Almost as soon as the election returns are in, every new governor must decide on a chief of staff. Most of them pick their campaign managers, party operatives and longtime confidantes. In this context, the choice of Bill Leighty by Virginia Governor Mark Warner was an aberration.
Leighty was the executive director of the Virginia Retirement System when Warner tapped him as chief of staff following his election in 2001. In other words, Leighty's background was in government, not politics. And it's showed — in his record of success.
Leighty, now 54, was the behind-the-scenes presence who deserves much of the credit for making Virginia one of the best-run state governments in the country. The first challenge for Warner, a businessman who had never served in the public sector, and Leighty, who recently concluded three decades in Virginia government, was to confront a mounting budget shortfall.
Cuts were obviously necessary, but Leighty stressed the importance of good management, too. One of the first innovations of the Warner administration was to require each agency head to negotiate a performance contract with the governor. In addition to these agreements holding agencies accountable, they also yielded some unanticipated benefits. "We found three different agencies that were promoting forestry," Leighty says. "We found 10 different agencies that were dealing with water policy." As a result, the Warner administration found ways to save money and make government work better.
The consensus that the state was being well run was a big reason Warner secured new revenue from tax-averse legislators in 2004. So was Leighty's strong relationship with key Republicans. "He was worth twice his weight in gold to Warner," says Barnie Day, a former delegate who once dubbed Leighty "Yoda without the ears." The same dynamics played out again this year, as a budget deal between the current governor, Tim Kaine (whom Leighty also worked for until announcing his retirement this summer), and Republican legislators provided a much-needed transportation funding increase.
Besides his encyclopedic knowledge of state government, Leighty is known for his limitless energy and organizational acumen. He carried colored note cards with him as chief of staff — red for things he needed to tell the governor, green for things the governor wanted him to do, and yellow for things his wife had told him to do.
Those skills proved invaluable as, time after time, Leighty spearheaded the state's response to natural and manmade disasters, from the D.C. area sniper attacks to Hurricane Isabel to the Virginia Tech shootings. Warner even dispatched him to Louisiana in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where he served as a second chief of staff to Governor Kathleen Blanco. He didn't have much rest as he coordinated the response and secured aid from FEMA. "At times, we would make a little bed under the desk," says Ryan Childress, a staffer who accompanied Leighty to Louisiana, "and try to catch 15 or 20 minutes of sleep."
The shift from VRS to chief of staff was just one unlikely move made by Leighty, who went from Marine to economist to legislative staffer to senior positions in the Secretariat of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles. At Transportation, he was the point man in making commuter rail a reality in Northern Virginia. During his time at the DMV, a targeted campaign helped reduce alcohol-related fatalities by 31 percent.
After serving as an appointee of Governor George Allen, a Republican, on a government reform commission, Leighty took over VRS in 1995. At the time, the retirement system was in a state of turmoil, having just endured a three-year federal investigation. He repaired VRS's image, while reducing its unfunded liability to zero.
What he's most proud of, though, is improving customer service. He introduced performance measures, paid employees for performance and made VRS the first state retirement system with a Web site. "Each place he went to," says Jane Kusiak, executive director of the Council on Virginia's Future, "he left it better than he had come to it."
— Josh Goodman
Photo by Rebecca D'Angelo