AUGUSTA, Maine — The huge moose head on the floor left little doubt of big change. Matt Dunlap was finishing packing away the remnants of his last eight years in office as Maine’s Secretary of State. The moose head and a bear rug both had occupied places of honor in the office of the avid hunter.
But now, after serving as Secretary of State for 14 of the last 16 years, Dunlap has reached the mandatory term limit and is leaving.
“This has truly been one of the greatest experiences of my lifetime,” he says.
Dunlap was a four-term state legislator from Old Town, a commercial cook, and an outdoors guy with degrees in history and English when he was first elected Secretary of State in 2004.
That office is one of the most complex jobs in state government.
As Secretary, Dunlap has been in charge of elections and voting, driver’s licenses, motor vehicles, overseeing citizen referendum petitions, and a lot more. But he says all of that has brought opportunities to help people.
“What it all boils down to is the stuff you never report on,” Dunlap said during an interview Wednesday. “Someone reaches out to me, frightened, they have a crisis and need help and we’re able to render that help. And that’s the part of the job that keeps me coming back and I will miss.”
He mentioned cases in which driver’s licenses were lost but urgently needed for a trip or a job, and the office was able to quickly produce replacements, as well as other instances in which people needed documents or other steps taken quickly to solve a problem.
His time in the office has been dominated by big issues, including the Real ID controversy with driver licenses -- a federal law he still says does not work.
“The argument about terrorism prevention is an absolute joke,” Dunlap argues.
He had to figure out how to make Maine’s first-in-the-country statewide ranked choice voting system actually work.
And this year, amid huge public controversy, he had to ensure the whole election system worked. Which, he says, it did.
“What we have for a process, our chain of custody for ballots, from the time they leave the printing press to when they’re sealed up in the ballot boxes after being counted, the recount process, even the new process of ranked choice voting has followed the same path -- very secure, very transparent and I think people trust that.”
Dunlap will hand over the keys to former state Sen. Shenna Bellows, who was chosen by the Legislature earlier this month to be the new Secretary. She will be the first woman to ever hold the office and has been training and learning the ropes for the past several weeks.
Dunlap has been chosen by the Legislature to be the new State Auditor. And while he is now studying to make up for the lack of a financial background, Dunlap says the essence of the Auditor's job is managing the 45-person staff, most of whom are well-trained in financial matters.
But it will still be a job where he is held accountable, ultimately, by the people of Maine. And that is very similar to what he has been doing for years.
“There is no legacy. I will probably be a trivia question by the end of March. That’s the beauty of democracy. It’s always the people you touch, and they touch you back. That’s the most important part of what we do in public service.”