Natalyn Williams recently became the first Black chief clerk of the Alabama House of Representatives since at least Reconstruction. But she has another distinction: She’s worked for just one employer in her career, and that’s the state of Alabama, starting in January 1994.
“I’m so honored by this appointment,” Williams said of her new job. “I can’t even put it into words. I’m just grateful that they appointed me.”
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R) described Williams’ appointment as a “historic day” for the Alabama House. Williams “has been a dedicated employee of the clerk’s office for more than 25 years,” he said. “She is well equipped and highly qualified to assume the chief clerk role, and since her appointment in December, she has proven that she was the right person for the job.”
Williams’ supervisor, House Clerk Jeff Woodard, said she’s a “natural” for the role. “She is dedicated to her work, understands the complexities of the legislative process, and she has a deep respect for the legislative institution,” he said. “The respect she has earned from House members and staff makes her well suited to accomplish the goals of this office.”
Her main functions are supervising staff and making sure House bills are moved along to the Senate and the governor’s office in a timely manner. And it can get very busy.
“When they start moving along the floor really fast, it gets frantic,” Williams said. “All of the employees make sure they stay calm, process their work and get it out in a timely fashion, correctly. You take a deep breath, process it and move as fast as you can, making sure the messages are correct.”
Williams was a student at Alabama State University in Montgomery when former Representative Alvin Holmes (D), who died last November after serving four decades in the Alabama House, asked her if she’d be interested in working in the House part time. “Of course, I said yes.”
A Little of Everything
Starting out as a runner, bringing messages from the chamber to House member offices, Williams also scheduled and supervised the pages, gave tours of the Capitol and much more.
Vannah Norrell, then chief clerk, told Williams, “I’m impressed. I’m going to keep you. I’m not sure how long it will be; someone is going on maternity leave.” Soon after, Norrell hired her full time, and Williams learned plenty about the House by working in various roles, including in the mail room, at the information desk, as a committee clerk and more.
“I’ve built some great relationships with the people I work with,” Williams said. “Vannah Norrell was like a second mother to me. She taught me all about politics, how to handle myself, trained me on the day-to-day operations of the office, sent me to legislative conferences.
“I wasn’t looking for a full-time position, but she believed in me and said she was going to teach me everything I needed to know to run the clerk’s office.”
Maneuvering the ‘Newness’
Alabama’s 2021 House session opened Feb. 2, and with COVID-19 on the loose, Williams and her 52 full-time and 30 part-time employees have focused on keeping everyone safe. They test staffers and House members every three weeks, provide sanitizer, promote social distancing and practice the latter by closing off some areas. They also provide rooms where lobbyists and others can watch sessions and meetings, and they provide broadcasts of the legislature and committees in action.
“We’re trying to maneuver through all this newness and make sure all the information is provided to those that want it,” Williams said.
Being chief clerk makes it easier, she said, to “implement some of the ideas I’ve had over the years and try to make the department run more efficiently, to make each office, each department, all it can be, and listen to concerns of the staff. We’ve been working together over 20 years. They know I’m concerned about teaching all the employees, and to come to me to talk about concerns.”
She knows she won’t be able to put every idea to work. “But I’m going to try,” she said. “I want to make some positive (changes), with the approval of the clerk of the House, who is my boss, and the House speaker.”
The boss, Woodard, would seem to approve. “Natalyn will,” he said, “with her initiative and organizational skills, have significant impact on House operations for years to come.”
Williams, who reserves her spare time for her children, Christian, 19, and Carsyn, 15, a soccer-loving sports fanatic, says her one regret is that her sister, Denise Williams Rudolph, died before Williams’ promotion.
“She would have been so proud of me. She was my biggest fan,” she said.
Bruce Goldberg is a Denver-based freelance writer.