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From outdoor sessions to historically close split, NH House Clerk Paul Smith aims to keep 400 lawmakers moving

House Clerk Paul Smith, confers with House Speaker Sherman Packard, during a recent session.
Zoey Knox
/
NHPR
House Clerk Paul Smith, left, confers with House Speaker Sherman Packard, center, during a recent session.

It’s poor form to show up late to an interview. Worse still when the man kept waiting is a professional enforcer of rules.

“I wasn’t judging you,” says Paul Smith, graciously, sitting inside his State House office, in a quiet corner of the third floor.

For the past eight years, Smith has served as clerk of the New Hampshire House. His main task: ensuring that the debating, amending and ultimately voting on the hundreds of pieces of legislation that pass through his building goes smoothly.

In recent years, with the coronavirus pandemic, the job has taken on new complexities, as Smith has had to coordinate multiple socially distanced sessions for 400 lawmakers — in hotel ballrooms or outside on field hockey pitches.

And this year, with the House partisan divide as narrow as it's been in decades, Smith will find himself squarely in the middle of the action. On session days, that means standing next to the House Speaker, like a caddy to a golfer, answering questions about procedure or the order of votes.

“My job is to make sure that the House, and more specifically, the speaker, look good,” says Smith. “Look like they know what they are doing, and making sure that everything is functioning in a proper manner.”

Smith communicates with a member of his staff. During sessions, he gives guidance on procedural and parliamentary questions.
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Smith communicates with a member of his staff. During sessions, he gives guidance on procedural and parliamentary questions.

Among his less formal duties, Smith must also recognize all the members so that they are addressed properly on the House floor.

“Every two years, I have to remember 400 faces, their hometowns and their last names, and that sort of thing,” he says. “And when the speaker looks over and says, ‘Who is that?’ I have to tell him.”

When not memorizing faces, Smith, who is 42, lives in Hopkinton with his wife and two young children. He referees high school football games on weekends, watches a great deal of movies and sports, and devotes himself to all things Star Trek.

As a 22-year-old college senior, Smith was elected to the Legislature as a Republican, but left during his second term to take a job with the Boy Scouts of America.

He returned to Concord as a legislative aide to House Republicans, before landing a nonpartisan post as the deputy clerk under Karen Wadsworth, his predecessor who held the position for 20 years. Wadsworth, who is now retired, says she remembers meeting Smith, then a young lawmaker.

“Paul said to me when he was a very new House member, and I hadn’t known him before, but he said, ‘You have my dream job,’ ” she says.

Smith leading the Pledge of Allegiance during an outdoor session of the House on Jan. 6, 2021
Dan Touhy/NHPR
Smith leading the Pledge of Allegiance during an outdoor session of the House on Jan. 6, 2021

Wadsworth says Smith brought a deep respect for process and order to the position, though she says she had to encourage him to lower the intensity, at times.

“I used to tell him, ‘You gotta relax. Just relax. Roll with it a little bit,’ ” she says.

When Wadsworth left the clerk's office in 2014, Smith ran successfully to replace her. (House clerks are elected every two years by the entire House. Smith won a fifth term in December, unopposed.)

During his tenure, Smith has worked to modernize the office, including launching social media accounts that will occasionally answer questions from the public about House procedure.

He’s also worked with both Democratic and Republican House Speakers, including Sherm Packard, who currently holds the gavel.

Sometimes dressed in a bow tie, sometimes in a seersucker suit, Smith is always attentive during session days. He makes announcements and reminds lawmakers about lunch events or mileage reimbursements. He also confers with Packard constantly.

Donna Sytek, who was the New Hampshire House Speaker from 1996 to 2000, when Karen Wadsworth still had the job, says those intimate conversations are usually about process.

“We’ve got four people signed up to speak on this [bill], three on one side, one on the other. What order do you want to take them in?’" she says. "Practical things like that."

The keys to being a good clerk, according to Sytek, are efficiency, an expert understanding of the procedures of the House and maintaining a non-partisan position. House members, historically, haven't wanted any bias in the role.

“They’re there to make the trains run on time,” she says. “Republican trains, Democrat trains: They all need to run on time.”

During the pandemic, keeping that train on schedule proved a challenge. The House met off-site at a series of locations, including a drive-in session where lawmakers voted from their cars, so that all 400 of them could be socially distanced.

Rep. Maureen Mooney, a Republican from Merrimack, says the experience proved Smith’s mettle.

“I think he’s been through it all at this point, and I think he will do extraordinarily well, as he’s always had in every session,” Mooney says.

This session could pose its own challenges. With the member House nearly evenly split along party lines, there could be a lot of close votes requiring a roll call.

Smith says when there was the very real prospect of a 200 to 200 tie, before recounts were completed, he researched what a power-sharing agreement could look like, just in case the House needed it.

And that’s the job, essentially: being prepared, like the Eagle Scout he is.

Before heading out to pick up his kids at day's end, Smith remarked on his passion for clocks and timepieces in general. On his own wrist watch, you can see the gears inside. It’s a “romantic” image, he says.

“You see a rotor that turns the mechanics inside of a watch; it is fundamentally fascinating,” he says. “And it is much like the legislative process, you know. It just keeps on going.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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