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‘He was the House of Representatives’ – Ed Burdick, 1921-2011

Briana Bierschbach//March 16, 2011

‘He was the House of Representatives’ – Ed Burdick, 1921-2011

Briana Bierschbach//March 16, 2011

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Former House Chief Clerk Ed Burdick is memorialized with a bronze bust that sits outside the House chambers. The bust, installed while Burdick was still chief clerk, is the only statue in the Capitol erected while its subject was still living. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

When news broke last week that longtime former House Chief Clerk Ed Burdick had died, representatives took time to reminisce on the chamber floor. Preston Republican Rep. Greg Davids remembered a time when the clock struck midnight on the last night of session. The Legislature was constitutionally required to adjourn, but had yet to finish its work.

“All the Republicans are standing up screaming, standing on their chairs, saying ‘Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker, we have to adjourn sine die.’ … Speaker Bob Vanasek leaned forward and said, ‘Mr. Chief Clerk Burdick, what time is it?’ And Ed Burdick turned around and said, ‘Mr. Speaker, what time do you want it to be?'” Davids recalled.

Burdick spent 65 years working at the Capitol and nearly 40 as chief clerk, becoming a nationally recognized expert on parliamentary procedure and an invaluable asset to the House speaker and members from both sides of the aisle. Those who knew him best say he deeply cared for the procedures and the institution of the House of Representatives, a respect that prompted him to take his time on the floor over the years, no matter what the clock said. Burdick, 89, died in his sleep last week.

“He would tell us that we are passing law. We are doing legal work and we put it in the record,” said current Chief Clerk Al Mathiowetz, who worked with Burdick for more than 30 years. “He took great pride in seeing that things were done right.”

“He was the House of Representatives,” former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum said. “The two were synonymous. Legislators come and go, speakers come and go, but Ed Burdick was always there.”

A ‘unique public employee’

Burdick was born in 1921 in Vernon Center, Minn. He grew up in a newspaper family and worked for several of his father’s publications in southern Minnesota. He aspired to own a newspaper himself one day, but his plans changed after he entered the Capitol as a page in 1941.

After two years as a page, Burdick was elevated to the role of chief page. During that time he hired Hazel Johnson, the body’s first female page. More women were becoming legislators at that time, and Burdick thought the staff should reflect that. “It was the start of women in the House of Representatives,” DFL Rep. Mary Murphy said.

He became an assistant at the front desk in 1947, and moved up to the chief clerk role in 1967. From then on, he sat at the head of the House chamber under the speaker, announcing bills in his deep, recognizable voice, addressing questions from the speaker and managing the flow of paper. He missed just one session in the early 1950s for active military duty.

Former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher remembers being schooled by Burdick as a freshman. Burdick had a classroom just above the House chambers. “There were several white boards up there and he would take you through the rules, and then you would run through these ‘what if’ scenarios,” she said. “He was like Google on House rules.”

As a freshman, Republican Rep. Larry Howes said Burdick would answer his questions about different maneuvers he could use on the House floor.  “This was a guy who knew the rules and wanted everyone else to understand them, too,” he said, “to see that things were done right.”

Over time, Burdick garnered an expert status on parliamentary procedure. He authored several books on the rules of legislative procedure, including one with a former secretary of the Senate, Patrick Flahaven. He was known nationally as the “dean” of parliamentary procedure, providing training across the country.

In his 60-plus years at the Legislature, Burdick never gave an indication of any political leanings and demanded the same from his staff, Mathiowetz said. “He recognized that we are elected by every member. That meant they were all our bosses,” Mathiowetz said.

Burdick made several attempts to 1`retire. His first try came in 1999, when Sviggum held the speaker’s gavel. When Sviggum got wind that Burdick was about to make his exit, he ventured to the chief clerk’s office and asked him to stay. “I said, ‘Ed, I can’t do this without you,'” Sviggum recalled. Burdick stayed on, and was similarly deterred from retirement in 2001 and 2003 by Sviggum.

In 2005, after nearly 40 years as chief clerk, Burdick left the House. On the day of his retirement, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty proclaimed it Edward A. Burdick Day in Minnesota, and President George W. Bush thanked him for his public service.

Burdick is memorialized with a bronze bust that sits outside the House chambers. Former House Speaker Bob Vanasek fought with the Capitol’s architectural board to install a bronze bust of Burdick just outside the House chambers while he was still an employee of the House. By the board’s account, one had to die before they could be memorialized in such a fashion. Vanasek disagreed, and took it upon himself to raise the funds required and sent a letter to the board saying the House had the authority to do whatever it wanted with the space. The bust was eventually installed while Burdick was still chief clerk. It’s the only statue in the Capitol erected while its subject was still living.

He was known for his close relationships with the House speakers that passed through the chamber during his tenure. He remained friends with many of them long after they left St. Paul. “He was extremely loyal to all of the speakers he served,” Vanasek said. “For all the years I knew him, he always addressed me as Mr. Speaker when we were in the House chambers.”

DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who has served as speaker pro tempore, said she was amazed at the amount of time Burdick spent with her and her staff to train her on the rules of the House.  Whenever Kahn would have lingering doubts about her judgments in the speaker’s chair, she recalled, Burdick would reminder her simply, “You’re the speaker; you make the decision.”

Sviggum remained close friends with Burdick over the years and was with him on the day he died. “I loved him like a father,” Sviggum said. “I held his hand on the last day and he said, ‘I’ve had a good life. I’m ready.'”

Burdick’s love for the process was rare inside and out of the Capitol, and he often found himself defending the institution over the years, Mathiowetz said. “Legislators generally have a high approval rating, but the process is what people criticize,” Mathiowetz said. “He really loved the legislative process. He was patient and would explain it to people and why it’s important. We live in a democratic society. He loved that, and that’s what really made him a unique public employee.”

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