Nebraska

Patrick O’Donnell, nation’s longest-serving clerk of the Legislature, plans to retire

Patrick O’Donnell, the longtime clerk of the Nebraska Legislature, announced Tuesday that he’s retiring at the end of the year.

O’Donnell, 73, is currently the longest-serving clerk of a state legislature in the nation, having held the post since 1978.

In an email to state senators late Tuesday afternoon, O’Donnell gave no detail about why he was leaving now, after 44 years on the job — saying simply that he was retiring at year’s end.

‘Honor to serve’

“It has been an honor to serve,” he wrote. “I wish you well in the upcoming session.”

When O’Donnell might retire had been the subject of speculation in recent years.

Veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, a longtime friend and former fraternity brother of O’Donnell’s at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said his retirement was not health related.

“He’s going out on his own terms and his own time, and he’s going out on top. How many people have that opportunity?” Radcliffe said.

“It’s a good deal for him, a bad deal for the Legislature,” he added.

An valuable asset

Advertisements for a replacement will be sent out as soon as Wednesday, according to State Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, who chairs the Legislature’s Executive Board.

O’Donnell, a lawyer and a native of Lincoln, was paid $201,710 in 2021, according to state records.

During his last year in law school, a research project led to his being hired as an aide to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, according to a profile by the UNL Alumni Association Quarterly in 2021.

‘I never left’

“I started working here, and I never left,” O’Donnell said.

He once told the Omaha World-Herald: “This place kind of gets in your blood. I feel like I’m part of something that’s important.”

He was elected assistant clerk in 1977 and, when then-Clerk of the Legislature Vince Brown resigned, O’Donnell was elected to the top job. He has been re-elected every two years since.

At least two other past legislative clerks or secretaries have served longer: McDowell Lee of the Alabama Senate and Joseph A. Beek of the California Senate each served for 48 years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hughes said that a hiring committee composed of Exec Board members will recommend a replacement to the full Executive Board, which will then recommend a selection to the full Legislature, which will vote on the appointment after the 2023 session begins.

Hughes said he got to know O’Donnell better when Hughes served as chair of the Exec Board and when he presided over the Legislature.

‘A huge impact’

“I certainly appreciated his knowledge and his ability to allow the Legislature to operate as efficiently and seamlessly as possible,” Hughes said. 

“He had a huge impact on the Unicameral, and he’s going to be tough to replace,” the senator said. “But I’m sure we’ll find an excellent candidate.”

Dick Brown, who has served as assistant clerk of the Legislature under O’Donnell since 1978, said Tuesday that it was too soon to decide whether he would seek the top job.

Loves the Yankees

Calls to O’Donnell on Tuesday evening seeking comment went unanswered. One source said it might be because his beloved New York Yankees were playing a key playoff game.

As clerk, O’Donnell’s most visible role might be in speed-reading bills just before a vote on the legislation on final reading. The reading is required by the State Constitution unless waived by lawmakers.

The clerk also supervises more than 70 full- and part-time employees who support the Legislature as assistants in the clerk’s office, transcribers of bills, information officers and IT workers. The “red coats” — the sergeants of arms who maintain decorum in the legislative chamber — are also under the clerk’s office, as are student pages.

‘A great resource’

O’Donnell also has been a key adviser to state senators on the rules of the Legislature.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t a total surprise.

“He’s been a great resource for state senators for a long time,” Lathrop said. “The institution will miss Pat O’Donnell.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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