Riding Herd on the Senate

Breaking up a fight was not in the job description, but Secretary of the Senate Patrick Harris takes seriously his role as the enforcer of rules, even the rules of civility. From his raised perch peering over the floor of Alabama’s top legislative body, Harris could see the infamous punch coming from the fist of Charles Bishop heading for Lowell Barron.

“Sometimes, they can be impolite, ” says Harris.

Normally running the Senate involves more mundane tasks such as proofreading bills and posting daily calendars of bills to be debated or voted upon, but certain issues can raise passions to the boiling point. Most often, it plays out as yelling and talking over people at the podium — or fisticuffs. That’s when the parliamentarian morphs into sergeant-at-arms.

“I could tell it was fixing to happen. It was very tense, with a lot of bullying, verbal pushing going on. I grabbed Senator Bishop when he punched Senator Barron. Bishop was an old coal miner; he knew what he was doing in a fight and how to finish a fight. He wasn’t going to get a chance for a second punch, ” says Harris.

That rare heavy-handed approach runs counter to a career built on finesse. Corralling such a diverse and often contentious group as Alabama’s senators requires instincts honed over years — starting with his childhood visiting his mother at work. Edna Flourney Harris served as secretary to Albert Brewer from the House of Representatives to governor.

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“I can’t stress how much you have to have a feel for it. And you can’t get it in one year, or two years or even four years, ” says the man who is only the third Secretary of the Senate in 92 years.

As Secretary, Harris serves as CEO to the Senate. He is one of the few such leaders who can truly claim to have started in the Xerox room as a teenager fresh from high school graduation in 1971. He has worked on and off for the Senate ever since.

While attending Thomas Jones School of Law, he went to work for Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice C.C. Torbert at the Alabama Supreme Court, where he worked from 1977 to 1983. Like his mother, he worked as an administrative assistant.

In 1983, Harris turned to his father’s profession and joined the family law firm, Harris & Harris PC. While building his practice, he took a part-time position as Assistant Secretary of the Senate, getting elected in 1991.

“As a young lawyer, having another paycheck was helpful, ” says Harris.

In 2010, he was elected secretary.

Along with helping to write the rules and interpret them, Harris deals with the daily issues, such as IT and finances. Harris has shaved $2 million off of the operations budget by renegotiating things, such as phone systems and copier contracts, and general cost cutting. He has to be prepared for expenses beyond his control.

“When they raise their pay and don’t fund it, that money has to come out of somewhere. That pay raise ate up our savings, ” he says.

The tight budget reflects the tight ship Harris runs. Active in the national associations of legislative clerks and secretaries, he makes sure Alabama is one of the best operations in the country regarding business and procedural standards. For example, Alabama’s Legislature was the first to convert to paperless and to embrace an information technology system.

“I know how this operates and I study it hard, ” says Harris.

He works to keep the rules fair, functional and non-partisan. In fact, the only place where he refuses to remain objective is his football preference, Roll Tide.

During the session, his team of 100 people, including secretaries and journal writers, put in more hours than the Legislature. At times, they work 24 hours in a day. As an enrolled bill state, bills that are amended have to be typewritten, underlined and proofed in, or Harris cannot certify them for offering on the Senate floor.

“Everything that happens on Tuesday has to be ready on Wednesday. The fairies don’t just show up and make it happen. Fortunately, I have the best staff in the world, ” says Harris.

After the session, it takes about three months to prepare the final journals recording the actions of the session. Those books are the official and final word on Alabama law. Throughout the year, committees meet and the staff works to keep up with appointments and confirmations, such as university boards and commissions. About 200 are expected in 2014.

In his years in the Senate, one of the biggest changes has been the passage of the ethics laws. With the limitation of the types of jobs senators can hold, it has created a class of lawmakers who depend on the Senate for full-time pay, rather than the traditional citizen legislators. More people are pursuing their favor, as the number of lobbyists has risen from a handful to more than 800. Partisanship has increased as well.

One of his current challenges is determining who can cover the sessions as media. With the influx of bloggers, who often have agendas, and the changes in mainstream media, it can be difficult to issue press credentials. People have been tossed from the pressroom who seemed more interested in soliciting than reporting.

In his spare time, Harris maintains his legal practice. He specializes in municipal water companies and business development, always things that do not relate to legislative activities.

When he gets out of the office, he gets outside. His passion is hunting wily turkeys and deer. When not in the woods, he turns to water, deep sea fishing for billfish. He also owns and rides Tennessee walking horses.

“Nothing is more beautiful than being out before dawn on a spring morning and watching everything wake up in its order, the birds, the squirrels and the flowers, ” says Harris.

Often, when he goes hunting, all he carries is his camera, capturing the serenity and loveliness of a world far from rules and regulations. He is a great admirer of both.

Verna Gates is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

Text by Verna Gates

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