CONCORD, NH – New Hampshire's longtime secretary of state, Bill Gardner, looked on in silence last week as Bernie Sanders stood in his office and unloaded on a new voter residency law that Gardner supports.
The law, which is being challenged in court, means out-of-state college students voting in New Hampshire elections are subject to residency requirements such as getting New Hampshire driver's licenses or registering their cars. The measure, Sanders told reporters, was an outrage. He compared it to a poll tax "designed to keep young people from participating in the political process because they are not supportive of the Republican agenda."
Since he was first elected by the Legislature in 1976 at the age of 28, Gardner has fostered an image as an apolitical defender of the state's coveted first-in-the-nation spot on the presidential primary calendar. But as another crop of candidates, including Sanders, treks through his office to register for the February ballot, Gardner's legacy is less clear.
"Even though he's been a more controversial, even polarizing, figure lately, one thing that there has always been kind of bipartisan agreement on is Gardner's role as the shepherd, the goodwill ambassador of the New Hampshire presidential primary," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Gardner, a Democrat, is less than a year removed from a party uprising that almost cost him his job. And at one point earlier this year, 18 of the Democratic presidential candidates had signed on to a letter by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen "publicly denouncing this voter suppression law."
In an interview from his office in the state Capitol, Gardner would not directly respond to Sanders. But he did not back down from his support of the residency law and said he's "the last person on earth that is going to want to prevent college students" from voting.
"If there's going to be a period of time that people are going to say that 'You're a vote suppressor, the state is a vote suppressor, anyone that supports this is a suppressor, you're making people pay a poll tax, you're making people do things that they shouldn't be doing,' they certainly have the right to say that," Gardner said. "But we'll all be judged over the test of time."
The trouble for Gardner gained steam after Donald Trump's election, when he accepted a position on the election integrity commission the president created to investigate his unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in 2016, costing him the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The commission's leader, Kansas Republican Kris Kobach, penned a column arguing without clear proof that voter fraud could have affected the outcome of New Hampshire's 2016 U.S. Senate election, which led to Democrat Maggie Hassan's victory over Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
Gardner, one of several Democrats on the panel, has defended the integrity of his state's election and his decision to participate on the now-disbanded panel.
"Why would you refuse to be at the table if there's going to be that kind of a discussion?" he said in the interview.
Between the commission and backing the GOP-sponsored residency legislation, Democrats revolted, seeking to oust Gardner last year in a vote by the state Legislature. While Gardner has sailed through such votes in the past, he only narrowly won this time, aided by the backing of prominent Republicans and some Democrats.
"I think if he had lost, it might very well have hurt his legacy because people would have said, 'See, I told you. He's not running it the way he did before,'" said Stephen Merrill, a former Republican governor in New Hampshire. "But I think his victory absolutely cemented his historical legacy."
As the filing period for president began last week, Gardner was back in his element. This is his show, the moment he's fought to help maintain: cameras trained on the candidate and Gardner standing right beside the White House hopeful.
But Peter Hoe Burling, a former Democratic National Committeeman in New Hampshire and former New Hampshire House Democratic leader, was among those who have grown tired of Gardner's approach.
"Bill just likes showing everybody his ancient wooden ballot boxes and being the center of attention," Burling said. "Too much, too long. Time to go."
Gardner's future is still far from settled. Statehouse lawmakers pick the secretary of state every two years. Gardner could retire, find his way to reelection once more or face a stiff challenge again.
Gardner gave no indication of how much longer he would like to serve as the state's chief election official.
"Nobody is allowed to have a definite plan in life," he said.
He further deflected when asked if he can see himself in the same role for the 2024 primaries.
"I'll think about that after this one," he said.