Claire Clift was destined to end up at the Nevada Legislature.
She’s a fifth-generation Nevadan, born in Reno and raised in Carson City, whose family history is very much intertwined with that of the state. One of her great-great-grandfathers moved to Nevada from California during the Gold Rush to set up trading posts. He later served in the 1871 Assembly.
A great-uncle served as a state senator. So did her uncle. And her grandfather was mayor of Reno.
But the Legislature wasn’t the first stop after college for Clift, who retired as secretary of the Nevada Senate at the end of July. A brief stint as a legal secretary convinced her she didn’t want to work in an office. She realized her dream of living and working in the wilderness when she joined the U.S. Forest Service and worked for 11 seasons in the tiny community of North Fork, Idaho, about 270 miles northeast of the capital Boise. She also met her husband, a whitewater rafting guide in the area. She calls these her “growing-up years,” in an environment where one’s survival can depend on self-reliance and the ability to make tough decisions.
Once she realized she wanted to return to Nevada, she wrote to then-Secretary of the Senate Jan Thomas, who offered her a job for the 1987 session. Clift served as committee staff and administrative staff in a pool of 15 women. “It was the first time I’d ever worked with a lot of women—one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had and what brought me back” for the 1989 session, Clift says. She recalls an excellent group dynamic and how much she learned from her colleagues.
Committee work “was eye-opening,” she says. “It’s where you get to see the sausage being made.” Committees “do the real hard work of the Legislature, determining what the final form (of legislation) will be … where it’s vetted in-depth” through the testimony, discussion and amending that take place. It was also excellent preparation, she says, when, after several years as media clerk, she was appointed secretary of the Senate.
Clift served as secretary from 2000 to 2010 and returned for the 2015 session. The dynamic of the floor and the legislative process of the Senate was “exhilarating,” she says. She was fascinated by the wide range of legislative experience, belief structures and agendas of her members. And she loved her role guiding them through the legislative process from opening day to sine die and “keeping them on track in such a way that they respect you for the decisions you made to get them to their goal.” But what she finds most difficult to leave behind are the relationships—with Senate staff and legislators and the staff of the Legislative Counsel Bureau.
The Feeling Was Mutual
Clift’s respect for the Senate was reciprocated—and the senators will miss her, too, judging by their heartfelt tributes on the last day of session. “It was very moving to me. I felt respected, that they got who I was as secretary,” Clift says. Thanks to her relationship with leadership, she’s leaving her successor with the means to hire a full-time front-desk staff. “The paradigm of the part-time session staff did not work” from a knowledge base perspective, “especially knowing I was leaving,” she says.
Clift’s interest in parliamentary procedure extended beyond Nevada. She served on two Mason’s Manual Commissions, assisting NCSL with its decennial revisions of “Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure.” In 2017, Clift was unanimously elected the commission’s vice chair, and in 2019 she was elected chair. It was an honor, she says, to work “with people so passionate about parliamentary order and rule.”
“Claire worked with diligence and intelligence to make ‘Mason’s Manual’ the best parliamentary resource for state legislatures,” says Alfred Speer, retired clerk of the Louisiana House and a former Mason’s commission chair. “I was pleased to pass leadership of the commission to Claire when I left legislative service, knowing she would shepherd the manual to its next publication with all the respect and devotion to the task she had shown throughout her tenure.”
Claire worked with diligence and intelligence to make ‘Mason’s Manual’ the best parliamentary resource for state legislatures. —Alfred Speer, retired Louisiana House clerk and a former Mason’s commission chair
Clift’s pride in the project is evident when she talks about the 2020 edition of the manual. “I have a deep, abiding love for the manual, to make it the best,” she says. “It’s the one of the most valuable tools a secretary, clerk or legislative staff can have.”
Clift was also very active in the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries (ASLCS), which she feels is “critical for new clerks and secretaries.” She cherished the camaraderie, the ability to reach out to her “compatriots” for information and advice, and having a “network to lean on.” She also felt a responsibility to give back, chairing multiple ASLCS committees and serving two stints on the ASLCS Executive Committee. She credits the “extremely kind” Bruce Jamerson, the late clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates and former ASLCS president, for getting her involved as a committee chair. He “instilled confidence and dispelled my anxiety about upholding the standards” set by her predecessors, she says. Other mentors in the society included Jeannine Wood, the longtime Idaho Senate secretary; John Phelps of the Florida Senate (“his wisdom. I totally admired him.”); and Patsy Spaw, secretary of the Texas Senate. “I’ve worked with a lot of really talented society members, and I’m just grateful to be associated with them,” Clift says.
Holly South is a senior policy specialist and Brenda Erickson is a program principal in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.