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.