By Kae Warnock and Angela Andrews
Throughout the 43 years since NCSL’s inception, we have had the opportunity to work with many incredibly dedicated legislative staff.
Among those are the 43 people who have served as NCSL staff chair. It is the only leadership position for a legislative staffer in a national organization that serves legislatures.
To get a sense of the contributions of these key staff, we invited past staff chair Patrick J. O’Donnell, clerk of the Legislature in Nebraska, who served as staff chair from 1989-90 to share his thoughts on service to the legislature and his time working with NCSL. He is now serving in his 41st year as clerk with what Nebraskans call “the unicameral.” And look for our interview with current staff chair Chuck Truesdell tomorrow.
Why did you decide to work for the legislature and what motivated you to stay?
To be completely honest with you, as with most young people, I was looking for a job freshly out of law school. I had an opportunity, during my senior year, to work here at the Nebraska Legislature and I enjoyed it. It was a fun place to work, lots of activity, lots of energy, lots of big things going on. We were rewriting criminal code and that piqued my interest, and obviously opportunities come along. I was proverbially in the right place at the right time and I’ve always found the work challenging.
What motivates you now?
It’s still stimulating. It’s a wonderful place to feel like you’re doing some good in the world. The work, helping term-limited members to overcome the learning curve, is a constant challenge but, it’s important. So, that’s partly why I stay. There’s a lot of good people in this environment. I think what you see here is true around the country. We are all reaching that retirement age. We are going to see a lot of change in the next half dozen years around here. So, I’m trying to assist and facilitate in that process as best I can. My goal is to leave the place in as good of hands as I can. It’s about professionalization of staff and a strong, independent, legislative branch.
What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the legislature during your career?
Term limits has caused how I interact with members and how they interact with one another to change dramatically. You can’t keep up with technology today. When I became responsible for the technology operations back in the 1990s, it wasn’t nearly as challenging as it is today. When you are on a biennial budgeting situation just trying to sit down, as I will this summer, and anticipate where we are going to be in two years is really difficult because technology changes so fast. We were all trying to do things that would help the institution grow. In the ’70s and early ’80s and the last part of the ’60s, legislatures kind of grew up. That was a continuing process and legislatures became more of an equal player in state government operations. We saw the beginning of improving staff resources and utilizing technology to make the legislature work better. I think it made us better in terms of the public policy arena. So, that naturally sparked my interest and you wanted to see that continue to grow and improve and continue to do new things that would make the institution stronger. Those were fun years in the legislative environment.
What’s been your most rewarding experience in the legislature?
Given my tenure here, just the fact that members have relied on me and used me and trusted me has been a rewarding experience. I’ve met a lot of really good people. A lot of my people, in the clerk’s office, have been here for a long, long time. As have some of my colleagues who run the different divisions here in Nebraska. These are all good, hardworking people. It’s kind of nice to walk into this building every day, having done it for 40 plus years. All those things have leant themselves to making a pretty satisfying career. As NCSL staff chair, we can provide high quality professional development opportunities for legislative staff.
Why did you run for NCSL staff chair?
In 1990, I was 40-something, pretty young, but I knew the legislature was where I was going to be for a while. I thought I could offer something to NCSL as staff chair. It seemed like a natural career progression at the time. I was president of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries in 1987 and I got on the NCSL Executive Committee in 1987. Betty King, former secretary of the Texas Senate, was my predecessor as staff chair, and Betty and I spent that two-year period beginning the Legislative Staff Management Institute. We had always done training via the staff sections, but this was one of those times when our dream was to build an endeavor that would allow people who cared about the institution and wanted to continue working there to grow and develop some of the skills that might be useful to them in that regard. Both Betty and I were very proud of that.
Any final thoughts?
It's important to care about the work and it's important to care about the institution. By doing that you ensure parity between the three branches of government at the state level but also an ongoing voice for the states within our federal system.
Kae Warnock and Angela Andrews are in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program, which provides strategic, programmatic and administrative support to the staff professional organizations of NCSL and develops training and information programs for the nation's more than 30,000 legislative staff.