University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs Commencement Speech
Since you are probably bored of learning about public affairs through those old fashioned things called “books”, I thought we should finish your education by going to a real primary source: “television.” Let’s ask: what is it telling us about the field you have chosen to study:
Well somewhere between “West Wing” and “House of Cards” we decided that public service was neither “public”, nor “service.”
Somehow we are being told that crawling on their bellies behind the walls of City Halls and Capitols lurk
- self absorbed,
- sex-addicted incompetents
who voters keep in power ONLY because of deeply-deceptive—-
—-mildly-illegal campaigns funded by shady special interests who the camera only shoots from the rear.
And that’s the good guys.
My personal favorite television version of political reality is “Scandal.” The pathetic President, who apparently keeps a king-sized jar of Viagra in the Lincoln Bedroom, careens between placating his manipulative wife, and having sex with his former campaign manager turned political consultant who is having his baby but is terrified of her own father, who killed someone, and, what’s so bad, so did she to get the President elected.
Meanwhile back at her office, her staff of so called- political fixers, is extracting information from people by extracting their teeth—-with a pair of pliers.
Somehow between all this the President manages to, in apparently his spare time, get around to running the country.
And, by the way, again, these are the good guys.
Then when the show ends, on come the commercials: We’re entering election season so you can expect wall to wall reminders that “Washington is broken” and you shouldn’t vote for Sleaze Bucket A, B or C.” Somehow you begin to get the idea that people aren’t holding public service in very high regard these days.
Which poses a very logical question to you, the soon to be graduates of the prestigious Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota:
What were you thinking? Why in the world did you spend all that time and money to get this degree? Who in their right mind would want to go into a world like this? The door’s in back: Get out while you still can!
Well, you are here today because you are making a bet that the cartoon of public sector dysfunction is, in fact, wrong. You are here today because you believe there still is some way to make people’s lives better by entering public life.
And I’m here to say:”You are right.”
I am also here to tell you we have never needed you more. And any question I had about what this group of graduates has to offer was answered resoundingly by the amazing group of you I had the privilege to teach in my class “Mayor 101.”
I’ll say a word or two about what makes this class of graduates so special, but in the little time I have left, let me take you briefly behind the walls of those City Halls and Capitols.
I can’t guarantee it’s more accurate than the picture you see on those TV shows, because I have no experience writing scripts, but I did play a politician—-in real life—-for about a dozen years. Here’s what public servants really do:
Aug. 1, seven years ago. The 35W Bridge collapses, and almost immediately public servants are risking their lives to dive into the rubble in the water to pull people to shore. The city crews were shocked but they knew exactly what to do because they had trained and trained disaster scenarios.
- The emergency center was activated,
- crews moved into recovery positions,
- a family center was opened to care for the grieving, and
- within one year a new bridge rose in its place.
Let me take you to another day: Exactly three years ago today. On what had been a quiet Sunday afternoon, a tornado crashed into north Minneapolis, destroying home after home in the heart of the poorest part of the state.
- Within minutes public servants left their families and threw themselves into the enormously complex recovery.
- Cleanup crews of inspectors, and
- public works employees, fire and police crews, health department works, and more fanned out across the devastation.
- With electricity out city workers went door to door to assess the damage,
- buses scanned the streets to find people to bring to a shelter that had been set up and
- within a day a center was set up to triage the complex insurance and social service needs.
Let me take you to way too many nights when an act of violence took someone’s life: At 2, or 3 or 4 am, public servants took the emergency call, and
- went to the office to begin the investigation or
- went to the hospital to hold the grieving family.
Let me take you to the average day inside City Hall, when nothing dramatic was happening.
- Data analysts use GIS maps to build a smarter route to fill potholes faster,
- Civil Rights workers populate databases so minority contractors could get a piece of the action,
- mid-level bureaucrats move a box on an org chart and suddenly everyone’s work got just a little easier.
- Neighborhood specialists fan out around the city, speaking different languages. They extract information about how to make people’s lives better but, thankfully, they don’t extract anyone’s teeth with pliers.
Well, you may say, that’s just city government. What about those rotten political campaigns.
I’ve seen a few of those by now.
I’m vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and I’ve been on the ground floor of a presidential campaign in each of the last four cycles.
My observation is that campaigns are not pretty but near as I can remember I didn’t see anyone murdered like they did in Scandal. I did, however see:
hundreds of people leave—
—-safe jobs, loved ones and families to —-
—-work morning to night then go home to sleep on a lumpy air mattress on a stranger’s floor.
Most of the work isn’t exciting,
- like staring at data on a computer screen for 18 hours a day,
- the pay sucks and
- very few people get a job out of it.
The real motive, I’m sorry to disappoint the TV producers, is that people do it because they actually care.
Now it is in fact true that there are a few people in public life who are sleazy enough to be characters on “House of Cards” or “Scandal.”
I thought this would be an excellent time to name names…..but the Humphrey School gave me a strict time limit so you’ll have to wait until I slip up in my next Mayor 101 class.
But in spite of those few, the vast majority of the people you will meet in public life, and political life, are in it for a reason that doesn’t make good television: they want to make things better.
Those people behind the walls of those capitols and City Halls are also something else:
- They are getting tired.
- And they are getting older.
In fact almost one third of my final Budget Address as Mayor was devoted to the fact that a shockingly large number of city workers will be able to retire in the next few years.
Same with state and federal government. This so-called “Silver Tsunami” is going to make it very tough to manage public workforce over the next few years but it is absolutely GREAT news for a graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs!
Any doubt I had that you are up to the task was erased by those nights I spent with some of you in Mayor 101. Even on those nights when I was—-
—-tired or distracted or unsure, you came through with
with depth, with realism and irony.
—-with a sense of imagination, possibility and hope.
Teaching you has been one of the great highlights of my professional life.
So do not let anyone tell you that public service is not a noble profession.
In a world that has never been
—-our population more diverse, or
—— technology never more isolating,
we have never had more need from those of you who are willing to dedicate yourself to helping us find common purpose.