In his 14 years as Maine’s secretary of state, Matt Dunlap has played a high-profile role in a host of voting and election issues, ranging from lawsuits over ranked-choice voting to safely overseeing in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Dunlap says it’s the things that never make the news that he will remember most.

Like the time he made a teenager, battling terminal cancer, smile.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo

As the top official in the agency that runs the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Dunlap takes a hands-on approach, including serving occasionally as a driver’s license examiner who gives road tests to license applicants.

The 17-year-old girl had been unable to complete the 70 hours of supervised driving required under state law for taking a driver’s exam, so Dunlap helped arrange an honorary road test for her in the parking lot of a closed Kmart. The girl’s parents rode along in the back seat, Dunlap said, while the teen, “with a morphine pump slung over her shoulder,” completed the mock road test administered by Dunlap.

Dunlap told her she would have passed a real test, and when he presented her with a replica motor vehicle registration plate with her name stamped on it, she burst into a smile, hugged Dunlap and started to cry.

She died three months later, and Dunlap received a thank you letter from her mother saying it was the first time she had seen her daughter smile in months.

“I often tell people that in this business you get to touch people and you sometimes don’t realize it, but they touch you back, and it’s an enormous gift,” Dunlap said. “It’s one of those things that really hooks you and it’s all that stuff that never makes the newspaper.”

Dunlap is term-limited from serving another two years in the post. His replacement will elected by the new Legislature when it convenes Wednesday in Augusta. Dunlap has announced his candidacy for state auditor, a post that is also expected to be elected by the Legislature next week. If chosen he would replace outgoing State Auditor Pola Buckley, who is also term-limited.

Dunlap, 56, was born and raised in Bar Harbor, where he was a standout distance runner at Mount Desert Island High School and captain of the school’s track team before attending the University of Maine in Orono, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Roman history and a master’s degree in English literature.

He’s an avid outdoorsman who fishes and hunts and served about nine months as the interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, an 8,000-member nonprofit that advocates for hunting, fishing, land conservation and gun-owner rights. Dunlap had previously served on SAM’s board of directors. He has also worked in Maine’s restaurant, textile and publishing industries.

He is married to state Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town. Dunphy was recently elected to serve as the House majority leader. The couple have one daughter, Emily, a student at the University of Maine.

As a longtime public servant, Dunlap says he obeys four guiding principles.

First, he believes the world “stops for kids,” so he makes it a point to give time to students visiting the State House, some of whom live in far-flung corners of Maine and will never see the state Capitol again. Second, “never bull(expletive) people,” because the truth will always come out, he says, and transparency is a friend.

Third, do tasks now, especially if it involves helping constituents of state lawmakers who need the government’s help. And, finally, he says, worry only about what you can control.

As secretary of state, Dunlap has overseen initiative and referendum processes on several historic statewide ballot questions. These include two votes on ranked-choice voting, the legalization of adult-use marijuana, and failed proposals to ban bear trapping and baiting and require federal background checks for private gun sales.

In 2017 he gained national attention and was widely credited with bringing down a Presidential Advisory Committee for Election Integrity set up by President Trump, who claimed he had lost the popular vote in 2016 because of widespread voter fraud. The commission found no evidence to support that claim, and its Republican majority sought to withhold information on its activities.

One of four Democrats on the panel, Dunlap sued the commission in federal court for information on its purpose and for access to correspondence between the commission’s leaders and the White House and state election officials. When a federal court rule in Dunlap’s favor, Trump disbanded the commission.

In the aftermath, Dunlap gained a national profile, marked by interviews with Rolling Stone and Newsweek magazines and appearances on national network television news and radio shows.

Closer to home, Dunlap and his office have twice defended Maine’s ranked-choice voting law against efforts to repeal it in the courts, even though he initially opposed the law himself.

Those who have both worked with or against Dunlap say his chief attribute is an ability to put partisanship to one side, coupled with his focus on serving all the citizens of Maine fairly and transparently.

“His success is because he did not use the job as a forum for his personal ideology,” said state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who served as secretary of state himself from 1989 to 1996.

The two men disagreed over the adoption of federal Real ID standards, which Diamond supported but Dunlap opposed because he believed the new ID would reduce privacy with few benefits to security. Dunlap eventually lost that battle, as the Legislature voted to embrace the Real ID system in 2017, when it became clear that Mainers were going to lose their ability to board commercial airlines or enter federal buildings or bases without the new form of identification.

Dunlap also did battle with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led a successful petition campaign to establish the new voting system. Dunlap opposed the law change, and his office offered testimony saying it would be confusing for voters and costly to implement.

Kyle Bailey, a Gorham Democrat elected to the Maine House of Representatives this year, served as key organizer and spokesman for ranked-choice voting. Like Diamond, Bailey said Dunlap always rises above the fray with an ability to keep the greater good of all Mainers in mind.

“Nobody has more respect for our institutions and processes than Matt Dunlap,” Bailey said. “He loves Maine, Maine people, Maine’s history – no question.”

Dunlap does have his detractors. These include Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage. He contends that Dunlap was once fair and nonpartisan in his approach but has gradually become more of a partisan over time.

Savage points to Dunlap’s efforts to dismantle Trump’s voter fraud commission and Dunlap’s criticism of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage over LePage’s allegations that college students were voting illegally in Maine. Like Trump, LePage was never able to substantiate his claim.

Local officials who have worked with Dunlap over the years say he’s always helped them ensure that elections are free, fair and transparent. Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said Dunlap’s leadership and support of town and city clerks and his defense of the integrity of Maine’s election systems has helped counter efforts to undermine voter confidence in the system by other high-ranking officials – like Trump.

“It’s been so wonderful to have that level of support right from the top,” Montejo said. She said Dunlap made it his habit to visit polling places and spend time with local election workers on Election Day, thanking them for their efforts and taking a real interest in how things are being handled. That was especially the case during COVID-19 voting.

“He has always supported local administrators of elections and really believes in the work,” Montejo said.


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