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After 25 years and 48 elections, Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass' work is done

If you are a Campbell County resident who came of voting age in 1990 or beyond, you have never voted in an election that was not supervised by county clerk  Jack Snodgrass.

Twenty-five years in office. Forty-eight elections run under the 70-year-old Democrat’s direction. And he was re-elected time and time again.

Until this year, that is. 2014 was the year that Snodgrass, one of the most popular figures in Campbell County politics, decided to hang it up; and not run for re-election.

“A quarter of a century is enough,’’ Snodgrass said recently, sitting in his office at the Newport courthouse – an office that has been cleaned out of most of his personal memorabilia to make way for his successor, Republican Jim Luersen, who takes over the office Jan. 5.

“I’ve been working since I was 14 years old,’’ Snodgrass said. “It’s time to move on. But I’ll stay active. I can’t just lie around doing nothing.”

For a man who spent 25 years in elective office, Snodgrass is unusual in that he never intended to go into politics.

He spent 17 years helping run the beer distributing business his grandfather started and his father ran, until the family business was sold.

Snodgrass wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his working life. He thought about going back to college; he toyed with the idea of getting into real estate.

But one day he was playing golf with a friend, Bob Knauf, who was a music instructor at Northern Kentucky University.

“He said, ‘Jack, you’ve got the right personality for it; you ought to try going into politics,’’’ Snodgrass said.

He did, first challenging an incumbent Democrat in a primary and then winning the general election.

And he has run the office that not only supervises elections, but handles vehicle registrations, issues marriage licenses, and keeps land records and deeds.

But, he said, his favorite part of the job has always been running elections.

“I’ve done my best to do it right,’’ Snodgrass said. “I think we have. It’s not about me; it’s about the staff I have. The best. They’re the ones I’ll miss the most.”

Snodgrass is a well-respected and even beloved figure in Campbell County politics, among Democrats and Republicans alike, with his easy smile, his friendly demeanor, his professionalism and his total lack of partisanship.

Michelle Snodgrass is the Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney; she is the middle one of three daughters. She says her father was a natural for the job because “loves serving people.”

“I suppose your path in life always leads you to where you were supposed to be,’’ Michelle Snodgrass said. “And this is where dad was meant to be.

“He never, ever called himself a politician; he didn’t think of himself that way,’’ his daughter said. “He considered himself a public servant. And that is what he has been.

“Some elected offices have no bearing on what your politics are; you just do the job, fairly and impartially,’’ his daughter said. “That’s the kind of job I have; and that is the kind of office-holder my dad has been. Yes, he’s been a role model.”

Luersen, who won the November election for county clerk, is a real estate lawyer and has dealt with Snodgrass on a nearly daily basis for many years.

“Jack’s always been very professional, non-partisan,” Luersen said. “He always listens to you. And you never hear anything negative about the way he runs elections.

Luersen said he is keeping all of Snodgrass’ 23 full-time employees “because he hires good people.” Nearly every day lately, he has been in the office working on the transition with Snodgrass.

“He’s been very gracious, going out of his way to make it a smooth transition,’’ Luersen said.

Snodgrass’ office has developed a reputation for reporting election results early and accurately.

“We pride ourselves on getting it done on election night,’’ Snodgrass said. “There’s always a kind of friendly competition among Campbell, Kenton and Boone counties on who reports their final results first.”

When Snodgrass reflects back on his long career in the clerk’s office, the elections loom large. But the one thing he is most proud of involved the issuing of marriage licenses.

He had only been in office a few years when a 42-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl showed up in the office for a marriage license. They had the consent of the girl’s parents, so there was nothing he could do under the law than to issue the license.

“It made me sick,’’ Snodgrass said. “I knew exactly what was going on. That girl’s parents were selling their daughter. I couldn’t let that go.”

He said he brought it up at a meeting of county clerks from around the state.

“The clerks from eastern and western Kentucky were telling me, ‘oh, we see that all the time; down in our counties, if you’re not married by 15 or 16, you’re considered an old maid,’’’ Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass would not let it go. He lobbied the Kentucky legislature and was successful in getting a law passed in 1998 that required a judge to sign off on the marriage of a girl under 16. Since then, he said, no judge in northern Kentucky has ever granted such permission.

“It upset me then; and it upsets me now,’’ Snodgrass said of the incident. “That girl should have been playing with Barbie dolls and not getting married. And I’m proud that I was able to help put a stop to that kind of thing.”

Of the 48 elections he has supervised, the most memorable was in 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush.

“Our turnout was 74 percent that year,’’ Snodgrass said. “I have to say, we were slightly overwhelmed. But we got through it.”

The 2008 election where President Obama was first elected was another memorable one, Snodgrass said.

When it comes to elections, Snodgrass said, “there have been some catastrophes along the way.”

One year, he said, a poll worker dropped dead at the table where he was checking voter names in the poll books. On two occasions over the years, he said, poll workers died of injuries from auto accidents on their way to their polling places.

“Those were hard ones to take,’’ Snodgrass said.

The praise he has been getting now that he is retiring is a little overwhelming.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, to tell the truth,’’ Snodgrass said. “My name is the one on the door. But it’s my people who deserve the credit.  I always tell them, ‘Girls, I’ll match you up with any crew in the state.’’’

His style of treating the people who walk in the door of the clerk’s office is something he learned in his days in the beer distributing business.

“In the beer business, the customer was always right,’’ Snodgrass said. “That’s the way I’ve tried to treat people here.”

Over the years, Snodgrass has made frequent visits to area high schools to talk to students about the importance of voting.

“I tell them that the people who are being elected now are going to have a lot to say about your future,’’ Snodgrass said. “I try to make them understand that it matters. And that, when they are ready, they have to have a say in who their elected officials are. Otherwise, they will have nothing to complain about.”

Snodgrass is looking forward to retirement. But he plans to stay active.

First of all, there are his six grandchildren – ranging in age from three years old to high school.

“I’m going to be able to see them play sports and go to their school events and just spend more time with them,’’ Snodgrass said. “I’m looking forward to that.”

He is joining the board of Holly Hills Children’s Services in northern Kentucky; and plans to volunteer in soup kitchens.

But, first, he and his wife Marlene, will take an extended vacation.

“You know what I will miss the most?,’’ Snodgrass said. “The people. The people I work with. The people I work for. The people this office serves. And that’s why I’ve stayed all these years.”

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.