By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Tim Massanelli never intended to make a career out of being parliamentarian of the Arkansas House.
But Massanelli stayed on the job for 36 years, until he stepped down in early November to attend to health-related problems that he and his wife face.
"I really just planned to stay one term," the 78-year-old Massanelli said in a recent interview with the Arkansas News Bureau.
Massanelli, at the time a successful businessman living in Pine Bluff, was offered the job of parliamentarian before the 1973 legislative session by incoming House Speaker G.W. "Buddy" Turner of Pine Bluff.
"He wanted me to be parliamentarian, and when we got (to the state Capitol) he remembered that he had promised the job to a man named Armitage Harper," Massanelli recalled.
Turner was willing to rescind the offer to Harper, but Massanelli said he talked him out of it.
"I just said, ‘no, let’s not do that, he’s an elderly gentleman,’" Massanelli said.
During the 1973 session, Massanelli worked the sound board in the House, adjusting the microphones that lawmakers used on the floor.
In 1975, Harper was again named parliamentarian, this time by House Speaker Cecil Alexander. But Harper died midway through the session and Massanelli was promoted to the job and held it until this fall.
House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr. and others in the chamber are hopeful Massanelli will able to return to work in time for the 2012 fiscal session that starts Feb. 13. But the man described as "masterful politician," "brilliant," "invaluable" and "irreplaceable" said he’s doubtful that will occur.
"We’ve talked about that, and I guess everybody that’s sick always looks at the possibility of getting better and things going back to normal," Massanelli said. "I’ll just have to see. My health and the health of my wife comes first, and that’s where I am, so I don’t know the answer to that."
Massanelli wife, Dottie, is 77.
Gov. Mike Beebe and several former House speakers said Massanelli’s importance to the flow and success of the House, especially during the frenetic and chaotic legislative sessions, cannot be overstated.
"He is invaluable, he’s an institution," said Shane Broadway, who served was House speaker during the 83rd General Assembly in 2001.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who was a state senator for 20 years of Massanelli’s run as House parliamentarian, said Massanelli has an innate ability to work with everyone.
"He got along with virtually every constituency, whether it was members or constituents, or senators, or governors," Beebe said. "He has a lot of institutional knowledge."
Bob Johnson of Bigelow, who was House Speaker in 1999 during the 82nd General Assembly, called Massanelli a "master politician."
"I think he is the most wily politician that I have ever served with and he’s never held an elected office," Johnson said. "The most brilliant politician to ever serve in the Arkansas General Assembly during Tim Massanelli’s time is Tim Massanelli, because he politicked politicians. He let them think that they were in control and running things.
"Tim is very wise, he knows when to interject and he knows when to allow the speaker the make his own call. He is always willing to give some solicited or unsolicited advice. You could take or leave it, I chose to take it at almost about 100 percent."
If Massanelli, who served under 19 different House speakers, can’t return to work, Moore, D-Arkansas City, said it will be difficult but necessary to replace him.
At present, three other House staff members are filling Massinelli’s role in his absence, Moore said — House Chief of Staff Bill Stovall, a former House speaker; Buddy Johnson, who is coordinator of legislative services/assistant parliamentarian; and Kay Donham, assistant chief of staff and special assistant to the speaker.
"You always like to think that nobody is irreplaceable, but he comes about as close to it as you want to see," Beebe said."You always say in the Legislature that no one is irreplaceable, but that there is always somebody ready and willing to take up the responsibility and take that slot," Johnson said. "Tim Massanelli, I would say, is irreplaceable. I just don’t know that he can be replaced." Freshman Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said that "there will never be another Tim Massanilli," and recalled an incident during an orientation for new House members late last year.
The parliamentarian was leading a group of freshmen lawmakers on a tour of the state Capitol "and stopped us in front of the composite of the legislators who took office in 1925," Leding said.
Pointing to the black and white photographs of the lawmakers, Leding said, Massanelli mused, "They each served here. Everyone of them thought this place couldn’t run without ‘em ... They’re all dead. This place ain’t missed a lick. It won’t miss a lick when I’m gone, and it won’t miss a lick when you’re gone. That’s the nature of the system."
Leding said Massanelli then told the new lawmakers that "right now is our time ... and we have very important work to do."