The NDGOP Cannot Stand Behind a Convicted Peeping Tom

Will Gardner accepts the party's endorsement for Secretary of State at the 2018 NDGOP state convention at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

UPDATE: Gardner has withdrawn from the race, though as I note below I don’t believe he can get his name off of the primary ballot at this time.

The Grand Forks Herald has more, including comments from incumbent Jaeger.

Earlier this year Mandan businessman Will Gardner won the Secretary of State race endorsement of the NDGOP at the party’s state convention. It was an impressive feat, coming as it did over long-term incumbent Al Jaeger who was first elected to that office in 1992.

Over the weekend, however, a disturbing incident from Gardner’s past has been made public. My colleague Tu-Uyen Tran reports that in 2006 Gardner was observed by law enforcement to be peering into the windows of a dormitory at North Dakota State University were female students lived. When confronted by officers at least one of them reported that Gardner’s shirt was untucked and that his pants were undone. This same officer noted that Gardner’s wallet and belt were not on his body but on a seat in his car.

Gardner, for his part, has made it sound as though he peeped only on one woman. He also denies that his pants were undone.

I would say that Gardner, at this point, does not deserve the benefit of the doubt on those details. A related fact worth noting, according to weather archives it was a typically chilly January evening in Fargo the date the incident happened.

Gardner was working at NDSU at the time of the incident. He left that job shortly after. “I messed up. It was stupid. I was young and immature,” he told Tran of the incident. He was 29 years old when it happened.

For this incident Gardner was initially charged with “surreptitious intrusion,” a class A misdemeanor per the “sex offenses” chapter of the North Dakota Century Code. Had Gardner been convicted of that charge he would likely have had to register as a sex offender. Instead he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct which is a class B misdemeanor. He got a 30 day jail sentence which was suspended if he committed new additional criminal acts. He wasn’t fined, but was charged $250 in court fees.

Gardner was working at NDSU at the time of the incident. He left that job shortly after. “I messed up. It was stupid. I was young and immature,” he told Tran of the incident.

He was 29 years old when it happened.

Based on this information – which apparently is not in dispute by Gardner, outside of the aforementioned details – he should suspend his campaign immediately and withdraw from the race. He is not fit for public office.

I spoke with Gardner briefly yesterday. He has agreed to an interview on my radio show at 1pm tomorrow. When I asked him then if he intended to resign he declined to comment.

I can tell you that Gardner’s conviction is not well known in political circles. It did not come up during his hotly contested competition with Jaeger. If Republicans in the state had been aware of it, it would have been an issue in that race. It was not.

What Gardner does is up to Gardner. Republicans cannot force him off the ballot. The decision is his, and his alone, to make. But the party has some options.

One outlandish possibility is that Gardner could be asked to take up residency in another state. This would trigger a provision in state law, typically used when a candidate dies, allowing the NDGOP to replace their candidate on the primary ballot.

It seems unlikely that would happen, and even if Republicans did pull it off the public would perceive it, rightly, as too cute by half.

What Republicans need to do, immediately, is disavow their party’s endorsement of Gardner. They need to pass a resolution endorsed by the party’s governing committee and various elected district chairs stating that Gardner won the NDGOP’s endorsement under false pretenses. He didn’t disclose to the delegates at the state convention, the majority of whom voted for him, that he had this very damaging conviction on his record. Had party activists been aware of this conviction they likely would have stuck with the incumbent.

One outlandish possibility is that Gardner could be asked to take up residency in another state. This would trigger a provision in state law, typically used when a candidate dies, allowing the NDGOP to replace their candidate on the primary ballot.

Speaking of which, Republicans also need to find an alternative to Gardner to run in the general election ballot. Not the open June primary ballot, mind you. Trying that gambit might tempt Democrats to vote on the Republican ballot to keep Gardner in the race over a write-in candidate, and if that write-in candidate loses on the June ballot he or she can’t proceed to the November ballot.

What Republicans need is an independent candidate on the November ballot who they can give their endorsement to over Gardner.

Jaeger, perhaps? That’s the obvious choice, based on name recognition alone, but he’d come into the race wounded. Remember, Republicans already rejected him for a myriad of reasons having to do with job performance. If Republicans go back to Jaeger at this point, what grounds would they have to rebut Democratic candidate Josh Boschee when he makes those same arguments?

By the way, I spoke with Boschee briefly about this situation and invited him on my radio show. “Appreciate the opportunity, but will let Will answer for himself on this one,” he told me. “I knew about the arrest, just didn’t realize how creepy the situation was.”

UPDATE: Roland Riemers, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for Secretary of State, weighs in on Facebook:

There’s are no good options ahead for Republicans, I’m afraid. But the one decision they cannot make is sticking with Gardner.

I’ve heard some Gardner supporters say that his misdemeanor is no worse a misdemeanor than the alcohol-related offenses Boschee has been convicted of in the past. The Democrat has “pleaded guilty to reckless driving in 2006 and again in 2010 with the court requiring him to get a chemical dependency evaluation both times. He also pleaded guilty in 2011 to drinking in public,” Tran reports. They also point out that another Republican candidate, Ryan Rauschenberger, also pleaded guilty to a DUI misdemeanor last year.

But treating those crimes as equivalent to Gardner peeping in windows at girls as they dress is ridiculous.

Whether Gardner stays on the ballot or not is a decision the candidate alone will make, but Republicans have no business standing behind someone with that sort misconduct in his background.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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