A word of caution to those who judge people by their Zoom backgrounds: Don’t mess with Matt Dunlap.

Recently, Maine’s longtime secretary of state appeared on MSNBC to discuss the upcoming national election. Not long after, the Twitter account Room Rater, which since last spring has made an online cottage industry of evaluating the homegrown backdrops of TV news guests, released its scathing verdict along with a rating of 4 on a scale of 1 to 10 for Dunlap’s home office.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap appearing on MSNBC

“This is a mess,” the judges declared over a screen grab of Dunlap at home surrounded by a roomful of good, old-fashioned Maine clutter – an old campaign poster, a hodgepodge of haphazardly shelved books, clarinet sheet music perched on a metal stand, a pair of old ski poles…

“Reorganize,” the raters instructed. “It may be better to try another room. 4/10.”

Then, in the comments section, Maine struck back.

“Love our Secretary of State, he can be as messy as he needs,” responded one.

“The man’s a bulwark against the barbarians,” echoed another. “Some slack re tidiness is required.”

Added yet another, “He’s kinda busy being a guardian of the galaxy now.”

A secretary of state with a fan base. Only in Maine.

Everywhere we turn these days, we hear people fretting over the November presidential election: Will it go smoothly, or melt down in a volcano of mailed-in ballots? Will the results be finalized quickly, or will we wait for days, maybe weeks, to know who will occupy the White House come Jan. 20?  Will the final count be widely accepted, or will charges of voter fraud, however specious, foul the post-election atmosphere?

Here in Maine, at least, I’m not worried. And my reason for that is Dunlap, who will leave office at the end of this year due to an eight-year term limit.

For 14 years, with a break from 2011 to 2013, the balding, bespectacled everyman from Old Town has steered Maine through elections both simple and complex.

He’s outraged Republicans and Democrats alike with his unwavering adherence to the rules and statutes that keep our democracy on track, his role as a constitutional officer consistently trumping his history as a lifelong Democrat.

Two years ago, he almost single-handedly took down the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, of which he was a member. He sued the commission because Vice President Mike Pence and then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the chairman and vice chairman respectively, would not share schedules and working documents with Dunlap and other Democratic commission members. Shortly after a federal judge sided with Dunlap, President Trump shut the whole charade down.

That’s the same Kris Kobach who, back when they bonded over guns at a National Association of Secretaries of State conference, came to northern Maine with his family at Dunlap’s invitation for a hunting vacation. “Oh, God, no,” Dunlap replied when asked during an interview on Friday whether they still keep in touch. “I got off his Christmas card list a long time ago.”

This summer, Dunlap ticked off Maine Republicans by twice declaring that they’d fallen short in their signature-gathering effort to put the repeal of ranked-choice voting to a referendum.

Twelve years ago, he found himself in the Democrats’ cross hairs after he accepted a misplaced box full of petitions for a conservative “taxpayer bill of rights” referendum that weren’t turned in until three days after the deadline. A judge later tossed the petitions but took time out to acknowledge “it is soundly argued that a Secretary of State’s responsibility is to protect the inherent right of the voters submitting the petition.”

Now here Dunlap sits in the homestretch of his long career, faced with a challenge like no other. He predicts that an unprecedented 600,000, maybe even 700,000, absentee ballots will be cast in Maine this fall as people try to balance their civic duty with the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s certainly not how I expected to be spending my last year,” Dunlap said. “I thought I’d be going around thanking everybody for their support all these years – my valedictory lap. Not standing at the barricades with a pitchfork in my hand, waiting for the next charge.”

Throughout it all, the ever-erudite Dunlap has operated by what he calls his four “rules of engagement.”

First, the world stops for kids. As in, when you see a busload of schoolchildren unloading at the State House complex, hit the pause button.

“We can always reschedule a meeting.” Dunlap said. “Take some time. Show them around. Make them believe that they’re important enough that somebody in government cares about them.”

Second, never lie to people. (For the record, Dunlap’s rule employs a different verb that I can’t print here.)

“If you tell the truth the first time, you never have to remember what you told a reporter,” he said.

Third, do it now.

“The time it takes to write a reminder to yourself, you could have taken care of the problem,” Dunlap said. He calls the Post-it note “a tombstone of someone else’s urgent problem that you don’t think is important enough to work on right now.”

Finally, only worry about what you can control, not what you can’t.

Back in July, after state election officials released the tabulations from Maine’s delayed primary election, they discovered to their dismay that more than 11,000 ballots inadvertently had gone uncounted. It ultimately didn’t change any outcomes, but still there was concern about how to handle the recount, how it might all look in this era of hyperpartisan conspiracy theories.

Dunlap’s marching orders to his election staff: Do it publicly and transparently, where everyone can watch it unfold in real time.

“People will forgive an honest mistake,” he advised them. But “they never forget anything that has a sulfuric smell of duplicity.”

A student of history, Dunlap has made it a point over the years to research each and every one of the 198 portraits hanging in the State House. (“Sumner Sewall, governor of Maine, was a World War I fighter ace. I mean, who knew?”)

His conclusion: “You can do enough in this business to get your portrait on the wall of the State House – and they forget you before you cross the river.”

Thus, as he girds himself for his historic finale, followed soon after by his own trip across that river, Dunlap, 55, has a clear view of what he’d like his legacy to be: It’s not who you are that counts, it’s what you did.

“It’s not always comfortable,” he said. “But you know something? I’ve never had a bad night’s sleep in this job.”

Not bad for a guardian of the galaxy.

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