MPA Alumni Take Role in Government Transitions

Doug Rothwell '78 and Sharon Rothwell '78 served on the transition team for Rick Snyder, the new governor of Michigan.

This article was written by 2011 MPA graduate Safa Sajadi for the Summer 2011 issue of Impact newsletter.

When the last polls have closed after an election and a candidate has been pro­claimed the winner, the real work begins. “The 90-day period following an election is a pivotal time for elected officials to not only assemble a transition team but to begin working on the issues,” says Doug Rothwell ’78, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. Doug Rothwell and Sharon Rothwell ’78, vice president of corporate affairs for Masco Corporation, have been involved with government tran­sitions for well over 30 years. This past fall they served on the transition team for Rick Snyder, the new governor of Michigan.

Transition can be exhausting

“Transitioning from one government to another is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, and is especially difficult given the limited time frame,” says Sharon Rothwell. Both Rothwells mention the hard work, late nights, and complex issues that are the common components of a transition. In addition, they say, the real “bread and butter” of a transition involves understanding the political environment, fostering relationships built on trust, and engaging in innovative problem-solving.

What is a government transition?

What exactly is a government transition and what are some things that need to be addressed during this time? MPA faculty member Norma Houston says government transition can refer to a change in leadership (when a new leader is elected) or a change in political policy or agenda. When transitions occur in leadership, says Doug Rothwell, “the work can range from planning where the elected official will live, how staff meetings will be conducted, and what steps will be taken to handle a budget shortfall.”

Governor Holshouser on becoming governor in 1973

Equally important is the task of navigating political changes such as that precipitated by the election of Governor James E. Holshouser Jr. in 1973. As the first Republican elected as governor of North Carolina since the turn of the century, he faced a tough road. “Robert W. Scott, the outgoing governor, was very gracious following the election,” Governor Holshouser said recently. “He made sure to have a sit-down with me and really went out of his way to ease the transition.” However, his transition team still had to grapple with some real challenges. Given the nature of the election, the team had to focus not only on the budgetary challenges but the needs and political make up of the legislature. Having already honed his leadership skills in the legislature and as chairman of the appropriations committee, the new governor quickly recognized that understanding the political environment was essential. “The best thing to do in a transition or any other situation is to work hard to foster relationships based on trust,” said Governor Holshouser.

West Virginia transition landed in state supreme court

Sometimes the transition can be a bit more complicated. Hallie Schenker Mason ’93, now director of public policy for West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, witnessed a transition that ended up in the State Supreme Court. After the death of US Senator Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin resigned from office and was elected to fill the senator’s seat. West Virginia’s Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, first in line for succession, ascended to the governor’s position. Constitutional and legal experts noted that state code and the state constitution were not aligned in succession instructions. A West Virginia Supreme Court decision led to the 2011 special election for governor, and Tomblin was elected.

Be innovative and entrepreneurial

Following a tumultuous election cycle, relationship-building is key, but problem-solving is equally important. “Borrowing and adopting ideas from business can be helpful during a transition,” says Doug Rothwell. “In some ways you really have to think innovatively and be entrepreneurial about the transition. Business approaches are useful because they are outcome-centered.” Norma Houston agrees. “Start with working backward from your goal, understanding your deadlines, and chronicling the decisions that have to be made,” she says.