CONCORD — New Hampshire began moving presidential selection from the party boss-controlled, smoked-filled back rooms to the citizens of the country when it created the state’s presidential primary 100 years ago.
Primary defenders and front-line participants, politicians, elected leaders and descendents of those involved 100 years ago gathered Tuesday in the Executive Council Chambers to tell stories and reminisce as they celebrated the anniversary of the passage of House Bill 430, which established the primary.
“How much vision people in this building have,” said former state Rep. and Sen. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored several bills that required New Hampshire to maintain its first-in-the-nation status. “Sometimes it may not be known for 100 years.”
After several earlier unsuccessful attempts to allow citizens to vote for delegates to the national political conventions, Rep. Stephen Bullock, a Richmond Democrat, sponsored HB 430, which allowed citizens to vote for their delegates to their party’s national convention.
On the last day of the session, the Senate passed the bill, the House agreed to the changes and Gov. Samuel Felker of Rochester signed the bill into law on May 21, 1913.
Two years later, Rep. John Glessner of Bethlehem introduced a bill to change the date of the primary from the third Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March to align with town meeting day to save money.
In 1952, Rep. Richard Upton of Concord introduced a bill that added the names of the presidential candidates and the primary began attracting legions of presidential hopefuls and a gaggle of states who wanted to be first.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who organized the event and decides the primary date every four years, called the celebration “a special day in New Hampshire. In the old days we called it a red letter day.”
Gardner noted Bullock was not recognized for his accomplishment until 1999 when his role was described by the Keene Sentinel in a story from a meeting between Gardner, former Gov. Hugh Gregg and Bullock’s granddaughter, Edith Atkins.
Two years before Bullock’s bill, Sen. Robert Bass of Peterborough attempted to pass a similar bill, but it failed by one vote in the Senate.
Bass’s grandson and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Bass said at the time the legislature was controlled by the B&M Railroad, which provided train passes for lawmakers to travel to Concord, but if a representative did something the company did not like, it would revoke the pass.
“My grandfather rejected that kind of government,” Bass said, “and believed you ought to serve for the best purpose and as a result have a better government.”
Others said the primary has made New Hampshire the most democratic state because it allows the citizens to decide for themselves.
“In New Hampshire it works because it is simple,” said former state GOP chair and current Republican National Committeeman Steve Dupuis. “We let the people decide.”
Others said the primary allows real people to talk to candidates in living rooms, restaurants and town hall meetings and to listen and learn before making decisions.
Former Attorney General and Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath said the process makes a candidate a better president.
“A millworker in Berlin or a fisherman in Portsmouth is often the last real person a president sees,” Rath said. And he said the primary encourages civic engagement as volunteers move on to run for office or stay involved in the process.
Former Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan said the voters of New Hampshire are the reason the primary is what it is today, “the best political event in the history of this country or on the planet.”
Gov. Maggie Hassan said every four years the people in her hometown of Exeter sit in restaurants and pubs and discuss the presidential candidates and their policies.
“To hear and witness that level of citizen activism reminds us we care deeply about each other, and our state and out nation,” Hassan said. “We are as engaged and well informed on the issues as (the people in) any state in the country.”
Around the Executive Council Chambers were artifacts from Bullock such as his straw hat and a smoking set he received on his 82nd birthday while continuing to serve in the House.
The artifacts included a copy of the 1916 presidential primary ballot for the town of Richmond and Bullock’s desk, donated to the state by his great-granddaughter Sybil Duprey.
Early in the program a short film was shown on former Rep. Natalie Flanagan, R-Atkinson, who was born in 1913, and unable to attend the ceremony. She is the oldest living lawmaker.
She talked about her experiences in the legislature and in numerous presidential primaries and reminded everyone “One person doesn’t do anything alone.”
After the ceremony, birthday cake and punch were served.