By: Mark Funkhouser
I grew up in a working-class family in West Virginia. I always had a chip on my shoulder because it seemed like the “better” people in the town looked down on us. I was a fighter, first with my fists and later with words and ideas. By mere chance I landed in a small private college. Also by accident, I became a political science major just as the Vietnam war was heating up and the civilrights and women’s movements were sweeping campuses.
I loved to read, and books like The Autobiography of Malcom X helped me to better understand the breadth and depth of the world’s injustices. I learned that these were the products of political systems and that there were tools to change those structures. I was good at understanding those policy and analytical tools. After graduation I went to work in a juvenile prison, and my anger at injustice deepened. Then I got a job as a social-services caseworker, dealing with people with physical handicaps. I saw far more potential for good that my agency could do than it was actually doing.
I wanted more job flexibility and more power to effect change, so I got a master’s in social work and wound up, again by accident, teaching social studies at a small college back in West Virginia. Later I worked as a program evaluator and then a performance auditor with the state of Tennessee, a job that combined both the opportunity for helping the less fortunate with the kind of verbal combat that I’d always been good at. I got an MBA in accounting and finance and became the city auditor of Kansas City, where I could have more control and autonomy over my work and see its impact more clearly than I could at the state level.
Eventually I ran for mayor of Kansas City. I won and spent four years battling on behalf of those with less voice and less opportunity while trying to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and equity with which the city served its residents. This was the first job I had in which success did not come easily. I underestimated both the size of the challenge and the pushback I’d get. I did accomplish the main thing I wanted to do—righting the city financially in the middle of the recession—but I was defeated for re-election.
Now I find myself as the publisher of Governing magazine. I get to work with state and local government leaders from across the nation. Over and over I’m inspired by the passion and competence they bring to the very difficult job of making democracy work. But it’s not just the veterans of public service who impress me. There are thousands of young people who watch “Parks and Recreation” on TV and think government is cool. They are under the radar of the national media, but they are working at every level of government, and they are motivated by a spirit of public service. They know, as I do, that good government is no accident and that it’s worth fighting for.
Mark Funkhouser is an Academy Fellow and the Publisher of Governing Magazine.