Politics

December 1, 2012

Maine House clerks play political musical chairs

They are among partisan State House employees who are subject to losing their jobs every two years.

By SUSAN M. COVER Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - Two years ago, House Clerk Millie MacFarland stood in the well of the House and swore in Heather Priest to serve as her replacement.

click image to enlarge

Millie MacFarland will be resuming the position of clerk of the Maine House of Representatives for the 2013 session when she is sworn in on Wednesday.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

On Wednesday, the women will reverse roles as Priest gives the oaths of office -- there are two -- to MacFarland.

MacFarland, a Democrat, and Priest, a Republican, are two of about 100 partisan employees at the State House who are subject to losing their jobs every two years if the balance of power switches.

Two years ago, after 32 years in the House Clerk's Office, MacFarland, a graduate of Erskine Academy in South China, lost her job to Priest, a Cony High School alumna, when Republicans took over the chamber.

On Wednesday, MacFarland will get her job back when Priest transitions out of a position she's held for just two years and becomes chief of staff for Senate Republicans.

"I did not expect ever to return here again," MacFarland said recently during an interview in the third floor rotunda.

But after spending two years traveling, reconnecting with old friends and visiting with family, MacFarland, 56, of Augusta, said she was drawn back because of her love of the institution, her belief in the work that's accomplished there, and a desire to train someone to step in eventually to the clerk's role. All that was made possible by Democratic wins on Election Day that put the party back in power in both the House and the Senate.

Priest, 48, of Augusta, had worked in the House Republican Office for 16 years before she was elected clerk by majority Republicans two years ago. Her mother, May Ross Coffin, spent 32 years at the State House, first working in the Senate Republican Office, then becoming the first woman elected Senate secretary, in 1977.

Priest's father, Richard Ross, served one term in the House of Representatives, and her sister, Julie O'Brien, served eight years in the House and then worked as executive director of the Maine Republican Party.

A 1983 Cony High School graduate, Priest worked with MacFarland for three months at the start of her tenure to ensure a smooth transition.

"It was a true honor to be here," she said. "I truly enjoyed every minute of it. I loved coming to work every day around here."

Visitors to the State House will recognize the clerk as the person in the front of the chamber who reads legislation and immediately is interrupted by the Speaker. The process can be confusing to first-time visitors unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure, but both women say it's designed to produce a smooth and fair process.

While the public sees the clerk only while the House is in session, she is in charge of a 10-person office that must provide support services to the 151-member chamber.

The clerk oversees the printing and distribution of bills, manages House personnel, orders stationery for legislators, compiles the daily calendar and is House parliamentarian.

The staff organizes hundreds of schoolchildren who serve as pages throughout the year, writes sentiments that honor citizens for special milestones, delivers messages to members' desks and ensures that the decorum of the chamber always is honored.

"This office is the hub of everything that happens on this side of the hall," Priest said.

When she took over, Priest kept the core staff intact, a move that helped ensure that the business of the House did not miss a beat.

MacFarland is looking forward to getting back to work with the experienced crew, but she knows new legislators will need a little help along the way.

"The biggest challenge for me in an era of term limits, because I have been here for so many years, is trying to figure out what new members need to know," she said.

Staff Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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