Action Figures

There are many ways to advance the cause of state and local political power. Every year, millions of words are written in its behalf: in scholarly treatises, legal rulings, charter proposals, passionate speeches — even monthly magazines.

Then there are those who don’t say much about devolution — they just do it. They find themselves in positions of state or local responsibility, see problems that the federal government can’t or won’t solve, and realize that the opportunity for solution really rests with them. And they act.

This theme of state and local initiative is a crucial one among the winners of Governing’s Public Official of the Year awards for 2002. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, for example, took legal action against corporate fraud at a time when Congress seemed all but paralyzed by indecision. He thereby demonstrated, in graphic terms, the ability of a single state to force the national agenda.

Howard Dean, a medical doctor and true believer in the cause of better health care, became governor of Vermont a decade ago. When Congress failed to act on health policy, Dean decided to see what could be accomplished from his office. The result wasn’t universal coverage, but it was a dramatic expansion of the state health plan that now covers all Vermont children from low- and moderate-income families up to age 18.

When Florida’s voting system produced a national political crisis two years ago, Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox vowed to make sure nothing comparable ever happened under her department. Unlike election officials in most of the country, she wasn’t willing to wait for passage of a federal law. She persuaded the Georgia legislature to spend $54 million to replace every antiquated voting machine in the state with the most modern electronic equipment. This month, most of America will go to the polls under conditions not too different from the ones that caused so much trouble in 2000. That won’t be the case in Georgia.

In the past year, leaders at every level of government — state, local and federal — struggled to make up for years of neglect in their emergency management and disaster preparedness. They found one community way ahead of them: San Jose, California, where for more than a decade Frances Edwards-Winslow has not only warned of the likelihood of a terrorist attack but set out practical methods for dealing with its aftermath.

Not all of the 11 individuals being honored by Governing are pioneers in devolution, but all have, one way or another, stepped forward to deal with problems others considered too difficult to solve.

Robert Milligan, the Florida state comptroller, thought it was wrong for the state’s chief financial office — his own — to be subject to partisan campaigning and contributions from financial interests. Next January, at Milligan’s urging, the job of comptroller will be abolished and the work turned over to a civil servant.

Carol Marinovich, the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas, saw the waste and economic stagnation caused by duplicate city and county governments. She proposed a merger, sold it to the voters, survived a reelection challenge — and ushered in a new political environment whose symbol has been higher property values and lower tax rates.

Renee Glover, executive director of Atlanta’s housing authority, moved into her job eight years ago, at a time when federal housing officials rated it as one of the nation’s worst. Ignoring warnings that cleaning up the agency was hopeless, she not only straightened out the administrative chaos but also eliminated dozens of dilapidated facilities and inaugurated a mixed-use housing policy that has become a national model.

James Hankla took over leadership of Southern California’s massive Alameda Corridor Project amid warnings that in the era of Boston’s troubled Big Dig, any billion-dollar transportation initiative would generate inevitable delays and cost overruns. When the project was completed this spring, Hankla had proved the doubters wrong: It was not only on time but on budget as well.

During more than three decades working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Charles Gerhards had heard all the stories about his state being mired in its industrial past and reluctant to embrace the technological future. He had heard them, but he didn’t believe them, and so he engineered the best possible refutation: He created a state information technology system second to none, one that links agencies together seamlessly and allows citizens to use the Internet for numerous transactions that many other states are still handling the old-fashioned way.

And finally there is a joint award, to Democrat John Gregg and Republican Brian Bosma, two members of the Indiana House, who decided that the legislature would enact a tax-reform law this year, even as virtually every other state was pronouncing the issue too risky. Gregg and Bosma vowed not to adjourn until the job was done, patiently worked their way around the partisan obstacles, and pushed it through. Then they embraced on the House floor.

Following are profiles of all of Governing’s Public Officials of the Year for 2002, selected from nominations by readers, interviews with state and local government specialists, and reporting by the Governing staff.

Brian Bosma, minority leader, and John R. Gregg, speaker, Indiana House of Representatives

Cathy Cox, secretary of state, state of Georgia

Howard Dean, governor of Vermont

Charles F. Gerhards, chief information officer, commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Renee Lewis Glover, executive director, Atlanta Housing Authority

James C. Hankla, chief executive officer, Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority

Carol Marinovich, city council member, Kansas City, Kansas

Robert F. Milligan, comptroller, state of Florida

Eliot Spitzer, attorney general, state of New York

Frances Edwards-Winslow, director of emergency preparedness, city of San Jose, California