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December 2, 2011
Position: Washington State Attorney General
Rob McKenna is serving his second term as Washington’s 17th Attorney General. As the state’s chief legal officer, he directs more than 500 attorneys and 700 professional staff providing legal services to the state agencies, the governor and Legislature.
McKenna received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1988, where he was a member of the Law Review. He earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and international studies, both with honors, from the University of Washington, where he was student body president and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He has been an attorney since 1988, beginning his career in the Bellevue office of Perkins Coie, where he practiced business and regulatory law.
Q: What is your vision for economic development in Washington state? How do we get there? A huge sore point for businesses are B&O taxes. Will they go away? How do we attract more businesses and create more jobs?
A: Washington must move off the top 10 list of most expensive states in America in which to operate a company, create jobs and employ people. This requires reforming workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance and reducing overly burdensome regulations and the B&O tax.
Regarding the B&O tax, we should centralize its collection at the state level so that businesses do not have to file multiple returns; simplify filing requirements wherever possible; and consider exempting a larger number of small employers for whom the cost of filing might exceed the amount of tax owed.
In the long run, keeping and attracting more successful businesses also requires addressing workforce skills shortages in our state, both in the skilled trades and in careers requiring undergraduate and advanced degrees. That means reforming and innovating in our public schools, which currently leave far too many students behind. It also means adequately funding both our K-12 and higher education systems which have suffered declines in their share of the state budget.
Q: In 2005, when you took the office of Attorney General, it was hinted that a higher office was in your future. Well, here we are, you’re running for governor, and we’re in one of the most dismal economies ever. What motivates you to take on this challenge?
A: The greatest need for leadership exists during the most challenging economic and political times. Our nation is remarkably resilient in part because, when times are tough, leaders step forward to help, leaders who are chosen by the people not for the people by others. We choose to govern ourselves, and always have.
In addition, in times of crisis, there are opportunities for change and innovation that might seem too difficult to achieve, politically or otherwise, when times are easier. Necessity often really is the mother of invention, in government as well as elsewhere.
Q: What do you see Washington state looking like in five years under your governorship?
A: By 2018, Washington will no longer have the nation’s fifth-highest unemployment rate and one of the nation’s highest business failure rates. Instead, we will see more start-ups growing into successful small companies. More of those companies will blossom into billion-dollar enterprises that spawn their own economic ecosystems that attract yet more entrepreneurs and innovators with their abundant human, financial and intellectual capital.
Our high-tech companies will lead the world in software and health care, and we will note particularly strong growth in the previously underperforming biotechnology sector. Our manufacturers will draw on an increasingly skilled work force that will help shrink income inequality via a growing, thriving middle class.
Professionals and skilled workers from around America will seek positions in Washington in order to access high-quality jobs for themselves and to access the nation’s finest public schools, colleges and universities for their families. Those families will enjoy a high quality of life in a state renowned for its beautiful natural environment that includes a restored and protected Puget Sound. They will take advantage of countless cultural riches, from world-class museums to performing arts companies, and thrive in diverse and inclusive communities.
Q: How do you define leadership? What qualities do you have that make you a good leader?
A: Effective leadership requires three character traits:
1) A strong desire to make one’s world a better place.
2) A clear vision for the organization, knowing the direction in which one is leading it, and what the ultimate objective is.
3) The commitment to regularly communicate that vision to the organization’s other leaders and members, as well as to the outside world.
As Attorney General, I am my office’s communicator-in-chief, both internally and in my outward-facing role. Most leaders overestimate the amount and effectiveness of their communications internally and externally, so I aim to over-communicate, in hopes of actually communicating just enough.
My leadership style is that of the servant leader. My job is to determine what my staff needs in order to do their jobs. In addition, I have established a workplace culture that empowers all staff, involving them in continuous quality improvement while emphasizing performance and high expectations and rewarding people for successful effort, not merely for seniority. We hold each other accountable for achieving our mission of providing quality legal services according to the highest standards of excellence, effectiveness and ethics.
Q: How do you motivate people?
A: By serving them, seeking and then implementing their best thinking on how to improve our office, and recognizing superior performance. We reward the best, and inspire the rest.
Q: Your daughter, Madeleine, followed in your footsteps as ASUW President. That must make you very proud.
A: Marilyn and I are very proud of Madeleine’s academic and leadership accomplishments at the University of Washington. She worked very hard to improve the lives and educational experiences of her fellow students, and continues to be a tireless and effective advocate on their behalf. She exemplifies the ideals of servant leadership. And although some say it was just a coincidence, during her presidency, the Huskies had their first winning season since she started at the UW and ultimately played in a bowl game.
Q: It’s been said you have “traditional values.” What are those traditional values?
A: I believe in the innate ability of every human to achieve her or his full potential if given a stable, loving family, a good education, a safe and supportive community, and the freedom to do their best work in a system that rewards hard work and excellence. I believe in the power of free enterprise, of entrepreneurship and innovation, to help unlock human potential and drive sustained economic growth that benefits all who are willing to study, to learn, and to persist.
I believe in a compassionate society that cares for children, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill and the addicted. I believe in government that supports these values, that serves and is accountable to its people, and that does not cost more, or grow faster, than the people can afford.
Q: On “Occupy Wall Street”: What do you think of this grassroots gone manic movement? Do you think this type of public outcry can affect public and private policy?
A: It remains to be seen how effective this movement proves to be and how long it can be sustained. It appears to be driven in significant part by younger people who are frustrated by diminished economic opportunities, crushing student loan debts, and the failures of the older generations to address these crises quickly or effectively enough.
Q: What one thing would surprise us about you?
A: I’m pretty good at karaoke. I learned how to sing it while living in Japan, where they take their karaoke very seriously.
Interview conducted by Barbara Travers