Friday Five: The circus ringleader

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David Naftzger with a salmon caught in Frankfort, Mich.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a five-part Friday series highlighting behind-the-scenes players who shape Great Lakes policy. Previously profiled: Joy Mulinex, David Ullrich and Derek Stack

After spending a good part of a decade negotiating an interstate agreement to regulate water withdrawal from the Great Lakes, regional leaders in late 2007 were worried.

Environmental and conservation organizations met in Chicago to figure out how to persuade the region’s state legislatures to pass resolutions to implement the Great Lakes Compact. Illinois and Minnesota had already approved it; six other states had not. There were crucial sticking points, and progress in some states was stalled.

“There was a great deal of alarm and there was also kind of the beginning of some pessimism that we were going to get this done,” says Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Natural Resource Center.

But then Dave Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, spoke. He had already convinced the eight Great Lakes governors and the premiers of Quebec and Ontario to sign an agreement to enact the compact, should it become law. And he had worked hard behind the scenes to get the resolution on state legislature agendas, educate lawmakers and gain support, Buchsbaum says.

“Getting something done in one state legislature can occupy one’s career for years, or for a lifetime,” Naftzger says. “We had to do it in eight states.”

But Naftzger was upbeat and said that he was very confident the states would pass the compact.

It wasn’t exactly a ‘win one for the Gipper’ speech. But Naftzger isn’t a rah-rah kind of guy.

“He’s not somebody whose role it is to rally the troops,” Buchsbaum says. “It’s his role to be cautious and to not overpromise. And because it was Dave saying this … it kind of heartened everyone and really encouraged us to go out there and to keep battling away, and that’s what we did.

“It was kind of a pivot point.”

By early July 2008, all eight states had approved the compact. The bill became law that December.

“[The council] played a huge role in herding all the cats’ – states, NGOs, industry, science – expertise to actually move the compact through Congress,” says Russ Van Herik, executive director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

Buchsbaum calls the compact “a real crucible.”

“And what was remarkable about Dave was that he was always this quiet consensus builder,” he says. “You had all these big personalities in the room. And Dave wouldn’t have the loudest voice. And he wouldn’t be the one who was talking all the time. But he was the one who was making sure things were being done.”

Naftzger’s quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership is crucial to finding consensus between eight governors and two premiers – each with his or her own political party and reelection pressures and who are influenced by different geographies, stakeholders and staffs.

“It’s just persistent, intelligent, careful coalition building,” Van Herik says.

Crossing those boundaries requires a careful ear and colleagues say that Naftzger has it.

“He understands the workings of government, the workings of Congress and the incredible diversity of people and institutions that constitute the Great Lakes human ecosystem,” Van Herik says.

Not everyone is convinced of the council’s significance.

David Naftzer speaking at a 2005 press conference about the Great Lakes Compact with Ohio Gov. Robert Taft, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

“Frankly, the council is more about flags and bagpipes than it is about substantive policy,” says Dennis Schornack, who worked with the group while serving on Michigan Gov. John Engler’s staff from 1991 to 2002. “When the governors get together and meet, they make sure that they’ve got an agenda that’s positive and might generate some press. But generally speaking, they’re not earth-shattering policies.”

Naftzger responds that creating visibility on issues governors care about is significant.

“That’s an important part of being a leader,” he says. “And that’s setting the agenda for what policy issues are going to get covered and which ones people are going to be focused on trying to work on. The council provides a platform to do that and also has the capacity to do follow through.”

The council operates on about a $2.5 million annual budget. Member states pay $30,000 in dues, which haven’t increased since 1998. Naftzger has worked for the group since 2002. He became director in 2003.

The organization prides itself on leveraging the state dues with grants and private funding for policy and advocacy. It manages six foreign trade offices promoting state exports, and the Great Lakes of North America, an organization that promotes international tourism.

Next week, Naftzger travels to Brussels to meet with water policy and economic development officials as part of a European Union Visitors Program. The EU hosts about 15 Americans each year for its policy-focused program. Naftzger hopes to learn how the framework the organization uses to manage major river basins could apply in the Great Lakes.

Naftzer is also executive director of the Governors’ Compact Council, the legal authority charged with the compact’s implementation. The council gets its first real test soon when Waukesha, Wisc., applies for permission to tap Lake Michigan. Representatives of the eight member states would have to vote unanimously to allow the diversion.

Dave Dempsey, a Great Lakes environmentalist and author, says the Waukesha issue will demonstrate if the compact is effective. Other municipalities and the environmental community will watch closely for the next six to nine months to see how it shakes out.

“The decisions and precedents that are set in the early years of the compact … are creating the pattern for decades,” Dempsey says.

The Waukesha issue requires intricate political skills on Naftzger’s part. He has to ensure the compact is implemented with credibility, while keeping the council members working together.

“It’s a very fine line,” Dempsey says. “He’s going to have to walk a tightrope to get it done.”

But as witnessed by his performance in Chicago in 2007, Naftzger is comfortable as ringleader of a political circus act.

“He’s got a unique ability to spot opportunity, and equally important, to spot things that are not ripe and know when you’re speaking for the governors, when you’re speaking to the governors and when you’re not speaking at all,” says Van Herik.

“He’s good at that.”

2 thoughts on “Friday Five: The circus ringleader

  1. I am so proud of my nephew’s tact and fitness in handling people of all different opinions. He is a chip off the old block as his dad/my brother had the same abilities as a trust officer getting people of one mind. Way to go Dave!! Uncle Wally

  2. Kudos to the Echo for spotlighting the folks behind the scenes.

    My take is that, related to the Compact, Naftzger did a great job at delivering what the governors wanted. That is, something that could be passed, which means it didn’t take on the hard issues.

    Pipelines to Las Vegas and tankers to Asia were never likely to happen. The real threat to the Great Lakes comes from within, and that is yet to play out.

    And if credit is going to be given to Naftzger for guiding the Compact through the administrative process, responsibility for the bottled water and the “straddling county” (Waukesha) loopholes must be accepted too.

    Naftzer had a tough job and he deserves credit for meeting the expectations of his bosses, the governors.

    Looking forward to the series finale next week.

    Maybe someone less associated with the mainstream who has been an impact player.


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