Note: This is the second of a five-part Friday series highlighting some of the behind-the-scenes players who shape Great Lakes policy. Previously profiled: Joy Mulinex.
If you want to see a policy artist paint a picture, accompany David Ullrich in Washington.
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell saw a Picasso during the recent Great Lakes Days conference. Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative – which represents more than 70 regional mayors from the U.S. and Canada – used an extensive resource palette cultivated over some 30 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to brush a thick coat of Great Lakes issues on D.C. agendas.
“David and I spent little or no time at the conference itself, but used it as a gathering place to reach out to both agency people and elected officials,” says Heartwell, the current chair and director of the Cities Initiative.
They started at the top, meeting at the White House with David Agnew, President Barack Obama’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, and Great Lakes Czar Cameron Davis. The delegation urged the administration to maintain its sense of urgency to solve the problem of Asian carp’s imminent invasion. They advocated an expanded role for cities under the Great lakes Water Quality Agreement, and for sustaining funding for wastewater infrastructure.
The men had a similar discussion with EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe. Then they talked to Will Safroth, deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, about establishing the Great Lakes as a National Heritage Area. They talked more carp with another deputy assistant secretary, Jane Lyder, urging her department to enforce the Lacey Act to help prevent the carp’s spread into the lakes. They met with Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow and aides for Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk.
During these meetings, Ullrich tends to defer to the elected officials accompanying him.
“But at the same time he’s got the knowledge that so often somebody like me doesn’t have,” Heartwell says. “He’ll often let me as a mayor open the meeting and get us far enough down the road that he can pick it up and bring the technical knowledge to the table.
“He’s just brilliant at it, really … he does it masterfully.”
Ullrich testified during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the proposed Great Waters legislation, which would direct money to and improve programs for the Great Lakes. Then Heartwell and Ullrich met with commissioners from the International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, for which Ullrich serves as a commissioner. The two organizations had had surprisingly little contact with one another, Heartwell says, and the meeting produced a better understanding of how they could better coordinate their work.
This 72-hour blitz, which Ullrich called “extremely successful,” exemplifies how the cities initiative has grown in both stature and resources since Ullrich ran it alone for two years after it was founded in 2003 by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
“Seven years ago, it would have been close to impossible to get the kind of high-level meetings that we got,” Ullrich says. “It’s a reflection that over the last seven years we have shown that we mean business about protecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.”
The organization began with about a $125,000 annual operating budget, which has now reached about $500,000 – half comes from membership dues, and the other half from foundation grants. Ullrich now has two full-time staff members and an intern at his offices in Chicago, and two part-time workers in Canada. He’s hiring two more part-time workers in Quebec City and Montreal.
Coming from an 18,000-person bureaucracy at the EPA, and a 1,300-person regional office during his time from 1992 to 2003 as deputy regional administrator for the Great Lakes region, Ullrich enjoys the ability to work effectively and quickly with local governments who are so close to the resource.
“Mayors are very action- and results-oriented people,” he says “And it’s possible to do a lot more and in a much shorter timeframe working with cities.”
Ullrich’s energy is another reason why he and the organization have successfully shaped legislation such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Great Lakes Compact and many others, says Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission. The organization has passed several resolutions and calls for action reflecting members’ shared goals and positions on subjects including invasive species, industry pollution, combined-sewer overflow and weapons training on the Great Lakes.
“He’s constantly busy and working very hard. He seems to be at almost every meeting on the Great lakes that I attend,” Eder says.
Heartwell says Ullrich’s gig is a perfect fit.
“It’s a wonderful marriage of his deep knowledge base, his passion for the Great Lakes, and, quite honestly, of the force and power of local government that he can tap into,” he says.
Mayors love the strong, united voice the organization gives their cities during national debates on issues affecting Great Lakes water quality and quantity. After all, they’re the ones who ultimately have to implement policies, and deal with their effects. Local communities also contribute $15 billion annually for Great Lakes protection and restoration, according to a report by the Cities Initiative and the Great Lakes Commission.
The Cities Initiative allows these communities to at least balance the views coming from well-funded lobbyists on issues affecting shipping, recreation, withdrawal and the environment in the Great Lakes.
“A lot of times, lobbying groups or special interest groups have a very narrow view of whatever the issue is,” says Dave Ross, mayor of Superior, Wis. “We have to deal with all the issues of our economy – those who work in the industry as well as thinking about the environment. We look at these topics as how they affect a broad spectrum of our communities.”
Ullrich gets this.
“He gets the mayors’ perspective. He understands how mayors think,” Ross says. “He understands what mayors have to do to be effective in their local communities.”
From his office fewer than 200 miles from Ontario’s Thunder Bay, Ross says
the organization’s bi-national element is critical for Great Lakes success. About 10 percent of U.S. crude oil imports comes from Canada through Port Superior.
“We share these waters. We both share this ecosystem,” he says. “We’re both part of everything that goes in our economies.
Environmental, economic and social problems don’t respect political boundaries. So it’s helpful to have someone Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett calls a master of diplomacy to facilitate cooperation.
“I think in the past some of the tensions have come when there was not sufficient trust that existed between the leaders,” he says. “What [Ullrich] has done very, very effectively, I think, is to raise the trust level.
“A lot of people don’t know the work that he does, but it is incredibly important.”