ND secretary of state candidate drops out, raising questions about GOP's next steps

BISMARCK - The Republican-endorsed candidate for North Dakota secretary of state is out of the race just two days after The Forum reported on his 2006 window-peeping incident on the North Dakota State University campus.
Will Gardner

BISMARCK – The Republican-endorsed candidate for North Dakota secretary of state is out of the race just two days after The Forum reported on his 2006 window-peeping incident on the North Dakota State University campus.

Will Gardner made the announcement Sunday afternoon, May 20, in a post to his campaign’s Facebook page.

“In light of recent events, I have decided to withdraw from the election of Secretary of State. This is the best decision for my family and me,” he wrote in the post.

No further information was provided by the Mandan businessman who defeated longtime incumbent Al Jaeger at the North Dakota Republican Party convention in April, securing the party endorsement. Hours after announcing his decision, Gardner’s campaign page posted a response from the candidate’s wife, who said the world “is a harsh place to be. You don’t dare mess up.”

In the post, Laura Gardner wrote about how she and her husband have worked through things since 2006, pointing out that the two haven’t missed a Sunday Mass since they were married and also had never missed a sacrament for one of their seven kids. She said Gardner “resolved that he could be better” after the 2006 incident.

“But while the media posts articles about a person’s faults, and everyone gets off on someone else’s failures to make themselves feel better….they don’t tell the whole story,” she wrote, saying the media “doesn’t care about a story of a man who is a true provider for his family.”

Gardner didn’t respond to The Forum’s request for more information on Sunday.

Jaeger, who has been in the office since 1993, told The Forum that he wouldn't comment much until he looked into it more on Monday, May 21.

“I’d like to commend Will Gardner on this decision and doing what is best for his family,” he said. “We’ll be working with the attorney general and my (secretary of state’s office) election division on Monday to find out what the options are going forward in light of his withdrawal.”

‘I messed up’

The Forum reported Friday, May 18, that Gardner pleaded guilty in February 2006 to disorderly conduct, a charge that stemmed from a Jan. 13, 2006, incident in which an NDSU security guard said he saw Gardner look through windows at women in a freshman dormitory.

According to court documents, officers said Gardner’s pants were unzipped and his shirt front was pulled out, but Gardner told a Forum reporter that may not have been the case. He also said he had watched only one woman undress, though court documents suggested officers witnessed him moving to multiple windows to look into occupied rooms.

The incident prompted an original charge of surreptitious intrusion, but Gardner was instead charged with and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct the next month. He said Friday that “I messed up” and said it was a mistake made when he was “young and immature.”

At the time, Gardner was a 29-year-old NDSU webmaster who was married and had a couple of young kids.

Gardner’s decision calls into question how Republicans will move forward in the secretary of state race against Democratic-NPL endorsed candidate Josh Boschee, a state legislator from Fargo.

In a written statement to The Forum, Boschee said the race was never about Gardner or his opponent’s behavior.

“This race is about the future of North Dakota and the integrity of the Secretary of State’s Office,” he wrote. “My campaign will continue to focus on bringing the Secretary of State’s Office into the 21st century and ensuring every eligible North Dakotan has equal access to the voting process, and I am committed to that goal.”

The Forum previously reported that Boschee pleaded guilty to reckless driving in 2006 and 2010 and was ordered to get a chemical dependency evaluation both times. Boschee also pleaded guilty in 2011 to drinking in public.

Options

After Gardner beat Jaeger during the Republican convention, Jaeger said he would abide by the decision of delegates and wouldn’t run for re-election.

As of last week, Gardner was slated to appear on the June 12 primary ballot as the endorsed Republican candidate – and as the only GOP candidate on the ballot, he would be all but assured a June victory, which would secure him a spot on the November general ballot as the party’s nominated candidate.

It’s unclear what might happen now, but state Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg told The Forum that two possible paths forward were discussed during a Sunday evening executive committee meeting.

The first option is to encourage another Republican to file as a write-in for the primary, though that has to happen by 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 22. The write-in candidate would then have to successfully convince enough primary voters to cast votes for them over Gardner, who will still be on the ballot.

But Berg said there’s a risk: If the write-in candidate failed to get more votes than Gardner, Gardner would win the party’s nomination, and the write-in hopeful would not have any route to get on the November general election ballot – effectively leaving the party with no candidate.

The other option, he said, is to let the primary play out as-is, meaning Gardner would win the party’s nomination as the votes are tallied June 12. Berg said if that happens, Gardner could officially decline the nomination, which would drop him off the November ballot.

At the same time, another GOP hopeful could gather 1,000 signatures and file to run as an independent candidate before the Sept. 4 deadline to get on the November ballot. Berg said Republicans could issue a letter of endorsement to back this independent candidate.

But nothing was decided Sunday, and Berg said party officials will continue discussing their options on Monday.

“This is like a piece of history here, so unique,” Berg said.

When asked if the upheaval indicated that changes could avoid problems like this in the future, he said it’s still too early to know.

“This process of self-governance is messy and it’s not perfect, but it's the best form of governance in the world,” he said.