Often, the most visible public service is performed by those who have run for and been elected to political office. In good times, they sometimes get some of the credit. In bad times, they receive most of the blame. That's the lot of a public servant. So why do it? U.S. News asked four current and former public servants. Here's what Bev Perdue, governor of North Carolina, had to say:
Sometimes public leaders will recall a single face, a particular moment, a life in shreds or one pieced back together, that is imprinted and logged in their memory and drove them to seek elected office.
For me it was more of a mosaic of images and impressions assembled over years. There were our neighbors in the coal mining town where I grew up. Many of them, including my parents, never finished high school. There were the children in the kindergarten and high school classes I taught who, despite struggles at home, showed an enormous appetite to learn. Later in my career, I worked with the elderly. Their faces showed the sacrifice that their generation had made for mine, yet they had been let down by a safety net with gaping holes.
Governing often requires hard choices, negotiating, and not always getting as much as you want. If you set your eyes on real change—on improving people's lives and making your state better—you can't be afraid to make these hard choices and follow through on those negotiations. As I was coming up in elected office, it was still known as a man's world. I often had to advocate a little harder, be a little tougher to compete and prevail in what I was fighting for. But that collage of images pushed me along and today people's lives are a little better because a public servant like me refused to give up.
I spent years working with senior citizens and championing their causes in the state legislature before I ended up, as lieutenant governor, overseeing an innovative program to help pay for their prescriptions. As governor, I'm ushering in changes to guarantee that every child who graduates is prepared for a career, college, or technical training.
Changing how big institutions, such as governments or schools or businesses, operate is often incremental. Every so often, though, you enact a law or close a deal that delivers a positive impact that you can see and feel right away. In these difficult times, there is nothing more rewarding than convincing a company to move to, or expand in, North Carolina and create new jobs. When I recently announced Caterpillar's expansion at not one but two plants, the audiences exuded both excitement and relief. It was the best payback you could hope for. This job, like no other, has given me the capacity to make the state better than I found it.
It's what you can't control—the things you wish you could fix but can't—that remain the most difficult part of public service. These are the images that sadly add to my composite of memories and keep me up at night. North Carolina is proudly home to a large military population, and periodically I have to call the spouse or parents of a soldier or Marine who was killed overseas. Recently I reached out to the police chief in Concord, N.C., after his daughter was murdered. And I have held the hands of families whose bank accounts are empty and lives have been upended by the recession.
Public life has other downsides, such as the barrage of attacks and loss of privacy, but those are in the price of admission. Those in public office are big girls and boys. We can take it. And if that's part of the cost of advancing my ideas, of landing that next corporate relocation and raising the quality of life for folks in my state, then it's more than worth it.