Finding the Courage to Lead
by Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
Courage is having the willingness to do what’s right in spite of knowing what it may cost you.
That willingness to do the right thing is honored every year with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, one of the country’s top honors for public servants. Recipients have included people ranging from Ukraine’s first democratically elected president, Viktor Yushchenko, who nearly died from a poisoning attempt during his country’s tumultuous 2004 election, to U.S. Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold for their work on campaign finance reform.
During the past 24 years, several state leaders have received the sterling silver lantern that symbolizes the award.
Here are some of their stories.
Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr.
The Prize is What You Do With the Position
Things weren’t looking too bright for Connecticut when former Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr. was sworn into office in 1991. The state was facing a $1 billion deficit and, as one of the few states in the country without an income tax, the options for raising that much money were scarce.
“Clearly, we were not able to raise revenue except by enacting an inordinately high sales tax,” Weicker said. “We would have had to take the sales tax to probably somewhere around 12 to 13 percent. That would obviously have been devastating to the poor and middle classes.”
While Weicker had hoped to be able to stabilize the budget without enacting an income tax, it soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen.
“Nobody had been able to enact one (an income tax),” Weicker said. “They had tried earlier, but it had always been defeated. I very well knew what the sentiment was. Obviously when we did enact it, there was a huge demonstration—probably about 50,000 people on the capitol grounds—in protest of the measure. I went in there with my eyes wide open, but I also knew if we were going to secure the future, it was the only way to go.”
Weicker said legislators ended up agreeing to a new income tax, slightly cutting the sales tax and cutting many of the state’s business taxes. After it was over, Weicker regularly saw protesters, was spat upon and even compared to Hitler.
“I knew we were going to get very negative attitude toward it once it was enacted,” said Weicker, “and it was just barely enacted by one vote in the senate. All the Republicans and Democrats—and it was a coalition that passed it—all of them received the same abuse, if not worse. Who the hell likes to pay taxes? Obviously, no one.”
But the abuse was worth it to preserve the economic health of Connecticut, Weicker said. He ended up serving just one term as governor. But prior to his election as governor, Weicker had served in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, authored the Americans with Disabilities Act and served on the Senate Watergate Committee.
Being elected to serve in a legislative body, Weicker said, isn’t the goal. It’s only the beginning.
“It’s a position that they hold, it isn’t the prize,” he said. “The prize is what they can do with that position. You don’t go into politics, as least in my book, to get elected and re-elected. You go in there and you call the shots as you see them. If you don’t get re-elected, that’s fine. Go back to what you were normally doing.”
Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter
Education ‘Does Have a Constituency’
In 1982, education in Mississippi wasn’t looking very good. It was the only state that didn’t have public kindergartens or even require children to attend school. Gov. William Winter wanted to change that.
“I think that education, adequate education of our citizenry, is the most important element in leadership in our country,” Winter said. “And Mississippi had been behind in that regard. So I felt if we were going to be competitive in this state that we had to make a stronger effort to educate all of our people. That’s what motivated me.”
But change would not come easy. Education reform packages Winter supported already had been defeated more than once. A special session called by the governor to address education reform in December 1982—when the reform finally passed—would come to be known as The Christmas Miracle.
After having suffered several defeats in the normal legislative process, Winter made the shrewd move of taking his case to the voters, said Dick Molpus, who was Winter’s first gubernatorial appointee as governor; he served as executive director of the Governor's Office of Federal-State Programs. Public meetings conducted across Mississippi to discuss deficiencies in the state’s schools drew thousands of concerned parents.
“We didn’t even get a bill out of committee in 1981,” Molpus said. “It became obvious we weren’t going to be able to play the inside game because it was stacked, again, with these older, plantation mentality (legislators). … Gov. Winter and all his young staff decided the only way we were ever going to get this passed was if we created a groundswell movement out there and let those parents know it’s up to them to make the schools better.
“It was the first time in Mississippi history that true democracy had worked. He was beaten twice in the legislature over this. On the third time, he decided to take it to the people and, literally, the people rose up and made their legislators pass the Education Reform Act of 1982.”
In addition to establishing public kindergartens and mandating school attendance, the reform act established an accreditation system, placed teacher’s aides in the first through third grades, and paid for all of it with $110 million in new taxes.
“It was more difficult than I thought it would be,” Winter said. “I didn’t see how anybody could be against improving education. Yet I found that people were concerned that it might cost a little more money. We had to sell that as part of the package. I take great pride in the fact that we got the approval of the largest tax increase in the history of the state for education and that had never happened before.”
Molpus said one of Winter’s lasting legacies in Mississippi is the idea that the state legislature could, and should, be involved in education.
“It put education as a topic for the legislature to deal with,” Molpus said. “In the past, there was this kind of old plantation, bourbon whiskey royalty type belief that if your children were worthy of going to school, you could afford to pay for private schools. Everybody else should be content with their lot.”
“Education, I was told, had no political constituency,” Winter said. “I found that it did have a political constituency and as a result, people rallied to that effort. … As a matter of fact, education now, I think, has been labeled a top priority as far as political issues are concerned.”
California Assembly Member Karen Bass
Sen. David Cogdill
Sen. Darrell Steinberg
Assembly Member Mike Villines
Something for Everyone to Dislike in Compromise
In early 2009, California was in trouble, said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who had just been sworn into his leadership post.
“Within weeks of getting sworn in, the budget deficit ballooned to about $42 billion on a base budget of about $100 billion,” Steinberg said. “The numbers were what I describe as absurd—nearly half your budget in deficit.”
Steinberg and the other leaders in the house and senate—Karen Bass as Democratic speaker of the assembly; David Cogdill as senate Republican leader and Mike Villines as assembly Republican leader—quickly realized they would have to work together to solve this massive budget problem. It wasn’t always easy.
“I didn’t know Mike Villines at all,” Steinberg said. “When we first got together as a fivesome, including the governor, he and I really went at it. … I can’t say we were that warm to each other.”
“Ultimately, we started to listen to each other and work through a compromise,” Villines said. “It actually became important for the four of us to try to find a real solution that made sense and balanced it fairly. That took months to get through, but we did it.”
The Budget Compromise of 2009 contained something for everyone to dislike. It included almost $15 billion in spending cuts, $12.5 billion in tax increases and more than $5 billion in new borrowing. It was not popular with anybody’s caucus, but both Republican leaders lost their positions because of it.
Cogdill was voted out of his leadership position just a couple of days before the budget compromise bill was passed.
“I think they were under so much political pressure that they felt they needed to take the step they did,” said Cogdill, “which was to move to vacate the chair, which they did in the middle of the night after trying to convince me to resign. I said, ‘I’m not going to resign. If you want to take that vote and remove me after this year of hell I’ve been through trying to negotiate this thing, then so be it, but I’m not giving up. I’m not going to quit.’”
Villines also paid a price after he termed out of the assembly. In his ultimately unsuccessful 2010 bid for insurance commissioner, he almost lost in the primary to a virtual unknown who spent less than $5,000 on his campaign. While Villines said it was tough to feel that kind of rejection, he’d make the decision again to support the 2009 budget compromise.
“We volunteer to run for office,” he said. “We’re lucky to serve when we’re in that capacity. Nobody makes us do it. You just have to do the best you can and go forward. That was a tough time, no doubt about it, but it was nothing like what people had gone through in their personal lives during that economic crisis. That was really a tough time in California.”