by David Kimball, Senior Consultant for Public Policy

This Advisor conundrum posed by the environmental justice controversy and outlines potential solutions to this growing debate that has the business community and residents at odds in many of Michigan’s and the nation’s most economically depressed areas.

“I can’t claim I didn’t know what I was getting into,” acknowledges Governor John Engler’s chief of staff Sharon Rothwell. Her spouse, Michigan Jobs Commission CEO Doug Rothwell, served as chief of staff to Delaware’s governor early in their 15-year marriage before the two east-coast natives emigrated to Lansing in 1993 as the preeminent power couple of John Engler’s second term.

Not that Sharon Rothwell, 39, needed job pointers from her husband or anyone else: Her extensive public service credentials speak eloquently for themselves.

Growing up on a small family farm in Dunn, North Carolina, with a younger brother and sister, Rothwell always had a head for figures and started high school thinking she would be a mathematician. “By my junior year, my algebra teacher would arrange with my other teachers for me to cover her classes when she was going to be out,” she recalls. But by the time she started college at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, she was considering a law degree and majoring in political science.

“I loved the government courses—the ones that talked about public policy and how decisions were made—and the management courses. I got special permission from the head of the public administration program while I was an undergraduate to take some of their graduate courses. I really loved them and decided to go on to graduate school in public administration.

“I remember my college roommate asking me, ‘What in the world are you going to do with this political science degree?’ I remember saying, ‘I’m going to be the secretary of health and human services one day or the secretary of some federal cabinet department.’ I knew I wanted to run a government agency.”

After graduating from the UNC–Chapel Hill, Rothwell completed an internship with the city of Greensborough and gained firsthand government experience. “I really enjoyed city government because it’s so immediate and so close to the public. After that experience I thought I would probably like to be a city manager. I got a scholarship from the city and county management association in North Carolina to go to graduate school (at Chapel Hill). That’s where I met my husband Doug, who came down from Delaware to go to graduate school.” The couple met in the fall of 1978 and married in the summer of 1980.

As newlyweds, they moved to Delaware to be near Doug’s recently widowed mother and younger sister. Sharon took a position with the public administration institute at the University of Delaware, “where I did everything from study the community impact of adult entertainment centers, to building personnel systems, to looking at fiscal impact studies.” Shortly after Doug began working for the city of Wilmington, he was accepted as a presidential management intern. His first assignment was in Baltimore; the Rothwells moved just north of that city and Sharon commuted.

“Doug subsequently accepted an assignment in Washington, D.C., and at that point we were over 100 miles apart during the day,” she recalls. “We did that for a couple of years, and in many ways those first two years were the most stressful times. Once we got through them, everything else has been—I won’t say easy—but simpler, in some ways.”

Discovering that he was not a “Washington person” and that he preferred local or state government, Doug arranged to complete his presidential management internship in the office of then-Delaware Governor Pete DuPont, who subsequently offered him a position as policy advisor.

By that time, Sharon had accepted a job as personnel director of the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families, a new state department set up to consolidate children’s issues. Only eighteen months after successfully launching that enterprise, she was recruited as deputy director for the Delaware personnel department. Drawing upon her university personnel experience, she led reforms in the state’s payroll system, the job classification system, and the performance evaluation system. “I was there through Governor Castle’s term, first as deputy and then as director, and I’m very proud of the work that we did to professionalize the functions of that office.”

During this period, Doug had left the governor’s office to become a top executive at what is now the nation’s second-largest credit card bank. Governor Castle successfully recruited him back to serve as chief of staff. “Doug was moving a lot,” Sharon recalls, “and I was the anchor at that point—although there was so much going on in my job that I didn’t feel very anchored.”

As Governor Castle’s second term wound down, the Rothwells were scanning the horizon and looking west. “Doug and I had decided that we wanted to move to the far west—Washington, Oregon, maybe Colorado. We love the geography of the area, and we’re very much into hiking and biking. We had planned to take three or four months or whatever it took to scope it out and find what we wanted, weigh our options, decide where we wanted to be.”

Doug was attending a National Governors’ Association new governors’ training program in 1992 right after the election, teaching a class for chiefs of staff. Carol Viventi was there and asked Doug if he had ever thought of moving to Michigan. He said no, although the Rothwells knew the state from visits to Sharon’s sister in Ann Arbor. And the previous summer they had vacationed in the Porcupine Mountains, hiking across the Upper Peninsula and down Lake Michigan back to Chicago.

“We had seen some lovely places in Michigan, and we knew it was a beautiful state,” Sharon says. “So we said, ‘Sure, we’ll come out for a visit.’ We liked Carol, we liked the Governor and the people we had met there, so the day after Governor Castle’s term ended we flew out to Michigan to meet people. Well, almost immediately people were calling to recruit Doug for the Michigan Jobs Commission, and we said, ‘Wait—we just started looking!’ We each had job offers elsewhere but not exactly what we wanted so we had decided to wait until just the right thing came along. So they called us later to say, ‘Not only do we have the Jobs Commission post, but the state employer has announced that he’s leaving and we’d like Sharon to do that.’

“We said again that we had other things in the fire that we wanted to at least explore and they said, ‘Fine, we’ll wait; see what happens with those things.’ So they held off six weeks while we pursued some other things; then we came out and met with the governor again. He’s a wonderful salesman. He was saying things like, ‘Well, you’re moving west, you’re going in that direction.’ So the more we talked about the opportunity and the more we were out here, the more we decided ‘Why not? It really is a good opportunity; we like the area and we can always retire out west later.’ “

Summarizing a fast-paced career that’s covered a lot of ground between the east coast and the midwest, Sharon says, “It hasn’t been totally smooth all the way, but it has worked out well. Doug is much more the planner than I—wanting to know every step, what we’re going to do and how things will work out. While I’m certainly not happy-go-lucky, with me it’s more you weigh the situation, you try to make a good decision, and then you just go: You do it and you don’t look back and say, ‘What if…?’ You just can’t; you have to always look ahead.”

Copyright © 1995

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