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What makes me so confident that this will happen is what I see in my daily work. Nearly every day I talk to public officials from state and local governments. Some of them hold elected office, others have been appointed to positions of influence, and others are professionals who have devoted their careers to government service. Nearly all are decent folks, and some are extraordinary individuals who leave me inspired and filled with renewed hope and confidence in the future of our country. Sometimes I’ll nominate one of them to be a Governing Public Official of the Year.
In the end, we can choose only a few of these outstanding individuals to be singled out for praise and admiration as Public Officials of the Year. This year’s winners, who were profiled in the December issue of Governing, will be honored this evening at a banquet in Washington. As they are every year, the stories behind the honorees are wonderful and uplifting.
There is, for example, Bill Howell, who as speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates stood up against his own party, looking beyond partisan differences to pass sweeping new legislation for sustainable transportation funding. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New York City’s Emily Rahimi used the fire department’s Twitter feed to help rescue people stranded by the storm and unable to get through to 911. And overcoming his own disillusionment with politics-as-usual, John Kitzhaber returned for a third term as Oregon’s governor; committed to fostering a climate of dialogue and trust with his state’s legislators, he empowered bold action, innovation and change.
It was only a year ago that another poll found that the public had a higher estimation of root canals, traffic jams and cockroaches than it had of Congress. That will change. Behind each of the eight people Governing will honor tonight are hundreds of other state and local government officials who are, often quietly and steadily, doing amazingly well at the vital job of making government work. Their ideas and influence will eventually push the federal government to be better.
Political change always comes from the bottom up. Someday we’ll look at Congress and say it’s not actually that bad — certainly better than cockroaches. That’s a low bar, but we have to start somewhere.