PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Polite Tenacity: Fighting Fair for Social Causes 2000 HONOREE

Jane Campbell, President, Board of County Commissioners , Cuyahoga County, Ohio

Jane Campbell

A former colleague of Jane Campbell’s in the Ohio legislature recalls the time he wrote a bill aimed at embarrassing “deadbeat dads” by displaying their pictures in public on “Wanted” posters. The only cost involved was a couple of thousand dollars for printing. The bill passed the Senate easily and moved over to the House.

Then Campbell got hold of it. By the time the legislation cleared the House floor, it included provisions establishing paternity for out-of-wedlock births and providing a whole array of other child-support-enforcement measures. The author didn’t like these additions, but he couldn’t bring himself to criticize Campbell for fooling around with his bill. “I thought she played very fair,” he says. “She never tried to sneak one by.”

That’s Jane Campbell for you. She outmaneuvers people, and all they end up saying is what a nice person she is.

These days, Campbell is practicing her legislative and interpersonal skills on a different field. After six two-year terms in the legislature, where she was majority whip and then assistant Democratic leader, Campbell switched to local government, becoming president of the Board of County Commissioners in Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s most populous jurisdiction, with Cleveland as its center.

Campbell’s move to county government surprised some who knew her. But it was a way to keep working on the issues she cares most about. She wanted to help manage the transition to a new welfare system, and the local level was the place to do that. So far, she has been remarkably successful. Cuyahoga has moved 20,000 families from welfare to work, and is committed to staying with them as they struggle to keep the jobs and support themselves, offering child care, health care, training and other services as part of its standard back-to-work package.

The county’s Early Childhood Initiative, promoted by Campbell, is funded with $30 million in federal, state and local money and another $10 million in private funds. Through it, the county intervenes at the earliest possible stage in a child’s life. All first-time mothers and teenage mothers receive home visits from a registered nurse, regardless of income. Where the nurse identifies a challenge, such as illness or a struggling welfare family, an ongoing home visitation program is put in place. In the first year of the program, 6,616 home visits were completed.

“Babies are the only things that come with no instructions,” Campbell likes to say. “Toasters come with four pages of instructions in two languages. Babies just come home naked.”

Campbell also has had a hand in moving Cuyahoga to performance-based budgeting and performance contracts for job-training providers, and expanding Medicaid to more of the working poor.

All the county’s efforts in this direction reflect the 47-year-old Campbell’s priorities and personal interests. She came by them long ago. Her mother was an ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Jane Campbell was an activist on women’s issues at the local level before winning her state legislative seat while she was still in her 20s.

Moving from a state government setting to a local commission, Campbell has continued to practice the politics of civility for which she was known in the legislature. In Cuyahoga County, she’s had repeated success working with colleagues across partisan and ideological lines — colleagues who may not buy into her generally liberal philosophy of government. But if she argues politely, anyone who challenges her soon finds that she argues tenaciously, and hates to lose. “There’s a tendency in government to say, ‘Why not let it ride, let it rest, give it up,’ ” Campbell contends. “I’m not going to give it up. I’m not very patient about that.”

— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Bruce Zake