For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

Jon Farley was, from accounts of those who knew him, a legislative staffer of humor and humanity, a big personality, adept at the job description every member of his tribe knows: “A good staffer is someone the constituents don’t know exists. Your job is to fade into the wallpaper, but make sure everything is working the way it should.” That’s his widow Erika talking, and she knows, too: Like her late husband, she’s a staffer in the office of Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc.

“Jon loved his job,” Erika said. “He never wanted to run for office himself. It wasn’t his thing. He just wanted to be a good staffer.”

So when he died of esophageal cancer in 2013, at 40, she knew his legacy had to be with the small army of Capitol staffers, the sherpas who schlep the folders and answer the phones, plump the proverbial pillows and otherwise make life easier for their elected bosses in Lansing.

The Jon Farley Exceptional Legislative Staffer Award, now in its second year, drew 41 nominees from both chambers, with the winner chosen by an ad hoc board of staffers. Last week the plexiglas trophy was awarded to Bill Drake, 53, legislative director for Rep. George Darany, D-Dearborn. His nomination included praise from a colleague on the other side of the aisle: “(Drake was a) House Democrat staff member who provided the bridge to allow me, a highly partisan Republican staffer, to get to know and develop friendships with Democrat legislative aides and put the ‘game’ behind us.”

Bridge stopped Drake for a quick Q-and-A last week after the award was presented in Lansing.

Bridge: How long have you been a legislative staffer?

Over 25 years. I’ve worked for seven legislators.

Bridge: That’s a long time.

Under term limits, it’s made it a little tougher.

Bridge: But now you probably have more experience than the people you work for.

Yes, but there are a lot of people in the House of Representatives who have years of experience, decades. Some of the other nominees came from the Legislative Service Bureau, they came from the sergeant at arms’ staff, and without their assistance, my job would be much more difficult.

Bridge: Erika Farley said to do this job well, you have to be very self-effacing, and you just handed off all this credit.

Well, they do make our jobs easier. And having the job all these years has made it easier, too. I know all these resources to call to make my bosses look better, to try to cut through some of the red tape, to try to help constituents. And that’s what the job is about. Each House member represents about 90,000 people, and people call with all kinds of concerns, or just to share their opinions. I’m fortunate to have resources I can call upon. Under term limits, it’s harder, because the new people don’t know who to call.

Bridge: So are you a mentor to the younger staffers?

I try to be, but there’s always so much more you can learn. I try to learn something new every day, and I do because we’re exposed to so much stuff. Tonight is about Jon Farley, and I knew him working in the Legislature. I admired his passion for history, for Theodore Roosevelt. I was reading some Theodore Roosevelt quotes today, and they made me laugh because they made me think of Jon. This award means so much, to be recognized by your peers.

Bridge: What about mentoring not just the younger staffers, but the people you work for?

The legislators have so many different talents, and I’ve tried to pick up something from each one that I’ve worked for, whether it’s writing or communicating or something else. But it’s a delicate balance between the staffer and the legislator. I have always deferred to the legislator. It takes some skill to know who is who. With 110 legislators, each one came to Lansing to make a difference. Under term limits, it’s more difficult because the timing is so short, and everyone wants to make a difference.

Bridge: What drew you to legislative work 25 years ago?

I went to Michigan State, and with the beautiful Capitol this close -- I’m still in awe when I see the building. The legislative process is just so interesting, how compromise is how we usually get things done. When we pass legislation and not everybody is happy, on both sides, then I know we are making some progress.

Bridge: Is this something you wanted to make a career out of, or did you think this would be a way station? These jobs don’t pay that well.

No, they don’t. I started at $18,000 a year. [Drake is paid $53,357 today.] But I love the work. Jon loved the work, too. It can be frustrating, but you have to love it.

Bridge: Do you have to have a certain temperament to do this job? Being the one who’s not in the spotlight?

I enjoy that role. That’s the difference between a legislative staffer and a legislator. A legislator will be called on the weekends, will be called at midnight, will be stopped in the grocery store, and as a staffer you are more incognito.

Bridge: Are you in demand as a staffer? When you lose a boss, who calls? Do you put the word out, or do people find you?

It’s sort of like musical chairs. There are only so many chairs, and so many individuals. You start to scramble when your boss loses their job.

Bridge: But so far, you’ve always been able to find a chair when the music stops.

Let me knock on wood.

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Tue, 03/31/2015 - 3:08pm
It's been great working with Bill over the years. This recognition is well earned and much deserved.
Clark Harder
Tue, 03/31/2015 - 5:43pm
I have known Bill Drake for many years, since he began as a staffer. As a former staffer myself, then legislator, I certainly can vouch for this man's outstanding qualifications to win this award. I was also proud to call him one of my constituents back in the 90s and an neighbor to this day. Congratulations Bill! You deserve the honors, though I know they are not something you would ever seek. Keep up the good work; any legislator is fortunate to have your talents on his/her staff.
Mary Wood
Tue, 03/31/2015 - 7:14pm
Bill worked for my state representative from Warren about 10 years ago. I am most grateful that he was the one answering the phone during my active time of advocacy against the charter school movement. When we had a change of Rep due to term limits we also loss Bill. That was a sad day for me. I was pleasantly surprised to run into him again working for another Rep. Was that the Jackson area? Now Dearborn!!!! I am so pleased to see Bill being recognized with this award. He definitely deserves it. Thanks Bill for all that you did for me during those years. I am still at it, too. LOL
Brian Jackson
Tue, 03/31/2015 - 8:46pm
A great award for a great guy. Glad to see public service recognized for the good that they do.
Nick Norcross
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 8:47am
I met Bill in 2006 when I was an intern for Andy Meisner and, when I was fortunate to secure a staff position the following year with a newly elected member, I made every effort to pick Bill's brain. I consider myself a mentee of his and I'm thrilled to see that Bill is receiving the recognition that he truly deserves.
Lisa Hansknecht
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 9:17am
Well deserved! Bill is a nice guy that knows how to get things done. Being able to keep the "niceness" isn't easy in this environment. He deserves extra kudos for that!
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 9:25am
I totally miss working for the House, the way it was back then. Congratulations Bill on this award!!!
joe garcia
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 9:41am
Bill Drake is a consummate professional with the right attitude and demeanor to be effective. He has never lost sight of "the boss being elected by the people of the district", and making certain that those people are well served. An outstanding honor and a great award. Congratulations.
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 9:47am
Congratulations, Bill!! I can't think of anyone more deserving of this award. It's been a pleasure to have known you all these years -- keep on keeping on!
Ed Rivet
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 10:22am
Maybe Bill and I go back the furthest, when the Rep. I worked for sponsored him as a page while he was still a student. (You have to have been around here quite a while to remember when Reps sponsored pages and janitors.) We campaigned in the district together. We were total newbies back then. Bill is indeed a master of his craft and well-deserving of this award.
John Pfeiffer
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 11:48am
Being a former staffer that has relied on Bill as a mentor, sounding board and as a friend, this honor is well deserved.. There are a army of hard working legislative staffers that makes things happen in the name of their bosses. Bill is one of the best. I know that the legacy of what it means to be a legislative staffer is well preserved when Bill is still practicing and teaching his craft. This a great award since a number staffers have passed away (many of them far too early) and it is fitting honor current standouts in the name of one of the greats from the past.
Nick Ciaramitaro
Wed, 04/01/2015 - 4:42pm
Congratulations to Bill and to the organization that wisely choose him for this well deserved honor.
Heidi Zabik
Thu, 04/02/2015 - 12:32am
Whenever a new staffer asks what single piece of advice is the most important, I always remind them that it is our job to always be invisible so that it is our boss' voice that carries the discussion....Bill epitomizes that in how he always places his legislator's vision in his own heart. There is an art to being a legislative staffer, and Bill Drake raises the bar of professionalism to the Michelangelo level. Well earned, Bill, well earned!!!!
Matt Kurta
Thu, 04/02/2015 - 6:01pm
Bill is a class act - well deserved and congratulations!
Ted Maddox
Sun, 04/05/2015 - 5:30pm
What an honor for a behind the scenes staffer. Then to receive praise from across they aisle, really puts the icing on the cake. Bill is probably quietly celebrating this coveted award.
Kiesha Speech
Mon, 04/06/2015 - 6:49am
Congratulations, Bill!! I am thankful that I had the privilege of witnessing, firsthand, your humble & professional demeanor as a legislative staffer. Thanks for being so nice and always saying hello, for the small talk you made with me Inb it|ttttttttt I know that you are well-deserving of this award, and many more. :)
Tim Hughes
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 9:37am
Congratulations, Bill! You're a class act who knows the process and has a well deserved reputation for hard work and integrity.
Patrick Laughlin
Sun, 04/01/2018 - 11:18pm

Congratulations Bill, well deserved.