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The Crossroads of Civic Engagement

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The voice of the Senate

Stuart Purcell, the Senate reading clerk, gets into speed duels with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch on the Senate floor.

When he starts reading a bill action, it’s a race to see how many words he can get out before Crouch gavels him into submission. He speaks so quickly, the average person can’t understand a word he says; only the trained ear can discern his meaning. He keeps a close eye on the lieutenant governor’s every move, twiddling a pen in his hand. He ensures every detail is in place.

Purcell is the catalyst of the chamber. Like an auctioneer, he stands at the front of the chamber and rattles off commands to Senators making bids for the legislative aspirations. He calls Senators to speak on their bills, and he calls them to consider amendments. He is also the guy who controls the display board that shows Senators and citizens how legislators vote.

Crouch is the third, and potentially most competitive, lieutenant governor he’s worked with.

“She’ll try to out-gavel me. I’m trying to read through things, and she’s gaveling progressively faster and faster. Either she’s trying to keep up with me, or I’m trying to keep up with her,” Purcell said.

But how does this man read so fast? It’s a matter of repetition, he said. He just plugs in the name of the bill, and muscle memory kicks in from there. It’s kind of like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, except he doesn’t have to wait on everyone else to get the words out.

He has a mental list of common phrases. “Bill amended to read as follows” is a fan favorite.

He has been serving as the reading clerk off and on since 2013, but he also manages payroll for Indiana employees as the state controller. The reading job used to be filled by an intern, but Purcell swooped into the spot when one of the interns was struggling to keep pace. He was previously the journal clerk, another one of the several figures stationed at the shiny, wooden front desk of the Senate Chamber, until former Senate Pro Tem David Long asked him to read.

“It was one of those things where I tried it out, and it seemed to fit fairly well. They haven’t gotten rid of me yet, so I’m assuming I’m still doing a decent job,” Purcell said.

Zac Maier, the Senate informatics and technology director, said Purcell is a game changer.

“Stu was our No. 1,” Maier said. “Being able to speak clearly but speak rapidly is kind of a trait that we’re always looking for.” A fast reader can get the Senators home at 5 p.m. rather than midnight, he continued.

Maier is another competitor for Purcell. They try to estimate when the Senate sessions will adjourn, Maier said. They play by “Price is Right” rules, meaning you have to guess as close as possible without overguessing.

“It’s a little friendly thing we do as a front desk staff to make things a little interesting. We always guess, ‘Are we going to be done at 5:35 or 5:38?’” Maier said.

Purcell said he hasn’t been turned off by the monotony of the Statehouse grind. He thinks anyone who stays there for more than a few years must be called to stay. All Indiana government disciples have that moment when they get hooked, he explained. His was a phone call.

A woman in one of his senator’s districts called him as a last-ditch effort. Her husband had lost his job, and the family was going to lose their house. She caught him off guard, but he phoned the Indiana State Department of Workforce Development and a few other networks. He soon forgot about it.

A few weeks later, the woman called him in tears with the news that he had saved her house. Purcell said this is when he got “bit by the bug” and realized he wanted to pursue politics as his career.

He grew up south of Fort Wayne, and his backyard was a cornfield. He set the stage for political work when he was in college. As a Ball State University student, he found a job calling alumni and asking them for money; they weren’t always receptive to his requests.

“I had a thicker skin, so I was generally given the people who were more resistant to donate. Getting cussed at was not an unusual occurrence, but it was a good way of building up resistance to things like that,” Purcell said.

He enjoys seeing the birth of bills.

“It’s interesting to be able to see the progression from idea, to the vote on the bill, then it’s actual real-life effects throughout the state,” Purcell said. “And I’m a political nerd, so I still love it after all these years.”

Although he has never been an auctioneer, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has invited him to try at his Reppert Auction School in Auburn. While he said he would have to practice beforehand, he would be prepared for the gaveling, which has become a part of his life. It hasn’t happened yet, but he suspects that if he heard a banging noise in public, he might pause mid-sentence out of habit.

Purcell has also never tried his luck with rapping—at least not in public.

“I have zero rhythm, and if I do any rapping at all, it’s either in the shower when no one can hear me or in my car with the music up loud so I can’t hear how bad I am. Usually, if I sing and my wife can hear me, I will get a look, and then I will stop singing,” Purcell said.

People ask him why his job exists, and he does his best to tell them. Some Statehouse visitors ask him to slow down, but he and Crouch are in the business of keeping the Senate on schedule to the best of their abilities—even if that means a friendly stand-off.

Isaac Gleitz is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.