City Clerk David Rushford on elections, public service and making gay marriage history

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David J. Rushford is a proud and earnest public servant.

That’s as easy to see from briefly talking with him in his little-used office on a blustery Friday afternoon in February as it surely would have been when the longtime city clerk walked through the heavy wooden City Hall doors for his first shift in the mayor’s office on a day with some other kind of weather back in 1979 — we forgot to ask, but rest assured Rushford would’ve remembered.

Indeed, the 36-years-married father of two grown children and four-time grandfather remembered quickly and fondly the names of Gary Chalmers and Richard Linnell, and the number of couples, 21, who followed the pioneering men up the receding marble steps to the second-floor clerk’s office window May 17, 2004, for applications. Later that day they would be among the first legally married same-sex couples in the country.

He recalled the night he was swiftly elected by the City Council to replace his predecessor, Robert J. O’Keefe, as city clerk in 1998, and holding a separate swearing-in ceremony in 2002 for Juan Gomez, who had become the first Latino elected to the City Council. There was more, of course — he even remembered my dad, a retired, 30-plus-year city employee, who never worked in City Hall — but he had to get back to work.

Speaking of work, though, he’s toiled for 51 city councilors, 10 mayors and five city managers. Just ask him.

David J. Rushford, city clerk, takes the term public service quite seriously.

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

David J. Rushford, city clerk, takes the term public service quite seriously.

When it comes to institutional memory, it would be difficult to imagine a more impressive mental scrapbook than the one cultivated by a man whose City Hall tenure has spanned five decades and has been rooted in the city’s information hub since 1981.

Through vital records, important documents and mundane communications, Rushford, 60, a lifelong city resident, product of Catholic schools, Assumption College and Worcester State, has served as a primary witness to Worcester history as it’s been written and filed away; to the beginnings and ends of countless families, communities and a generation or two.

Well, with 35 years in the clerk’s office behind him and the Super Tuesday presidential primary barrelling down the Pike, he must’ve thought it was a good time for a break, agreeing to a conversation he probably didn’t imagine would last an hour — but he graciously sat through it anyway, much like he has, I’m sure, with thousands of indignant residents and demanding officials he’s unflappably and patiently assisted over the years.

Given the advancements in technology, the evolution in sharing information and general shifts in ways people treat each other, how has your interaction with the public changed over the years?

People’s expectations are very high. We are in many ways a retail shop because we sell product, we sell copies of the records we keep. So, people are surprised that when they call and they’re in Nebraska and they need a copy of their birth record or their driver’s license on Monday, we say to them you can purchase the document one of three ways: in person, through the mail or online. “What?” [the Nebraskan, as played by Rushford, asked incredulously.] So, that’s a better option than Macy’s.

[Back in the early days] someone would come in and purchase something, and they would wait … and wait. And then they’d be at the front of the line. And then the person would sit, pull a paper record, get a manual typewriter, put a form in it and start hitting the keys. And 20 minutes later, you’ve got a ticket outside on your car … you’ve got your document — you didn’t pay much for it — but it ate up your day. Now people order the product, they get a receipt online, relatively speaking it’s about the same price as it was in those days, and the next day it’s mailed and people have their document[s] all over the face of the earth. And we know that’s a vast difference from what other places offer.

And we know because [when] we answer the phones [no voicemail during office hours at the City Clerk’s office] and answer our emails that what initiates as a person-to-person contact — the deal is enhanced because the response, because of automation, is sealed. It’s immediate, most of the time it’s working, and they get what they want. People aren’t amazed by it, we’re not up for any Academy Award because of it, but it’s the function of government.

The City Clerk provides administrative and operational support to the Election Commission; as such it plays a pivotal role in voting matters. Talk about the state’s new online voter registration option and how it is impacting the process.

Well, of course, the ability to register to vote online is an interesting addition because it allows the voter to self-initiate a registration to vote or a change in registration. Whereas past efforts at increasing the numbers of people who are registered have been done through recruitments, so you have people who are community organizers go out and approach people to register, so the potential voter isn’t taking the initiative. The registration, I’m not saying is forced, but we don’t see [those types of registered voters] over time convert into actual voting.

Registering to vote online, people doing that are actually taking the time, and nobody’s prompting them, so we’re expecting to see a much different result from this than the previous efforts, which weren’t very easy or prompted by recruiters. So, yes, we’re expecting to see a definite bump this year for the March 1 election, and as the advertising on the state level continues throughout 2016 and the natural cyclical excitement of a presidential election builds, we’ll see as well people registering throughout the year. So, I think it’s going to be a busy year overall.

In Worcester for the past two presidential elections, we had about 60 [percent] to 62 percent registered voters voting, so now will we see a higher percentage voting because people are [attracted to] the convenience of online, and also because it’s self-initiated? I think they’re more likely to do it because they initiated the registration themselves.

Then Rushford, his measured delivery not hiding well his election excitement, brought up early voting, and we went with it … So how about that early voting?

And then we have the added completely different motivator, which is going to be the convenience of early voting [in the November election]. This is a concept in Massachusetts that’s completely foreign to most people.

We’re building a framework for early voting that we hope through our institutional knowledge and our knowledge of people’s paths of travel is going to result in a very convenient method of voting early, which will then avoid long lines on election days.

We assume the [state] is going to initiate an aggressive campaign to promote early voting [Editor’s note: approved in Massachusetts in 2014, to be enacted for Election Day 2016; also an option in 37 other states and Washington, D.C.], however at this early stage we are already meeting with community groups to make certain that they are well aware of what early voting is, because there’s an education of the groups, then we plan to use the city’s website and the alerts function and tweets and everything else to try and get that out in the fall when the time comes.

I’m meeting next month with the city’s disability commission to talk with them about the opportunities available to the disability community, because — you know the disability community represents those who have a defined disability but there are many people who fall just outside that category, who are the frail elderly. And the members of the board of Election Commissioners have talked about this: If a person goes to vote and they’re 85 years old, and they may walk with a cane, they’re not classified as having a disability, however, going to a polling location that might be jammed with cars and standing in line for 20 minutes might be undoable. So encouraging those people to get out and vote early is going to be a big opportunity for us to have great results.

We’re hopeful that early voting is going to attract people by the thousands.

How will the city’s new translation services, announced in January, impact voters and poll workers?

It’s interesting, the translation services that would be available are actually not as good as the services that we’ve already provided. In Worcester we actually employ student poll workers, so the person who first greets [a voter] when they come in 99 percent of the time is a bilingual Worcester public high school senior, and we place those students working in their neighborhoods so that many times they’re speaking the same second language as the voter is speaking. So it breaks down that potential and it makes the polling location more welcoming.

The translation services we currently offer [and since 2009] we think go a long way toward introducing the voting process to young people. We employ 50 people per election [from] the high schools, and we get a new crop every year. So it educates young people about the voting process and provides the side benefit of translation services in person, right then and there.

City Clerk David J. Rushford

Fred Hurlbrink Jr. / Worcester Sun

City Clerk David J. Rushford

On taking City Clerk duties and public service seriously:

In this office, I physically proofread the records before they’re established. I choose to do that because the records — when I first came here, what astounded me were the records of people being born in the 1890s, the early 1900s; large immigrant infiltration into Worcester, and the way that those records were established was sort of abominable and embarrassing. The people who worked on this side of the counter, in this very building, in this very room, had very little concern for the people on the other side of the counter, figuratively — they weren’t standing there; their children were born at home and a midwife or a pediatrician would return a birth record and there was very little concern for accuracy and completeness.

So my exhortation to people here, now that we are on this side of the counter, we are not doing that to people on the other side of the counter. And many times that is met with opposition in the field. When we require maternity hospitals to do certain things, we have pushback from their legal people over the years that that’s not what the law requires, and I will sit here and say, “You’re right, but guess what? You’ve got to deal with me as well.” … In my opinion, I’m empowered to reasonably require complete information.

When I say the names Gary Chalmers and Richard Linnell, what comes to mind?

Oh, yes, they were one of the seven couples who applied for marriage license[s] and were denied, and became the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case [the landmark 2003 state Supreme Judicial Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, the first ruling of its kind in the nation.]

What was that time like, and what challenges presented themselves?

Well, because the decision that was rendered in the fall of 2003 did not have a precedent for implementation and because I’m an operations person — as I told you, I’m a working foreman — I knew by my read of the statute and by being a keeper of marriage records, what would need to take place to amend the process. So having gender-neutral forms and gender-neutral terms was very important to implement. And we as a staff came together to make certain that this would be implemented in a way that respected the dignity of every individual, whether we agreed with the decision of the court or not, because remember it was a one-person majority in that decision, so if you put yourself back in that period of time, you were either way “yay” or way “nay.”

I wanted to make sure that the city’s interests were protected, too, legally, so there was no one who would say something unintentionally that was offensive; wanted to make sure that we were a welcoming place and we did things in a way that the marriage document that was issued would stand the test of time, and as usual I didn’t have a lot of company in the world of city and town clerks, and my take on this position has always been to do things in an enthusiastic way and to do things in a way that respects and assists the public the best we can.

And there was a lot of criticism for that as well. So I would say that was one of the more trying times, but ended up being one of the most satisfying processes to implement.

After the first couple of months, it became like — with people coming up to the window; we have a large counter where people apply for marriage licenses and so if you’re on this side of the counter and you’re assisting couples at the same time, and you’ve got a same-gender couple here and an opposite-gender couple here, they’re filling out the same form, they’re speaking in the same terms to one another, they’re planning to be married in the same city at the same time of year. And to watch the interaction, how they then come together and talk, it’s like, Wow, what a great place to be! At this time, to hear what people have to say to each other.

They don’t want anything more than I want. The government isn’t giving them any more than I’m getting. You know? I may be getting a tax benefit. I’m getting a spouse. I’m getting recognized.

This was an intensely divisive issue in 2004 [one with which clerks nationwide, some famously, continue to grapple]. Was it difficult to ensure that your staff would get and stay on the same page?

No, the people in the office were — I was very up front with people about the attitude we would assume. Because the mass media was all over this, and I wanted to make sure people knew this was our job and that if anybody couldn’t function they should let me know. And there wasn’t. And we converted the entire front office to issuing marriage licenses that first day, and I think we won accolades.

We have — this file [a brown accordion folder testing the limits of its capacity on a table behind his desk, next to a small, framed picture of President Obama] coincidentally is filled with correspondence I received from around the country of commentary, because Worcester ended up being on the front page of The New York Times, and there were lots of things that were written that said we did things in a way that respected the dignity of individuals regardless of their orientation, which is the way that it should be.

Now, was everybody complimentary? No. But I knew then and it’s confirmed now that we were on the right side of history and the right side of people.

It was just a tremendous time. Actually the media, the local media, thought that I was pro-gay marriage because my kids were gay [Editor’s note: Not that it’s any of your business, but they weren’t and still aren’t.], and my daughter was highly offended by that. She said, “My father is pro-gay marriage because he abides by the law and he is pro-people!” She was [angry]!

It just felt so fortunate to be here in a time and in this job when, if you were the second or the fourth or the fifth or the twentieth state, but to be the very first and to be able to carve this out in American culture was really quite a — not many people have those types of opportunities.

At the time, you had pledged to ignore an order from then-Gov. Mitt Romney to apply an archaic 1913 law that would keep out-of-state couples from applying for Massachusetts marriage licenses. Was there any resistance to that stance in City Hall?

No, as a matter of fact the mayor [Timothy P. Murray] and the manager [Michael V. O’Brien] at the time offered me any and all assistance through the city’s legal team because they understood very well the reasons why the governor and his legal team wanted to enforce the 1913 law. And I went to council and asked for permission to be co-plaintiff in overturning that law.

The council [members] were not fully supportive of that. I was called an activist clerk a couple of times. It was quite a lesson. To get reamed in executive session, at the time it was a rather tenuous thing. Like I said, I’m elected every two years so it could have gone either way.

Did your own personal beliefs interfere or cause hesitation in you becoming so centrally involved in such a controversial and historic matter?

That’s the crux of a question that permeates everything you do in public employment, OK. So as a public employee there’s the law, and you can adhere to the law all day long, and you can do it one of two ways: You can do it grudgingly and make a complete ass out of yourself and other people; or you can do it enthusiastically. There’s the spirit of the law and there’s the technical writing of the law. And the spirit of the law was as a result of the court decision, and that was, you are to do for same-gender couples what you’ve been doing forever for opposite-gender couples.

A lot of people who want to become active in the public sector [end up] running for office. Well, running for office and making a law only goes to a certain point. When you hand that law over to the people who implement it, that’s where the rubber hits the road; that’s where the government hits the people.

That’s where David J. Rushford hits you with a tsunami of authority and capability, an aura of I-got-this that seems unmatchable, as he eschews his comfortable, private office for a modest corner cubicle on the floor with the rest of his crew and gets back to work before you’re out the door. There are, after all, records to confirm and Worcester folks to help. And there’s more history to be written.

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