By Holly South
Public service runs in Portia Palmer’s blood.
The daughter of a physician who volunteered his services around the globe, she spent a year of high school in Tanzania while her father and uncle taught surgical techniques at the University of Dar es Salaam.
While she recalls one disadvantage (“I blame Tanzania on my lack of geometry skills! Way lost in translation!”), life overseas and dinners at the U.S. Embassy exposed her to State Department employees and diplomats, and the possibilities of government work: “I wanted to be an ambassador.”
After a few years in Florida working for the city of Miami, Miami-Dade County and the state Republican Party, she ended up at the Department of State as press director (a dual report to State and USAID). She then served for several years as an administrator at USAID for legislative and public affairs, working in development and humanitarian aid, and remains enthused about the work: “Everybody has the same mission and is pulling in the same direction—a more passionate group of people I have not met. That’s inspiring.”
She frequently traveled overseas, often to conflict areas. This “adds a layer and challenge to the work—you don’t always have connectivity, so you have to be creative. You’re doing your work AND surviving. I’m not a rugged type of person but you get acclimated and the challenge really make you rise and trains you in a certain type of way. And even in a desert situation I’m going to be matched up!”
A new challenge—serving as clerk of the Florida House of Representatives—drew her back to Florida. “I love that every week I find out a new responsibility of the office of the clerk. I love that it is consequential work and mostly behind the scenes. And then, my favorite responsibility: I’m a constitutional officer and the custodian of the seal of Florida House. I’m the keeper of the reputation of the seal of the Florida House. That’s very important.
"My second favorite thing is being the custodian of the bills. I personally sign every bill—I don’t use an autopen because that helps me understand what’s important to my clients [the representatives] and their constituents.
“My third favorite thing: Maintaining the official record of the actions of the Florida House. That’s a little piece of history. We have to make sure that there is a record and that it is accurate. So it’s OK to be picky about where a comma goes, etc. I can get granular there! It has to be right, for the record.”
She expressed great appreciation for the work of "Team Clerk" (which is how she refers to her office) as well as its dedication to the legislative process. She notes the value of working with a diverse, multigenerational staff: “It’s a joy to experience.” Her "Team Clerk" staff:
One of her priorities as clerk has been to reinvigorate the House’s civic engagement and outreach programs. She has also “reset” the page and messenger program. Her team has created evaluation forms for all civic engagement programs and will use the data to make sure their outreach is effective and that programs “are relevant and reflective of the Florida House and the state.”
Another win has been achieving “cost and time efficiencies in the face of slimmer budgets while maintaining attention to [delivering] quality service and products.” (Her office produces 17 publications.)
Aside from switching to decaf, she finds respite from an admittedly stressful job in several ways. The best way to de-stress, she finds, is something “outside the bubble” of the legislature. She is a regular practitioner of tai chi and relies on a daily devotional. She also gravitates towards anything to do with books and loves used book stores.
“I learned from William Jefferson Clinton that I don’t have to read one book at a time, so I’m usually reading a bio and something political.” (Currently on her nightstand: "The Collected Works of Billy Graham," "The Devil’s Bargain," by Joshua Green, and a Florida selection: "Tropic of Cracker," by Al Burt.)
When asked who inspires her, she had a recent tragedy on her mind. “I would be remiss if I didn’t start with the survivors of the mass shooting in South Florida. … The way they have channeled their energy, their purpose into a voice is beyond ... These are kids!”
She considers former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice her role model for “servant leadership,” citing her impressive service and “brilliance.” Palmer has firsthand knowledge of this, as her time in the State Department overlapped Rice’s. “I staffed her on many events and she was as kind and nice and normal of a person as you’d ever want to meet.”
A few other trailblazers, including two of her predecessors, are also sources of inspiration: Henry Harmon, the first African-American clerk of the Florida House (1873-1875) and also the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar and served in the Florida House himself, and Lamar Bledsoe, the first female clerk of the Florida House (1945-1966). And,not surprisingly for a voracious reader, she mentions current Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the first woman and the African-American to hold that position.
Even with her impressive portfolio with the State Department and USAID, Palmer is genuinely awed by the significance of the Legislature’s work. During her first session she was informed of a meeting she needed to attend, to certify the results of the general election. A staffer told her it would be “a 10-minute meeting—a ‘nothingburger.’” Palmer reflects now, “If I ever get tired of going to that meeting, I’m done! It’s a somethingburger. People have elected the members, and that’s what it’s all about: We the people!
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve the people of Florida.”
Holly South, a policy associate, is NCSL's liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks & Secretaries.