AUGUSTA – After cooking at Stewart Commons and bartending at Pat’s Pizza, Matthew Dunlap is adjusting to his newest job: Maine’s secretary of state.
A career full of blue-collar jobs was the perfect primer for public service in Augusta, said Dunlap, a University of Maine graduate.
After working in food service for 15 years, Dunlap was elected by Old Town to the House of Representatives in 1996 where he served eight years before term limits forced him out. And even after the Legislature elected him secretary of state on Dec. 1, 2005, Dunlap still compares his time as a cook to his current role as a public servant.
“I got my fill of kitchen politics, and there are no politics like it,” Dunlap said. “Politics here in Augusta are honest. Nobody will try to knife you in the back. They’ll try to knife you in the front if they can. But in the kitchen, they’ll stab you right in the back. It’s a rough place to work, but probably the best preparation for what I’m doing now.”
Applying for colleges, Dunlap wrote a different prospective major on each application. For UMaine, he marked history, and he stuck to it.
“But I could have easily switched to economics or nuclear physics,” he said. “I was interested in a lot of things.”
Dunlap earned a varsity letter with the cross-country and track team, becoming the top runner for the Black Bears his junior year. During the off season, he ran 100 miles a week, but a ruptured tendon and torn knee ended his running days after he graduated in 1987.
“I had a lot of friends, but graduating was an agonizing process,” he said. “It wasn’t because I was losing those friends. Just getting out of school with my shirt on academically was a challenge.”
Dunlap liked his time at UMaine so well, he decided to come back for more. He worked toward a master’s degree in English while cooking full time at Stewart Commons.
“That was a tough gig,” he said. “I was the only cook with a college education and the only cook with all my own teeth. Everyone in the kitchen either had partial plates or were missing teeth.”
With a master’s in English, Dunlap switched to a job proofreading for UMaine printing services in 1995. He took a pay cut but enjoyed the added perks he never had before, like vacations and regular hours. During his time as a proofreader, Dunlap was recruited to a position he still occupies today as an assessing editor for the Journal of Mind and Behavior, a psychology department publication.
John O’Dea, a senator for Penobscot County from 1992-96, asked Dunlap to run for the House in 1996. At the time, O’Dea’s wife worked with Dunlap at UMaine as a student waitress in catering, a connection that afforded Dunlap the opportunity to run for election in Old Town. Today, O’Dea’s wife Melissa is Maine’s assistant attorney general.
Dunlap was first asked to run in 1992 but was discouraged by his lack of background in government. He was never involved in student government in college and was entertaining the idea for the first time.
“From the time you start kindergarten until the end of your life, you want people to like you – you want people to accept you,” Dunlap said. “By virtue of having an opinion and taking a stand on issues, you set yourself up for immediate rebuke and insult, and it’s tough to take.”
But he was able to stomach the rejection and was elected in 1996 and re-elected three times.
Throughout his time in the Legislature, Dunlap was speaker pro-tem 25 times, the Democratic chairman of the Apportionment Commission, a member of the Government Oversight Committee and a member of the Elections Committee.
“It’s a wonder I’m not divorced,” said Dunlap, who started dating his current wife, Michelle Dunphy, two weeks after he filed his papers to run for election. “I was down here all the time and never went home.”
Since being a representative takes up so much time with so little salary, Dunlap said the draws to being a legislator are lacking.
“That is, aside from the fact that it’s a big, fancy title,” he said. “If you go up to someone and say you’re a state representative, they’re like, ‘OOO, that sounds kinda sexy.’”
But Dunlap said the reason he ran for election was to get a chance to sink his teeth into real issues. And he took a big bite during his four terms, but it wasn’t more than he could chew.
Besides holding numerous positions in Augusta, which are as varied as his work in the private sector, Dunlap became well-known in Maine politics as chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.
At the end of his last term, Dunlap said he was getting “a little fried, crispy around the edges.
“But I had invested eight years into politics and didn’t want to drop it completely.”
That’s when he thought about running for secretary of state. Because the post is elected by the Legislature, Dunlap traveled to legislators’ districts and helped them run their own campaigns in order to garner votes.
“You can’t have a campaign fund for secretary of state,” he said. “So I was waiting tables and tending the bar at Pat’s on Sundays to pay my gas bill.”
He said bartending actually helped him prepare for his job as secretary of state.
“It’s not dissimilar from what I’m doing now,” Dunlap said. “In both jobs, you have to deal with angry customers.”
His job at Pat’s was a good way to meet constituents, but it became problematic at times as well. One night, after a UMaine hockey game, a deranged customer had no clue Dunlap was a state representative and hassled him incessantly. The next week, Dunlap met the man again in Augusta and learned he was a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company. Dunlap said the lobbyist was embarrassed at first, but they quickly became friends.
It’s probably the fact that Dunlap blends in so well with common citizens that he has been able to succeed as a representative and now as the secretary of state. In his position, Dunlap is in charge of the state archives, which houses 93 million government records, oversees all state elections and serves as the head of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. In that capacity, he is making an effort to meet all 380 employees statewide.
“I’m new to the idea that I’m the boss,” Dunlap said. “This job is too varied for me to be an expert on everything. I rely on these people. I consider even the janitor to be my equal. Somebody has got to do it.”
Maybe it’s because of the various jobs he’s done in the past that he’s able to realize that.
Residing in his Old Town home with wife Michelle and 4-year-old daughter Emily, Dunlap, at 40, has worked more jobs and experienced more than most do in a lifetime.
Being secretary of state or state representative can be as grueling.
“It takes a lot more out of your soul to deal with all the different mind-bending decisions in professional jobs,” Dunlap said.
Apparently, he’s made the right decisions so far, just dealing with them as though they were dirty dishes needing to be washed.
“This can be a pretty lonely business at times, just like other jobs I’ve had,” Dunlap said. “As friendly as you are with people, you don’t make a lot of friends.
“But I’ve always worked alone and used a knife.”