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On the Ground: State Leadership in Times of Crisis

Today the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) hosted a breakfast discussion with five members of its bipartisan Governors’ Council. During the event, moderated by author and journalist Kathleen Koch, the governors offered their thoughts on the strategies and tactics necessary for strong leadership in times of crisis.

Having dealt with a range of natural and manmade disasters over their combined more than three decades of executive experience, Governors Jim Douglas (Vermont), Phil Bredesen (Tennessee), Linda Lingle (Hawaii), Mike Rounds (South Dakota), and Ted Strickland (Ohio) were able to weave their individual stories into a broader narrative about leadership.

BPC President Jason Grumet said that the creation of the Governors’ Council grew out of the organization’s desire to solicit more insight from elected leaders beyond the Beltway. Each member of the panel had put aside partisan politics in order to effectively guide their respective states through crisis.

One of the discussion’s prominent themes was the importance of emergency preparedness long before the first storm cloud or earthquake warning. Perhaps there was no better to express this necessity than Governor Lingle. Lingle, whose state of Hawaii is made up of a string of islands at least five hours from any help from the continental United States, told the audience that she made sure each inhabited island and municipality was fully prepared to deal with disaster management on their own. She urged local leaders nationwide to take the initiative and not rely on outside assistance to make it through emergencies.

Governor Rounds, speaking about South Dakota’s more than dozen disasters during his time in office, recalled a September 2005 preparedness session in which his team envisioned a worst case scenario—an ice storm followed by a prolonged blizzard. What happened during Thanksgiving weekend that same year? An ice-storm followed by a two-week blizzard. South Dakota was hit hard, but the earlier preparation was crucial in keeping the state on its feet.

Another focus of the governors’ attention was the communication that goes into educating the public on emergency preparedness. Governor Bredesen was adamant in his expressing his belief that the public wants to know that someone is in charge. He said that states must clearly inform citizens what services the government will and will not provide, while making sure that all groups participating in recovery efforts are being put to good use.

Governor Douglas insisted that alerting constituents of an impending crisis is one of the most vital tasks any governor faces. Douglas recounted the time he went on television to warn Vermont residents of looming brownouts due to low temperatures that placed a strain on the power infrastructure. He asked people that they find ways to use as little electricity as possible. Douglas finished on a lighter note, telling the crowd the story of an elderly woman who told him that after watching his announcement, she immediately turned off the television and dashed off the bed.

The governors turned to the ongoing debt ceiling debate in Washington to conclude the discussion. Governor Strickland (a former congressman) admitted that he saw both “peace and cooperation” and “anger and rancor” in his time working with the Ohio legislature. But he said that Washington’s partisan fights had become a “blood sport.” Bredesen echoed this sentiment, stating that Democrats got things done in his Republican-minded state because both parties wanted to get things done. Rounds added that Washington was supposed to be a place where America’s representatives came together to hash out their differences.

Nick Hampson contributed to this post.

2011-07-13 00:00:00

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