Public Servants as Public Enemy #1

At all levels, denigration of public service is a legacy of the recession.
March 2011
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

One of the most disturbing legacies of the Great Recession has been its effect on the idea of public service -- from the federal level to smaller localities and from elected and appointed leaders to school teachers.

We used to think of senior government employees as “public servants,” and only a few years ago, we were fretting that there weren’t enough qualified younger people in the pipeline to replace them as they retired. We got so worried about the quality of education that we started paying teachers more and actively recruiting the best and brightest to serve in programs like Teach for America. After the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building 16 years ago, public employees were viewed sympathetically. And the attack on the World Trade Center almost a decade ago resulted in first responders, particularly firefighters, being heralded as cultural icons.

The death of longtime U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke last December was a reminder of how important an individual “public servant” can be to our national well-being. He served four presidents, and in between stints in government, he was a New York banker and best-selling author. He earned millions of dollars, yet impatiently awaited his next chance to return to a government paycheck. He undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives in 1995 when, through the strength of his overpowering personality, he forged the Dayton peace accords ending the war in Bosnia.

Now, as the economy has staggered, the concept of public service is being denigrated, both in Washington and out in the country. A front-page story in the Traverse City, Mich., Record-Eagle over the holidays seemed curiously contrived. It reported that most employees of the city and Grand Traverse County received two days off for both Christmas and New Year’s, yet the paper did not document any general community disapproval. So what exactly is the story?

In Washington, disrespect for “public servants” plays out in disturbingly familiar ways. Jim Cole, a friend, was appointed by President Obama as deputy attorney general on May 24, 2010, and was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee two months later. The nomination then languished for five months, until the Senate finally recessed at the end of last year. And yes, there were consequences. The deputy’s job at the Department of Justice is somewhat unique in that he oversees the department’s daily operations and those of its law enforcement agencies. For Jim, it meant cooling his heels for almost six months, waiting for a “recess appointment” so he finally could accept a significant pay cut and return to the department where he once served for 13 years.

Much of this disparagement of public service in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s is predictable. Business, labor and government tend to suffer in public approval ratings during economic downturns, and since the majority of all union members are now in public-sector jobs, their contracts for pay, generous pensions and benefits make obvious targets.

Declining support for unions now can be seen in who is willing to cross them. After the midterm elections, Obama proposed and Congress quickly approved a two-year pay freeze for federal workers. At a recent gathering of urban leaders in Chicago, a panel of three well-known, big-city Democratic mayors sounded more like representatives of the chamber of commerce when discussing pensions and benefits. At one point, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a former union organizer, blurted out, “I’m a Democrat, though I may not sound like it right now.” The message from Villaraigosa and fellow mayors Richard Daley of Chicago and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia was stark: We are in such tough times that we have to rethink everything. Union leaders are in a state of denial; they think the feds or the states are just going to bail out the public pension funds, but that’s unlikely. Let them go bankrupt, and then reorganize.

We’re hearing much the same from the new governors. Plans to cut the workforce, freeze wages, trim benefits and limit the right to collective bargaining are proceeding not only in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republicans have been elected, but also in California, New York and Connecticut, where Democrats are taking office.

If labor leaders have any political sense, which often seems doubtful, they will walk softly and play this as pragmatically as possible, not only because public opinion clearly leans against them, but because the message from the Democratic mayors and the new governors is correct—the current system of pensions and benefits is not sustainable.

“All of a sudden, we are the enemy,” a veteran public school teacher from suburban Toledo, Ohio, recently told me.

Nearing the end of her career, she will be asked to take what may be a significant pay cut in the very years that determine the size of her pension. Of course she is aware that many in the private sector have suffered as much or more, but what really hurts is the sense that teachers and other public employees, most of them imbued with a sense of public service, somehow have it coming.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |