One of the most dedicated champions of state and local finance, former Cleveland Mayor; Ohio Governor; President of the National League of Cities; and U.S. Senator George Voinovich died June 12. No single individual played a more critical role in taking on the administration of former President Ronald Reagan to preserve the authority of cities, counties, and states to issue state and municipal debt. No elected leader with whom I have ever had the great fortune to work demonstrated such commitment to good governance — and to putting the people, municipalities, states — and country he represented first. When former President Reagan, as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 sought to eliminate the authority of states, cities, counties, and school districts to issue municipal bonds, no leader played a stronger role in uniting elected state and local leaders in successfully challenging the White House and pressing the Congress. Indeed, in his final speech as President of the National League of Cities, staff from the White House of his own party arose in the middle of his speech, turned their backs to him, and walked out.
As a Mayor, as a Governor, as a U.S. Senator, he was a twenty-first century Don Quixote who put the nation's infrastructure finance above party. He once called me after an awful Ohio Winter to ask, tongue in cheek, if I could help him distinguish between a Republican versus a Democratic pothole — reminding me that, as a Mayor, he only knew he had to fix it.
When former President Reagan proposed his tax reform act — and the elimination of state and local authority to issue tax exempt debt — the first issue then-Mayor Voinovich took on was to achieve unanimity amongst governors, state legislators, and even mayors to confront the White House and Treasury straight up. That meant deciding whether to press — first and foremost — for the deductibility of state and local taxes or the preservation of authority to issue tax-exempt debt. As someone who was the architect of rebuilding Cleveland, he was a seeming Don Quixote: unafraid to take on his own President or his own colleagues.
He did understand the need to be unrelenting and to build a coalition that could overcome the Treasury and the White House — and convince then Ways and means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski that elected state and local leaders would countenance no final legislation that obstructed the ability of the nation's state and local governments to invest in the country's future.
But when he took on an issue, he was: blind to party affiliation, unrelenting in pressing, and unafraid. He was the 21st century Don Quixote.
He devoted nearly 51 straight weeks to calling his friend, Vice President George H.W. Bush, to insist upon a meeting with the leaders of the nation's state and local leadership with Treasury Secretary James Baker to express opposition to the Administration's efforts to eliminate tax-exempt financing. He was equally obdurate in pressing Governors, state legislators, county leaders, and his colleagues that unless the state and local leaders of the nation were united and focused on that single issue first--the single most critical infrastructure financing mechanism of school boards, universities, counties, cities, and states would be eliminated.
He was an etched giant of our time who put his public responsibilities and commitments first. His love for and profound recognition of municipal finance was unique. Whenever he asked me to come to Cleveland, as soon as I arrived at City Hall, he would rush from his office to show me around Cleveland: he took such excitement about each project that had been completed — whether it was a dilapidated building the city had purchased to convert to a co-op for unwed mothers to acting to ensure the city's river would never burn again.
To the end, he was conservative in his values, leadership, and insistence on balancing budgets — whether at the city, county, state, or federal level. In his farewell address to his colleagues in the Senate six years ago, he charged them with taking on the kind of challenge he had met in Cleveland and in Ohio: balancing the budget — making clear that as a former city, county, and state leader that such a balancing act could not simply dismiss the role of revenues. He was always about the bottom line — not the political line.
I am not sure when, if ever, he really slept: his mantra was always one of "working harder and smarter, doing more with less." But he always did more; he never did less. He wanted, each and every day, for our country to be better.
Frank Shafroth is director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University.