PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Each legislative session, a few dozen staffers return to the South Dakota Capitol to keep the lawmaking process on track.
Sergeant at Arms Melvin Chandler is serving his 23rd year in the Legislature and Chief Clerk Arlene Kvislen is serving her 17th. The two of them have the longest tenures among the session staffers, according to the Legislative Research Council.
But after a combined four decades in the House chamber, Chandler and Kvislen aren’t sure they’ll come back.
About 30 temporary staffers, mostly come from in or around the capital city, spend each session managing calendars, bills and student pages - 95 of them this session. The staffers also make records of all the proceedings.
Speaker of the House Brian Gosch said it’s extremely helpful to have tenured staff people, especially when each session brings new legislators.
“They’ve been there long enough to see where potential pitfalls are and how to avoid them,” the Republican from Rapid City said. “They are very important people who are essential, essential to the process.”
Chandler, 87, hopes to come back if his health holds up. He manages the traffic in and around the House and keeps distractions off the floor.
But despite years as the gatekeeper, Chandler has little interest in politics. He said he comes back year after year for the people.
“You meet new people, and you meet all kinds of people. I’d never meet ‘em otherwise,” Chandler said. He has a box of photos of the legislative pages and interns who have worked the sessions over the years.
Chandler was born and raised in Pierre where he ran a local auto glass business. After he retired, he picked up the annual nine-week gig at the Capitol. Early on a legislator told him, “keep your eyes, ears open and your mouth shut.”
“I just keep my mouth shut,” Chandler said. “I may have an opinion, but I don’t want to say it.”
Kvislen, 60, says she’ll decide later if she’ll return. She and the clerks she supervises ensure that bills travel between committees and chambers, and make sure the schedules line up. She communicates directly with Gosch during floor sessions.
Gosch said Kvislen is one of three officers in the House, including himself and the speaker pro tempore.
“She helps keep things running smoothly, orderly, timely,” Gosch said.
Kvislen presides at a podium just below the speakers’ where she directs the business of the day. She oversees a process which she finds fascinating.
“We have such an interesting way we go about making laws,” Kvislen said. “I think if more people knew the process, they would want to be here, being part of it, or being here and actually witnessing it.”
While structure is import, Kvislen said, she enjoys moments when a joke or chuckle interrupts the decorum of the room.
“It’s nice that we can have a little humor in the middle of making laws,” she said. “I have totally enjoyed working my 17 years up here.”
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