Donna Garlick stands with her hand resting on the marble rail along the rotunda of the state Capitol.
First, Garlick, 73, looks toward murals painted by Charles Banks Wilson.
Then she glances up at the dome.
The Madill native has been at the Capitol longer than either of these features, the murals or the dome.
Today, Garlick is the legislative executive assistant to Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. But through the years, she has worked for six senators, including one who, after leaving the Senate, was elected to the state House.
Her service also includes having worked for four senators who served as president pro tem, or the Senate's leader.
“I really believe, except for sleeping, I've spent more time here than any other place in my life,” said Garlick, of Oklahoma City. “I haven't figured it for sure, but I'm convinced of that.”
When she started, legislative sessions were not yet held annually. So in the off-time, she worked as a secretary for the Oklahoma Press Association. Garlick's only other significant period of separation from the Capitol came in the early 1980s.
“I actually retired once,” she said, smiling. “It was in 1981 when Senator Gene Howard retired. That lasted 21/2 years. Then Jim Hamilton ran for the House of Representatives. I had worked for him when he was the president pro tempore in the Senate. Then he later asked me to come back to work for him when he was elected to the House, which I did.”
Although the Capitol may be her second home, Garlick likes to remind Oklahomans to whom it belongs.
“I think the people probably don't realize that the Capitol belongs to them and that we all work for them and are paid with their money,” she said. “And I think they keep us probably to a higher standard to earn that money, which I feel like that is certainly what we should do. We should put in our hours, do everything we can to make their lives better if they have a problem, or get information to them if they want information.”
In her role
Garlick explained that a senator picks his or her own legislative assistant.
In the case of the president pro tem, there's additional staff, she said. And while serving in the president pro tem's office, Garlick was responsible in part for providing information to the other executive assistants and keeping the senator informed of his schedule.
The president pro tem is a senator chosen by his or her fellow members to be the chief executive officer of the Senate and to preside in the absence of the lieutenant governor, who is the president of the Senate. The president pro tem's powers and duties are prescribed by Senate rules. The president pro tem is an ex officio and voting member of all Senate committees.
In Garlick's current role, “Constituent work is the main thing, but there is also the keeping of Burrage's schedule and answering calls.”
She asks callers to explain their problems so she can start working on the issue.
Garlick was around when Charles Banks Wilson painted the murals in the 1970s, even watched his children during the summer in the president pro tem's office.
“Such a delightful man, and the children were so well-behaved,” she said.
She was around when teachers came in large numbers to the Capitol for House Bill 1017, the education reform bill which was signed into law by then- Gov. Henry Bellmon in April 1990.
“That was one of the most controversial issues, and the teachers wanted to meet with all the legislators, so you had to keep your office open,” Garlick said. “The teachers had a reason to do that, and it was important.
“I'd arrive at 8:30 a.m. and maybe stay until 8 at night.”
She was around in 2000 when then-Gov. Frank Keating announced plans to build the Capitol dome and in 2002 when it was dedicated.
She has seen so many historical days.
Recently, she got up from her desk, walked over and picked up a copy of the “Oklahoma Almanac” of 2011-12. Garlick turned to the section featuring governors. She began counting.
When she started in 1965, Bellmon was in his third year of his first term as governor. If you count his two terms separately, the other coming in 1987-91, there have been 10 elected governors in office while she has worked at the Capitol.
If she quits ...
Garlick is Burrage's only staff member. She is one person with many roles, he said.
Burrage said Garlick is the receptionist, gatekeeper and counselor for many of his constituents who call in with problems.
She takes the emails and the phone calls to the senator.
She helps when she can and forwards the others.
Burrage estimates that with her experience, Garlick can handle a majority of the concerns without his assistance.
“She is well-respected throughout state government, knows people in every agency and can pick up the phone and resolve most issues, if they are solvable issues, in a matter of a couple of phone calls,” he said. “I tell people when they ask me about what Donna means to me, ‘If Donna quits, I quit.'”