Friday, September 25, 2009

A Chat with Lawrence Rael

He is arguably the most overqualified candidate ever to run for public office in New Mexico: Chief Administrative Officer of Albuquerque for 12 years in a row under three mayors; (so he can manage a billion dollar budget and make himself so useful you don't want to fire him). Staffer for Sen. Jeff Bingaman for three years; (so he knows something about Washington). Planner and manager of the Rail Runner Express; (so he can deal with even the most outrageous egos and still get the job done within budgetary limits--more about this later). Called in to clean up part of the housing authority scandal; (so he is willing to take risks accepting a thankless job and a political hot potato to boot). With these kinds of credentials he ought to be running for Chairman of the 2016 Olympics or looking for a top job in the new Obama administration or (dare I say this?) running for governor himself. Why in the world would he want a part-time gavel to herd cats in the senate and answer the phone when angry constituents call up about another snafu?

With these thoughts in mind and fully prepared to form an instant dislike for him as punishment for having acquired such an accomplished resume in a short period of time, I joined Mr. Rael for breakfast this morning at the Encanto hotel.

Bottom line: Rael believes, passionately, that his managerial skills can be put to use in the Lt. Governor's office as a means of improving the management of state business. He has formulated the most ambitious role ever envisioned for a Lt. Governor, and it hinges on putting his proven managerial skills to work. Very few people in that position would even think about playing the role he has in mind.

As he puts it the executive branch normally acts like a set of competing fiefdoms where few executives communicate with counterparts even on closely related issues. They all stove-pipe carefully guarded information to the governor's office. The governor is too busy to insist of day-to-day accountability except for the highest priorities, and the legislature has no institutional capacity to monitor much of what goes on. Result? Poor management, poor accountability. A Lt. Governor with Rael's managerial experience, coupled with the support of a governor, could bring people together within state government to make common cause on high priority policy issues, and to vastly improve the efficiency of the executive branch. Where agencies are feuding, he could try for forge a peace. Where information is withheld, he could pry it loose. Where important projects need stronger management, he could help fill the gap. In addition to all of this, Rael suggests he might also be able to help communications between the legislature and the governor, which often break down by ego-driven turf battles, by acting as a liaison between the two branches, one supposes, as an honest broker of information and by focusing on project-driven, rather than politics-driven considerations.

Now here, I thought to myself, is a new idea for that office, made credible by Rael's unquestionable talent as a manager. But, I said to him, playing devil's advocate, there are two "ifs" here. First, you need the consistent support for this mission from the governor, without which you end up frustrated like Casey Luna under Bruce King when he actually believed King might delegate some policy issues to him. So let me concede that she will enable you to play this role. What about the second "if:" what if you try to get the fiefdom sheiks and sharks to work together and they tell you to butt out of their business? Why should they, with all their budgetary resources, defer to you, who has no budget, no staff?

At this point his passion came into play. "This is where my experience with people comes in," he said, looking me in the eye. "I've been in that position many times before, and I've always been able to get people to work better together." He cited his experience as COG director for the Mid-Region Council of Governments. "I have no authority there, either, but I've managed to get things done." He ended up doing most of the management for the Rail Runner, as he put it, not because he was the logical person to do so, but because he had the skills to get the job done. He could have added, but did not, that if the Governor truly delegated authority to him over recalcitrant cabinet officers, they would quickly defer to him as well. I was surprised by the passionate intensity of Rael as he effortlessly analyzes highly complex integovernmental relations, stressing what appears to be a highly developed sense of the common good being his north star. Very refreshing.

A couple of technical issues. I asked him about the cost over-runs for the Rail Runner. As he sees it, there were no cost over-runs. The legislature appropriated $125 million to plan either a middle lane for the Albuquerque to Santa Fe highway or a rail runner from Belen to Santa Fe. The language in the legislation was deliberately vague and when a decision was made to go with the rail runner, the legislature was asked to come up with $275 million more, for a total of $400 million, to enable the completion of Phase II, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, inasmuch as Phase I, from Belen to Albuquerque cost $125 million and was already complete. The project was funded $400 million and that's what it cost. I asked for a comment on Paul Gessing's study indicating taxpayers are subsidizing every ride to the tune of $16.89 today. Rael's answer is that the cost-per-drive for many rural highways is far higher than that, and in the case of the rail runner, a subsidy is justified for many reasons, including giving drivers along that corridor a reasonably priced alternative mode of transportation. Moreover, Rael said, Gessing has not factored into his account the revenues (calculated by tonnage and mileage) generated by the lease of the rail line to BNSF and Amtrack when they use the lines. The subsidy would not be as high if these revenues were counted in the calculations.

Ethics reform: Rael stressed the need for various reforms, including the development of a code of conduct for state government officials (including, I assume, legislators), the creation of a reasonably independent commission with subpoena and other powers, and the development of an ethics policy for the granting of contracts.

His Spanish is flawless, the outcome of a Mexican born-and-raised mother who took her children frequently to her former home. He can deal with linguistic nuances and would be at ease negotiating complex issues in either or both languages at the same time. I confess that, while I was prepared to dislike him, imagining the cold, numbers-driven arrogance that drove the likes of Robert McNamara and Don Rumsfeld (and other top managers) into promoting unwise policies that cost countless human lives long after common citizens understood the futility, I found Rael to be a highly likable, people-oriented, and commons sense kind of manager. He inspires you with a can-do optimism, tempered by a realistic assessment of the state of affairs as it is and a well developed sense of public service. In short, he is the kind of manager everyone wants as a boss.


Anonymous said...

Uh-huh, a qualified politician? Can't trust persons that grew up indoctrinated by politics. We all know there are two sides on every coin. Would be interesting to see Rael's other side.

Anonymous said...

What a great article. Articulate. Forthcoming. And obviously unbiased. I have known Lawrence for almost 20 years and worked with him on the RailRunner project. He is a truly special, unique and sincere human being.I have never met anyone that has spent more than 5 minutes with him that doesn't come away with the same impression as the writer.

Let me tell you, and I witnessed this first hand... Lawrence's ability to bring people together is phenomenal. As executive director of the Mid Region Council of Governments he had to keep 19 municipal leaders and pueblos as well as the governor happy and constructive and collaborative, in order to accomplish great things like the Rail Runner. I don't know that I have ever met anyone like him. He is virtually ego-less. And he truly inspires people to do good and accomplish important things. Yes I am his friend, but that's because he's earned my respect, admiration and loyalty. I encourage anyone to spend a little time with him. You'll walk away a fan, a friend and a just a little more hopeful about what can be achieved in our state.