Article Executive Director's Message Chris McKenzie

A Warrior for Local Democracy: How One Man Rocked the League

There’s a lot of talk in leadership literature these days about the “transformational” leader. This might initially sound like alchemy or voodoo, but it means a leader who essentially helps people understand that their reach really can exceed their grasp. One League leader who definitely fits that description is John Russo, Oakland city attorney and League president from 2002-03.

When he became president of the League in 2002, John had spent the previous two years as second and first vice president of the organization. During that time he helped plant and cultivate the seeds of our success with Proposition 1A on the November 2004 ballot, which led to some sorely needed stability in the state-local fiscal relationship. He did it strategically and with a sense of humor. California city officials came to admire his wit, his passion and his frankness about the sacrifices it was going to take to protect local revenues from future raids by the state government.

John just stepped down from the League board after nine years as the representative of Oakland’s mayor. While he remains the elected city attorney of Oakland and one of our most trusted contributors and advi sors, his role on the League board of di rectors has concluded. We will miss John’s enthusiasm and love for local democracy.

It’s impossible to capture in one column all of John’s contributions to the League, but it’s clear he infused us with energy and focus that remain today. In addition, there was a method to John’s leadership style and strategy that most people may not have been able to detect. Only because I had the privilege of working with him closely did I get a glimpse of the insight he brought to the task.

Affirming the Importance of Public Service

No one can listen to John Russo speak without experiencing two things: laughing so hard you think your sides will split and believing he understands the powerful call that motivates city officials to serve their communities. These are two gifts that John gave League audiences for many years as he rose through the leadership ranks.

John reached out to every part of the League — its divisions, departments, policy committees and caucuses, as well as the contract and independent cities organizations — to promote the importance of what he calls “local democracy”: the process through which citizens and elected officials interact on a personal level, producing results that can be seen immediately.

John also affirmed the basic dignity of public service and the League’s role in protecting that fundamental relationship between elected official and citizen. In his first “President’s Message” column in Western City (October 2002), he wrote about the sense of duty that calls city officials to serve, saying it is in fact a form of love. In short, John communicated his understanding of the passion that drives city officials to seek office. He very naturally connected with almost everyone at their own level because he passionately believes in the same principles.

Defining the Problem and Context

Another strength John displayed frequent ly was his talent for distilling complex issues and putting them into context for an audience. He absorbs facts voraciously, and he provides historical references to help an audience understand how recent developments can influence the future course of events.

As it became clear in 2002 that the state was descending into a fiscal crisis within just a few years of having had a large budget surplus, John observed that the political climate was increasingly ripe to take back control of local revenues. We subsequently polled voters statewide to determine whether they were receptive to doing just that, and the results bore out John’s instincts. The rising tide of voter disenchantment with the crisis in state government suggested an opportunity for cities that should not be missed. All it took was a unifying idea and a dynamic coalition to get the job done.

Building Partnerships Based on Shared Values and Respect

When it became clear that the time was coming for action, John supported and helped lead the League’s efforts to form an effective partnership with county and special district association leaders, whose groups had suffered similar or even worse losses under the ill-fated property tax revenue takeaways of the 1990s. This kind of relationship with the California State Association of Counties and California Special Districts Association didn’t happen overnight. It resulted from countless face-to-face meetings, numerous joint appearances and difficult negotiations about various proposals for statewide ballot ini tiatives to protect local revenues. John actively participated in all of that work.

John subsequently helped deliver the disappointing message to our leadership and membership that we were not yet ready for prime time and should wait until the 2004 elections, when circumstances were expected to be more advantageous. He facilitated our ability to communicate the message with hope and a sense of strategic possibilities.

Asking People to Focus and Stretch

John stressed the importance of focusing on the issues that unite us from the time he joined the League board. He reminded us to quit wasting time on matters where we were deeply divided. He repeatedly asked us to ponder what our strategic interests were and whether a particular issue helped us advance them. Time and time again, when issues arose that could divert our time and attention from our strategic priorities, he discouraged us from being tempted. In time it became clear to everyone throughout the state that achieving protection of local revenues was the League’s most important goal. Accomplishing that goal became John’s overriding focus — what might be called his “magnificent obsession.”

Operating as a Team

Although he contributed a great deal as League president, John’s colleagues on the League board would probably agree that he was equally supportive as a team player. When his term of office ended in the fall of 2003 and Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge succeeded him, John worked closely with Ron as he took the board through what turned out to be the year when the goal of fiscal independence 
was achieved.

Throughout months of negotiation with everyone from the governor to legislative leaders to the Department of Finance, John operated as a member of an execu tive committee team that included Pat Eklund (then first vice president) and Alex Padilla (then second vice president and now state senator). All strategic calls were made as a team (often in concert with the entire board of directors) and then imple mented by the president and staff. John steadfastly lent his substantial political skills to the decision-making process. His keen intuitive sense about how political deals come together benefited all of us.

Celebrating and Recommitting

When we celebrated our overwhelming victory in the November 2004 election — with an unprecedented 84 percent voter approval — no one could have been happier or more joyful than John. He al-ways urged us to celebrate our small and big victories, but he also gently reminded us of our continuing obligation to use our victory to help advance the cause of stronger local democracy and public ser vice. One of the obligations of victors in such contests, he reminded us, is to help build stronger communities. For John this meant a call for the League to lend its considerable ability to help solve the state’s vexing housing crisis, among other things; a cause he continues to champion and share with many League leaders.

Championing Local Democracy

No essay can completely capture a per son’s character and humanity, and this one is no exception. I do know this, however: The League and the cities of California are stronger and more vibrant as a result of the leadership that John Russo so gen erously contributed to the organization and the cause of local democracy during his years on the board.

At the 2004 League of California Cities Annual Conference, John was recognized by the League for his many contributions when he received the new “Champion of Local Democracy” award. It was presented by then-President Ron Loveridge, who said to John, “It’s being given to you for your energy, vision, commitment, boundless efforts and transformational leadership … during your years as an officer of the League of California Cities.” Looking back on that moment, I think the term “warrior for local democracy” would have been applicable as well.

I will always be grateful for John’s service and friendship. Now, as he would say, let’s get back to serving the public!

This article appears in the July 2007 issue of Western City
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