By Holly South
The unanimous election of Lee Cassis last week as clerk of the West Virginia Senate was of great significance to him—and also to the Senate itself. Although the office is nonpartisan, it has traditionally been held by a former member. Cassis, on the other hand, has worked at the Legislature since graduating from college and served as assistant clerk the past seven years.
The Fayetteville, W. Va., native is one of five boys in a large extended Lebanese-American family. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side and all his great-great-grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island and followed a wave of turn-of-the-century immigrants from Syria and Lebanon who found the West Virginia landscape reminiscent of their former home.
He’s proud to serve the Legislature in his beloved home state, where he and his wife are raising a son, who’s about to turn 2. West Virginia, he says, is “a special place. We get a bad rap sometimes. But people open doors for you. They say please and thank you, introduce themselves to strangers. It’s a neat place to come visit.”
His most rewarding work to date has been taking the Senate “into the technological age.” When Cassis arrived in 2011, he encountered members who had first entered the Legislature in the 1950s. It was “an experienced Senate still doing things as they’d been done decades before”.
An early step was replacing bill books with laptops, despite the resistance of some who felt that “laptops made us look like NASA and not a legislative chamber.” Cassis played a major role in updating the Senate systems. “Now we’re operating on tablets: one machine with monitors at members’ desks, with connections in committee rooms and on the floor, really anywhere in world through the VPN. We’ve gone from no audio or video on the floor or committee rooms to full video everywhere.”
The Legislature’s website was ranked among the Top 5 Legislative Websites (FiscalNote, 2015). The chamber is “at the top of our game now, technology-wise. I’m not sure anyone else is as advanced."
As assistant clerk Cassis was also responsible for reading the bills, and plans to continue doing that along with leading a staff of 37 full-time employees, 53 session employees, and running the day-to-day operations with Senate president’s approval.
Among the many things he’s learned working in the Legislature, one piece of advice from the first clerk he worked for stands out. “He told me, ‘When you lose your sense of humor you’re going to go crazy in this place—so don’t ever lose it.’ We take our job seriously, and we work really hard, but you have to remember to laugh.”
What he most enjoys about his job, he says, are “the people. Not only the members, but the constituents, the lobbyists, the other elected officials from the executive branch. We’re a small state so there’s a lot of opportunity to hobnob with them, even the governor.”
He also relishes the opportunity to spend time with his peers in the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries, with which he’s been involved since 2011. “I’m rejuvenized every time I go to the PDS (professional development seminar) … because there are not a lot of folks in my position. It’s very specific what we do and even though we have different ways of doing it, we’re all working toward same end goal. To all of my colleagues in society—I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for them. What they do for me in the week of the PDS, I don’t know that they’ll ever know. The support and advice they give me is a large reason I’m here today.”
Asked for any final words, he thought for moment and then replied, “I’ll just say this. This was the greatest honor of my life this week, elected unanimously by the Senate. It’s a huge responsibility and one I don’t take lightly. It’s been a very humbling week, and a very busy week, and I’m ready to bear down and work hard and get through session. Our staff here in the West Virginia Senate are all top notch and there’s no way I’d be in my position if not for them. I owe [them] a debt of gratitude.”
Holly South, a policy associate, is NCSL's liaison to ASLCS.