one of the least choice assignments, on the committee overseeing campaign laws, but took to the arcane subject and soon earned a reputation as an elections expert. So when the secretary of state died in office in 1976, Gardner might have been a plausible replacement -- except for his age, 27, and the fact he was a Democrat in a Legislature dominated by Republicans.
After some preliminary soundings, Gardner decided to run anyway. He borrowed $2,500 from his father and spent the summer traveling the state in a beat-up Toyota, buttonholing lawmakers one by one. He impressed them with his zeal -- he showed up at 5 a.m. while one citizen-legislator was milking his cows -- and his vow to keep the secretary of state's office a "neutral corner in the statehouse."
Few expected him to win. Just moments before the vote, the head of the state Republican Party, a family friend, approached Gardner's father in the Capitol gallery to offer condolences. But Gardner narrowly prevailed on a secret ballot and has served ever since, without changing parties. "It was what I was, and still am," he says. "Would it make me any different a person if all of a sudden I registered a different way?"
To this day he avoids partisanship, though Gardner concedes he has plenty of opinions on what goes on. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't," he says with a broad, flat Yankee accent that turns words like "shorter" into shah-tah and "order" into otter. If he politicized his office -- think Katherine Harris during the 2000 Florida recount -- "I wouldn't feel that I was honoring myself and the pledge I made."
Gardner is no provincial; he has studied in Europe and, in between his official duties, earned a Harvard master's in public administration. (He has never seen the Pacific Ocean, however, preferring to vacation on family land in Canada, where he makes his own maple syrup.)
BUT to hear Gardner rhapsodize, which is to say anytime he discusses New Hampshire, one would think the sun rises on the rugged seacoast and sets on the Vermont border. In his telling, everything from the ratification of the Constitution to the desegregation of major league baseball -- a long story, involving the Dodgers Nashua farm club -- to the success of Velcro (headquartered in Manchester) can be credited to the fine people of his home state.
So Gardner has little truck with critics who suggest that New Hampshire voters -- too white, too insular, too pampered, they say -- have too much influence over the presidential process. The state is the perfect proving ground, Gardner insists, given its penchant for hyper-democracy: more than 200 elections each year at the town and school district levels, races for statewide office every two years, and, by far, more people per capita who have either run for or served in political office than any other state. He notes that New Hampshire's Constitution currently requires one state representative for every 3,089 residents, or a 400-member House of Representatives; the California equivalent would be a 12,000-member Assembly.
"Politics is a state of life here," Gardner says, navigating a darkened back road to give a history talk to a group of Republican activists near the Massachusetts border. That makes New Hampshire voters not only more discerning, he suggests, but more empathetic when it comes to probing would-be presidents. "When candidates stand and take questions in someone's living room, voters know what it's like. They've done it."
And there is nothing, he adds, like the eyeballing that White House hopefuls get in a state where voters may quiz a candidate a half-dozen times or more before making up their minds. "You can't replicate that anywhere else," Gardner says.
His job pays $94,000 a year and carries far more responsibility than overseeing elections. Stockbrokers, banks, insurance companies, architects, land surveyors and the state boxing and wrestling commissions all fall under Gardner's purview. But it is clearly his political portfolio, and the first-row seat on history, that Gardner relishes. A small vanity is the office scrapbook he keeps, showing the secretary posing alongside more than two decades' worth of presidential hopefuls, more than 200 in all.
Gardner and his staffers -- many of whom have been with him from the start -- pride themselves on treating everyone who files election papers, the contenders and the kooks, with the same dignity. (Once ex-Klansman David Duke was shooed for overstaying his time and harassing the next in line, former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. "You've had your turn!" Gardner scolded.)
Naturally, he can name the longest-serving secretary of state in history, North Carolina's Thaddeus Eure. But it would be presumptuous, he suggests, to talk of topping Eure's 52 years in office. If somehow he botches things, overplaying his hand, setting the wrong date, costing New Hampshire its first-in-the-nation franchise, Gardner knows what he must do. "If I'm wrong, I'm not the person to be here anymore," he says. So he'll quit.