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Lawmakers honor the "real" speaker of the House
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At age 19, Burdick came to St. Paul from his hometown of Vernon Center for a $5-a-day job as a temporary page, and, except for a year of military duty, he never left. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
The Minnesota House of Representatives said goodbye to a longtime public servant on Monday. Chief Clerk Ed Burdick retired this year after serving 38 years as the body's top administrator and unofficial referee. He first came to the chamber in 1941 as a page and over the years built up a nationally-recognized expertise in parliamentary procedure.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota has been a state for almost 147 years. And Ed Burdick has served its House of Representatives for almost half that time. At age 19, Burdick came to St. Paul from his hometown of Vernon Center for a $5-a-day job as a temporary page, and, except for a year of military duty, he never left. He's presided from his perch just below the speaker's rostrum since 1967, when he was elected chief clerk. From that position, he's guided a dozen speakers through the fine points of parliamentary procedure, keeping the debate in-bounds regardless of the party in power.

Republican Tim Pawlenty served five terms in the House before becoming Governor. He says Burdick's sense of fair play helped defuse partisan conflict.

"Things were resolved in the sense of conciliation or mediation or resolution or reconciliation in many procedural matters 'because Ed said so.' The gold standard was his word; it was his integrity. They knew that Ed Burdick wouldn't shoot it anywhere other than straight," Pawlenty said.

Burdick himself, despite his public role, prefers a behind-the-scenes presence and declined to speak to reporters on his day of tribute. That left former and current members of the House to record his accomplishments and note his exceptional longevity in the job.

During his tenure, he watched more than 1,000 representatives come and go, saw roughly 81,000 bills introduced and 23,000 new laws passed. Through it all, he served as a mentor and teacher to lawmakers unfamiliar with the arcane procedures that shape debate and channel legislative ambition into public policy. He advised on points of order, questions of germaneness, appeals, and inquiries.

And despite his wealth of knowledge, lawmakers say he never betrayed a partisan disposition. Republican Representative Ron Abrams of Minnetonka has substituted in the speaker's chair on many occassions.

"Nobody knows if Ed is a Democrat or Republican, Green Party, Independent, or whatever. We don't know if he's a liberal or conservative. But we all know, in our years of service in the House, that Ed Burdick is quintessentially Minnesotan and is the spirit of the Minnesota House of Representatives," according to Abrams.

Burdick was replaced this year by Al Mathiowetz, whohas served 33 years as House employee. Mathiowetz credits his own success to Burdick's guidance.

"There isn't any school or any college that'll teach you parliamentary procedure. It's really on-the-job-type training. So, I'm just thankful that I was able to serve with a legend like that. He had mastered the trade," he said.

Mathiowetz says during his years on the job, he never saw Burdick miss a legislative session until his final two years. It was that presence and stability which, lawmakers say, gave the body cohesion and provided institutional memory.

Former DFL Speaker Phil Carruthers of Brooklyn Center says without the continuity, the House would have been much less effective.

"We need tradition. We need rules. We need order. We need experience. And we need wisdom. And that is what the voice of Ed Burdick is all about," he said.

For Capitol observers, the voice of Ed Burdick was part of the legislative fabric during long days and nights of debate. His unmistakable baritone announced the business at hand, called absent members back for a vote, or recited the Journal of the House. Although Burdick had initially declined to speak at his tribute, he relented in the end and gave the audience one last sample.

"It is has been suggested that I leave you with this parting thought: state of Minnesota, 84th Session, Journal of the House -- thank you very much."

Burdick says he has no immediate plans for his retirement. Although at the age of 83 and after 62 years in government service, he says he might finally take a winter vacation.