The office of Maine's secretary of state has been around since we split from Massachusetts in 1820. In the intervening years, the secretariat has been occupied by slugs and sycophants, by the politically ambitious and the politically adept, by up-and-comers and past-their-primers. But until now, they've all had one thing in common.
They understood that as long as they successfully completed a few relatively simple — but important — tasks, no one cared what else they did.
While searching through the Dumpster behind the State Archives Record Center in Hallowell (coincidentally, an agency overseen by the secretary of state), I recently discovered a letter from a possibly mythical 19th-century secretary, who had this to say about his responsibilities:
"Dude, ne'er has there been a sweeter gig than being secretary. As long as you make certain the staff gets its work done, nobody gives a farthing if you spend all day drinking and wenching. Methinks I am totally psyched."
The language may be archaic, but the meaning is clear. To hold this important office, you didn't need to be an organizational genius. Or any sort of genius. All you had to do was hire smart people to make sure the paper that needed to get pushed got pushed. You also took pains to hire a competent assistant to handle requests from influential legislators for low-number license plates. (The secretary is chosen by — and beholden to — the majority party in the Legislature.) And you spent as little time as possible in the office, knowing that your presence had absolutely nothing to do with the efficient operation of the bureaucracy you were nominally charged with overseeing.
This model of secretary-of-stating worked fine for the better part of two centuries, until 2004, when Democrat Matthew Dunlap assumed the post. Dunlap had prepared for the job by serving stints as a bartender (anybody know what goes in a Scotch on the rocks?) and radio-show host (is this thing on?), although his career later faltered, and he was forced to become a state representative.
Nevertheless, he was chosen by the Legislature as the new secretary, after which he set about applying his many skills to the post.
In 2005, Dunlap oversaw the instillation of a new computer system at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that resulted in long lines and delays in processing license renewals. He blamed the problem on too many people showing up at BMV offices all at once.
In 2006, he missed a federal deadline for upgrading the state's voter registration system, a project that cost over $17 million. By early 2007, Dunlap told the Bangor Daily News, "We're a little behind schedule, but not a lot." Prophetic words, as it turned out.
Also in '07, a TV reporter did some Dumpster diving behind the State Archives and came up with documents filled with personal information, including Social Security numbers, that had been improperly disposed of. Dunlap promised to get a shredder.
While fixing that little glitch (Ouch! My fingers!), Dunlap also set out to make the electoral process more efficient and less expensive. He proposed doing away with primary elections. "It's a party concern," he said. "It's not a state concern." Both party and state disagreed.