Local politicians use social work skills

 Michael F. Brennan et alSocial worker and Maine legislator Michael Brennan, second from right, campaigns for mayor of Portland, Maine, during the 25th Annual Southern Maine Pride Festival in 2011. He won the election later that year. (Courtesy photo, right)

When Portland, Maine, Mayor Michael F. Brennan first entered the world of politics, he had just enrolled in school full time for his MSW degree. He did it to broaden his understanding of people and to make him a more conscientious policymaker.

“I wanted a better understanding of how to pass policy using clinical approaches,” he explained. “If you can mix intellectual justification with a good heart you can formulate good policy.”

Brennan is one of many social workers who discovered their education and clinical experiences can help them become highly effective elected officials.

In the early 1990s, Brennan was in his first term as a member of the Maine House of Representatives while he was earning an MSW degree. He remained in the House for four terms.

When he was elected to the Maine Senate in 2002, he said his MSW and field training proved invaluable.

“Throughout my legislator career I have used opportunities to draft policy with the clinical approach using my MSW,” he said.

His education proved especially helpful while serving on committees that dealt with health and behavioral health, he said, and also when he shared a joint commission on health care reform in the state in 2003.

Brennan, who maintains his clinical social work license, said he favors public office as a way to effect positive changes on a systemic level.

“In my mid-20s I worked for Ralph Nader and I saw what one person can do for thousands and even millions of people,” he said. “I understand the role the social worker plays. I have always been attracted to systemic change — to be involved in policy decisions that affect thousands of people. I find it very exciting.”

He is particularly proud of being part of groundbreaking pieces of legislation, including the laptop program to provide every Maine student with a computer, efforts to reduce the negative impacts of No Child Left Behind, and programs to expand health care access to all Mainers. Other states and the nation have used the latter as a model in adopting universal health care, Brennan said.

He feels serving in public office is tremendously rewarding and he encourages more social workers to serve their communities as elected officials.

“I think it is important for social work to be at the table and have a voice,” he said.

Brennan’s service in office has proved popular with residents. In 2011, he was elected mayor of Portland, the state’s largest city. This is a special achievement considering he is the city’s first elected mayor in 88 years.

A year before, city voters changed the city charter to an elected-mayor form of government rather than continue the appointment-mayor process by the city council.

As the city’s top elected official, Brennan has implemented several initiatives designed to encourage economic development and job creation as well as support and strengthen the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

His nonpolitical career includes being a policy associate with the Cutler Institute of Child and Family Policy at the Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, specializing in education and health.

Before joining the Cutler Institute, Brennan worked as the director of Community Initiatives at United Way of Greater Portland, as the executive director of the Cumberland County Affordable Housing Venture, and for the Coastal Economic Development Corporation.

Share your experience

Another longtime lawmaker who has an MSW degree is Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael E. Ortega. He has a full-time position in St. Paul, Minn., where the county has the responsibility of running all government social work programs in the state, he said.

“My knowledge of the needs of social workers, social work agencies, and, most importantly, the clients, has been invaluable – not just to me, but to all the commissioners since they do not share that background,” Ortega said. “And when I meet constituents, business leaders or other elected leaders — the same basic skill of a social worker finding out what they need or want, and going to work to find out how I can provide it comes in handy.”

Rafael E. OrtegaRafael E. Ortega, Ramsey County commissioner in St. Paul, Minn., and a social worker, signs the ceremonial railroad tie to celebrate the building of the central corridor light rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis. (Courtesy photo right)

Ortega said while he was earning his MSW at the University of Minnesota, he joined other students organizing a Latino social service agency to better serve Latino and Latinas in Minnesota.

“I interacted with elected officials in my position and I had a very good understanding of how their policy affected us,” Ortega said. “I felt I could contribute in an elected role, and I have been able to serve many more people than I did when I ran the agency — and make change closer to the source.”

He was first elected to the commission in 1994.

“I really enjoy it,” Ortega said. “In the 18 years I have served as a county commissioner, I am proud to have improved transit in the Twin Cities with a new light rail line from Minneapolis downtown to St. Paul downtown and a refurbished Union Depot, and overall better access to county services for everyone in my communities.”

As far as advice for other social workers following a similar path, Ortega said it starts by getting involved in the community.

“Share exactly how your experience, as a social worker and as an agent of change in your community, relates to the public service you wish to do,” he suggested. “It can certainly be an advantage when you can talk directly about face-to-face experience you have had with clients when you talk about how you’re going to serve people who need help in elected office. Telling stories is an important thing to do and social workers usually have good ones.”

Politics is local

Judy MonteroSocial worker and Denver, Colo., City Councilwoman Judy Montero, center, stands with members of the Mile High Youth Corps, who helped with the construction of the Mariposa Phase II project in Denver. It is set to become a nationally recognized model for sustainable transit-oriented development. (Courtesy photo, right)

Making communities better is also what inspired Judy Montero to run for city council in Denver, Colo. She has represented District 9’s 52,000 residents since 2003.

“It’s been an incredible honor to be elected three times,” she said.

Before politics, Montero said she had extensive experience with Latino and Latina youth organizations. She championed state laws that supported bicultural and bilingual education for students.

“My husband was a state representative for our district for six years and I started working as a council aide to the previous District 9 councilwoman,” Montero said. “I started to see how politics is local.”

When the opportunity came to run for her boss’s council seat, Montero said she felt she was the most qualified person for the job. Her motivation was to advance the lives of those in her neighborhood.

“I am always trying to push the envelope — why can’t we have more?” she said of how she leads. This attitude can be a challenge for administrators and other policymakers to understand, she admitted. She encourages the people she works with to pay attention to residents’ needs and not just the processes.

“We can focus on infrastructure all day, but in the end, people will remember how they were treated,” she said.

Montero’s social work background helps keep her mindful to respect people by using the person-in-environment approach.

“I enjoy advocating for my neighborhoods,” the councilwoman said of what she likes best about being an elected representative.

She is particularly proud to be part of the massive redevelopment of Denver Union Station, a unique project that will tie together several transportation modes alongside private development.

Besides bringing Denver a high-tech central transportation hub, the project will provide affordable and mixed-income housing to the area, something that is important to Montero.

“Most families spend the most of their income on housing and transportation,” she said. “By living close to a transit system, it will save by not having to pay for two cars and it will help keep the environment clean.”

Montero thinks social workers are ideally suited to serve in public office and she said her staff includes social workers as well. Social workers “have been trained to be agents of change,” she said. “We can’t let others box us in — or box others in (when it comes to career choices).”

She said taking a chance by running for city council was a way to keep her fresh.

“Every day I take the skills I have learned and I apply them,” she said. “There is no reason why social workers shouldn’t be in elected positions. It is a way to impact change.”

A different perspective

Becky Jones JordonBecky Jones Jordon is a social worker who serves on the Kanawha County School Board in Charleston, W.Va. (Courtesy photo, right)

Becky Jones Jordon said she decided to run for a seat on Kanawha County Schools board in Charleston, W.Va., because at the time the board lacked someone with a child in the school system.

“I thought the board deserved a parent perspective,” she said.

Jordon previously worked as a hospital psychiatric social worker, a corrections department substance abuse counselor and a rehabilitation specialist and a child protective services worker with the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources.

“With my (MSW) degree, I bring a different perspective to our board,” she said. “I tend to be more sensitive to people’s needs.”

Jordon said she advocates for hiring more social workers for the district’s 28,000 students because social workers understand how a child’s home life can challenge her or his ability to succeed in school.

“We have one social worker per 2,000 students,” she said. “The social workers we have appreciate my representation on the board.”

Watch the video: NASW News: Social workers in public office.