Earl Mackey, the leading architect and first executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, died on Aug. 26 in Portland, Ore. He was 81.
In the early 1970s, Mackey was one of a group of advocates that included Governor Dan Evans of Washington, a number of state legislators—notably Speaker Martin Sabo of Minnesota and Minority Leader Tom Jensen of Tennessee, as well as legislative staffers Bonnie Reese of Wisconsin and Eugene Farnum of Michigan—looking to raise the visibility of state government at the national level.
Their efforts led to the creation of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the National Governors Association (NGA).
The legislative world was a familiar one to Mackey.
He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1962 and went to work as legislative counsel to U.S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri.
After practicing law for two years in southeast Missouri, Mackey was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1966. He served one term and then headed to Washington, D.C., where he joined the Council of State Governments. He became assistant director of the Washington office and devoted the bulk of his time to state legislative matters.
The period between 1972 and 1974 was an intense one for Mackey. He worked with state legislative leaders to galvanize three existing state legislative groups into his vision of a unified national organization that would offer high visibility, greater service and an enhanced voice for legislatures across the country.
With the creation of NCSL in 1975, Mackey became the executive director of the organization and he served in that role until 1987. He was succeeded by Bill Pound.
“Mackey built a solid foundation for the organization and led it to include all 50 state legislatures and a strong bipartisan tradition,” said Pound, who recently retired as executive director and was succeeded by Tim Storey.
Decisions made in the very earliest days of the organization—for example, locating the headquarters office in a state capital, adopting voting rules that fostered bipartisanship, ensuring a strong role for legislative staff—have shaped NCSL’s culture and assured its stature ever since.
NCSL expanded rapidly during Mackey’s tenure with offices in both Denver and Washington, D.C. NCSL’s rise followed a decade of intense efforts to strengthen the capacity of state legislatures, sparked in part by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that required state legislative districts to be of equal population. The court decisions brought a younger and more representative group of legislators into the process, and they demanded staff and information services that would improve their ability to make decisions independent of governors and lobbyists. With Mackey’s support, NCSL’s 50-state information services became an indispensable resource for state legislators.
The reinvigorated state legislatures also gained prominence in Washington during this period. Federal appropriations began to be channeled through the legislatures, and legislatures were given increased oversight responsibility for federal programs. Much of this power came through the lobbying efforts of legislators working through NCSL’s Washington office.
National meetings of NCSL became major attractions for national press looking for stories on emerging issues and rising political figures. Federal officials came to discuss policy initiatives. Presidents from both political parties made appearances.
Following his departure from NCSL, Mackey served as director of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. He later served in academia, as director of development and external affairs at Portland State University and vice chancellor at The Ohio State University. Late in his career, he held consulting and advising positions and retired in the early 2000s.
He is survived by a brother, J. Linn Mackey; two sons, Shawn and Colin Mackey; two daughters, Michelle Aamodt and Heather Clement; and seven grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by a son, Christopher Mackey.
Former NCSL staffers Karl Kurtz, Bill Pound, Lanny Proffer and Carl Tubbesing contributed to this blog.
Direct any comments or questions to Ed Smith, NCSL’s director of content.