Civil Ambition

If you want to get things done in government (or maybe anywhere), there are advantages to being stubborn and implacable. At the same time, there are advantages to being calm and self-effacing. The real trick — and the greatest advantage of all — is to be both at the same time.

The nine public officials honored by Governing this year are a diverse collection of people with a wide range of styles, personalities and opinions. To a remarkable extent, however, they have succeeded by combining ambition and modesty in ways that contribute to the achievement of career-long goals.

Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer couldn’t help but seem modest in comparison with Coleman Young, his bombastic and egotistical predecessor. From his first day as mayor in 1994, he has responded to opponents with genuine courtesy and allowed others to claim their share of credit for civic accomplishment. “Archer is by nature a diplomat,” Governing reported early in his first term, “even in the face of provocations that would have drawn a paint-blistering response” from most other mayors. That has not only been good manners; it has been good politics. Archer has won friends among business leaders and suburban officials who used to ignore the city, and that is a major reason why Detroit has proceeded as far as it has under his leadership.

Maryland Governor Parris N. Glendening can be so reserved and soft-spoken that it is easy to mistake him for the college professor he once was, rather than the two-term chief executive of a major state. “I suppose,” he once confided to a reporter, “that I’m more measured in public than I guess I should be.” But Glendening has never been measured in the pursuit of his goals. He came into office vowing an all-out attack on the problem of urban sprawl, made it the consuming passion of his tenure, and won enactment of the landmark “smart growth” law that has been copied in many states and changed the land-use debate nearly everywhere.

Jesus Garza took over as city manager in Austin, Texas, with a difficult challenge: how to succeed the creative but controversial Camille Barnett, whose ideas had revitalized city government, but who ultimately ran afoul of the local political leadership. Garza’s solution was to continue the reform process but to do it in a conciliatory way and avoid the limelight. He is openly solicitous of criticism and readily admits his mistakes. At the same time, his results have been spectacular: Austin ranks among America’s best-managed cities in virtually every category.

Ohioans who have watched Jane Campbell’s career in government have always noted her ambition and persistence. But they have also noted her unusual ability to befriend and disarm opponents, a quality that has been a major ingredient of her success. When she moved from the Ohio House to the Cuyahoga County Commission, she brought an unyielding determination to make progress on her key issues: child care and improving management practices. But she also brought a well-developed sense of how to push those issues in a non-threatening way, which is a major reason why Cuyahoga has earned a reputation as a pioneer in both those fields during Campbell’s time in county office.

Similarly, no one would describe Dick Bond, the departing president of the Kansas Senate, as a shrinking violet. His penchant for making deals and trading favors occasionally leads critics to call him a manipulator. But his many years as a legislative aide prior to his first Senate election taught him something else as well: the importance of avoiding boastfulness and allowing others to bask in the glory of legislative success.

Governing’s other four honorees have every reason to follow Bond’s prescription for effective policy making. They are civil servants whose ultimate responsibility is to an elected official, and who are expected to deflect credit onto the boss, rather than claiming it for themselves. But all four have found that innovation and excellent performance at the civil service or appointive level can bring them widespread prestige as well as the satisfaction of making government work better.

Steve Kolodney has designed and implemented the finest information technology system in any state government in America. That not only has been a boon to the man he works for, Washington State Governor Gary Locke, but has brought information officers from other states and localities to meet Kolodney and find out how he did it. Jane Kenny, as a Cabinet officer in the administration of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, rewrote her state’s building rehabilitation code in a way that brought her, Whitman and New Jersey favorable national attention.

Robert Lavigna, overseeing Wisconsin’s civil service hiring system, was given freedom by the governor to remake that system in accordance with the changing needs of a 21st-century work force. The improvements he generated are many and easy to document. And Mike Pompili, from his relatively inconspicuous post as assistant health director in Columbus, Ohio, fought so tenaciously for new approaches to pollution control that the repercussions were eventually felt in Congress and the federal environmental bureaucracy.

All nine of this year’s winners would probably go along with the conventional wisdom that in public life, you sometimes have to toot your own horn. But most of them can also testify to the equally important idea that much of the time, it’s just as effective to whistle the tune to yourself.

Follow the links below for profiles of the Public Officials of the Year for 2000, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists, and reporting by the Governing staff.

Dennis W. Archer, mayor, city of Detroit

Dick Bond, president, Kansas Senate

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

Jesus Garza, city manager, city of Austin, Texas

Parris N. Glendening, governor, state of Maryland

Jane M. Kenny, commissioner for community affairs, state of New Jersey

Steve E. Kolodney, chief information officer, state of Washington

Robert J. Lavigna, administrator, Wisconsin Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection

Michael J. Pompili, assistant health commissioner, city of Columbus, Ohio