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On the Ballot

The best candidate for political office just might be an engineer


BY DEE ANNE FINKEN, SWE CONTRIBUTOR

Bob Walkup, mayor of Tucson, illustrates that his approach


to the job isnt strictly ceremonial.

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SWE WINTER 2007

ost politicians know the routine


when it comes to duty at a
groundbreaking ceremony.
Initiating construction of a new
freeway, wastewater treatment
plant or a shopping center, most will grab a
shovel, toss a few ceremonial clumps of dirt and
smile broadly for the cameras but not Bob
Walkup. In Tucson, Arizona, the former industrial engineer, who is now mayor, takes a different approach. Kicking up some dust, Walkup
strides to the nearest bulldozer or backhoe,
climbs into the cab and grabs the wheel.
I am a political leader who understands how
to do things, he explained.
This job is more than just cutting ribbons:
It is about planning, organizing, leading and
controlling, the four elements of engineering
management.
At the local, regional, state and national levels, elected officials face tasks and responsibilities that are wide-ranging and complex, and far
beyond the ceremonial. Many of the issues
before them have serious implications for the
economy, education, justice, the environment,
and the health and well-being of their
constituents.
It would seem, then, the perfect assignment for
an intelligent, curious and ambitious professional
with substantial training, namely an engineer.
After all, engineers and elected officials are
problem solvers, or at least they should be.
But a look at nearly any community in the
United States indicates that there are not many
engineers in public office.
It is the same story at the national level. Only
six of the 535-member 109th Congress that ends
its term in January 2007 identify themselves as
engineers, according to Congressional Quarterly,
the news agency that reports on the federal government. In 217 years, out of 43 presidents, only
two engineers Herbert Hoover and Jimmy
Carter have led the United States. Thomas
Jefferson was a surveyor and is regularly identified with the profession, too.
Consider the overlapping responsibilities of
elected official and engineer: Both should be
able to balance conflicting demands and pressures while maintaining their integrity to

their clients or constituents, to themselves and


to their professions.
They should have the analytical skills to
thoughtfully solve problems. They should be
able to oversee people and projects, consider
timelines and meet deadlines, analyze and synthesize information and data, and plan and prepare so that there are no unintended
consequences.
They also should be able to resolve differences, allocate resources efficiently, and understand how people and machines work or
dont work. Finally, they need to be able to contend with aesthetic factors, although, at other
times, coming in under budget and deadline
might be more important.
Engineers do lend a perspective and experience that is solely missing in local, community,
state and federal office, observes Maria
Lehman, a civil engineer and chief operating office for the
Chazen Companies, an
engineering firm with
four offices in the state
of New York.
Engineers really do
need to get more politically involved, added
Lehman, who also
Civil engineer Maria Lehman serves as a trustee on
is a school board member in the Orchard Park
western New York state.
Central School District,
Engineers are trained to look
not far from the eastern
at all sides of an issue,
shores of Lake Erie.
Lehman said.

communications, highways, aviation, rail, shipping, transportation security, the U.S. Merchant
Marines, the Coast Guard, oceans, fisheries, climate change, disasters, science, space, interstate
commerce, tourism, consumer issues, economic
development, technology, competitiveness,
product safety, and insurance. Its of great
value to be able to discuss the technical aspects
of these issues without getting lost, he said.
Such expertise is particularly crucial as technology in communications, electronics, defense, transportation, and medicine explodes
all around.
This latter point raises an important consideration: Advances and developments in other
parts of the world, particularly China and India,
are eroding the United States prominence in
science and engineering. Both countries are
graduating impressive numbers of scientists
and engineers, surpassing rates in the United
States, and both are viewed as an expanding
source of new ideas and innovations.
Is it only coincidence then, as Spectrum, the
magazine of the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers, asked in June 2005;
namely, that all nine members of Chinas ruling
body, the Politburo, were trained as engineers?
Although few would necessarily care to emulate the Chinese system, Chinas political reliance on engineers does prompt some thought.
Could other countries experience the kind of
technology explosion China has without such
regard for science and engineering?
Spectrum went on to ask: Can the United
States make a similar claim about its political
leadership?

A senators perspective and beyond

Engineering a better community

John Sununu, the junior U.S. Senator from


New Hampshire, believes that often the best
candidate for public office is an engineer. A
graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, with bachelors and masters degrees in mechanical engineering, Sununu is the
only engineer in the U.S. Senate.
Regardless of the specific discipline, engineers
are taught to take a problem, break it into parts
and develop a solution without unintended consequences, he said during a recent interview.
Such training is a valuable, if not essential
approach for dealing with public policy matters.
Too often, people craft a regulation or take a
legislative approach to a problem, without
thinking through the intended results.
Beyond that, Sununu said engineers bring to
elective office a valuable understanding of and
appreciation for significant topics in changing
times. We cant get away from the fact that
more and more of what we are dealing with has
a technological component to it.
As a member of the Senates Commerce,
Science and Transportation committee, Sununu
himself addresses a wide range of issues involving engineering and engineering principles:

Kennesaw, Georgia is a long way from


Shanghai or Beijing, but the Atlanta suburb is
one place in the United States where an engineer has made her political mark.
Cindy Giles, the only engineer on the Kennesaw
City Council, was elected in November 2005.
Giles emphasized her experience and training
during her campaign. Her posters and flyers
urged voters to: Engineer a better Kennesaw,
a reference that took note both of her occupation
and the areas historical association with trains,
stemming from a famous locomotive chase during the Civil War.
Giles promised, if elected, she would work to
solve Kennesaws transportation problems, preserve its green spaces and manage its growth
for future generations.
Voters liked her message, and the Georgia
Institute of Technology graduate handily defeated her opponents, two self-employed businessmen. Everybody knew me as the engineer.
It was tremendous how the public embraced it.
Not surprisingly, it was Giles background as
an engineer that nudged her into public office.
Twenty years ago, Kennesaws population
barely topped 3,500; today, 28,000 call

Senator John Sununu

Engineers
do lend a
perspective
and experience that is
solely
missing
in local,
community,
state and
federal
office.
- Maria
Lehman,
civil engineer and
school
board
member

SWE WINTER 2007

35

In her campaign
materials, Cindy Giles,
of Kennesaw, Georgia,
highlighted her training
as an engineer. She is
shown with her husband, Andres, son,
Pierce.

Kennesaw home. The sprawl, Giles said, is


like that in Los Angeles. Its complete sprawl
and most residents commute an hour to downtown Atlanta.
Concerned about growth, Giles first got involved on a task force writing a master plan for
the citys downtown. I just wanted to see if I
could help the city out. The next year, in 2002,
she was appointed to the planning commission,
where she served for two years as vice chair.
However, that wasnt enough. I just didnt
feel like I was able to get enough
done. I saw we had a lot
of opportunities for positive growth, because
things that were going on
just didnt make sense.
There wasnt enough
thought about what was
going on.
In one instance, Giles
noted, Kennesaw city officials
had approved a 2,000-home
subdivision with only a single,
two-lane access road. There
was no stoplight and no way to get out. Of
course, an engineers logic tells me that you
have to have better access.
Since taking office in January 2006, Giles said
she has helped bring about positive change, as
well as educate constituents and fellow councilors about engineering and planning. She
takes particular pride in helping bring a 15-acre,
mixed-use residential and retail project to
Kennesaw, an effort that will result in the
restoration of a polluted stream.
I feel like having someone on the council
who understands development has been instrumental in this, the first of its kind, coming here.

On the other side of Atlanta

Twenty minutes northeast of Atlanta, a similar frustration spurred civil engineer Marsha
Anderson Bomar to seek public office. Owner of
Street Smarts, a transportation planning and engineering firm in the suburb of Duluth,
Anderson Bomar had encountered difficulties
of her own when she sought to move her business to a larger site.
That concerned me. If I was having such difficulty, Anderson Bomar said, what about
other people?
The primary problem she identified was a
poor structure for the citys development procedures and processes. With my engineering
background and focus on process, I felt I had
something to offer.
During her campaign, Anderson Bomar
stressed her organizational skills. It wasnt the
specifics of what I do on a day-to-day basis, but
the organization, the methodology and the
ways in which we are trained to think, systematically, as engineers.
She also emphasized her success as a business
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SWE WINTER 2007

owner. Although cities cant be run like a private business, there are lessons that can be
learned in terms of productivity, which can be
applied to city operations.
Since taking office in January 2006, Anderson
Bomar said she has become the unofficial go-to
person on technical matters for council members and others. Not long ago, for instance,
she attended a meeting called by a state representative to discuss city engineering issues. City
staff members and representatives from several
engineering firms attended, but she was the
only councilor invited. I dont think it was necessarily that they thought I am more capable,
but I do think they believe I am more knowledgeable about transportation processes and
how to get things done.
For Anderson Bomar, there are positives and
negatives about being both an engineer and
elected official. For one, there is a little bit of a
mixed appreciation for and tension with city
staff. For instance, she said staff cannot falsely
lay blame on another agency or organization
when something goes wrong. They know I
have been involved in development and transportation projects just like this.

Marsha Anderson Bomar, recipient of SWEs 2005


Entrepreneur of the Year award, is the founder of Street
Smarts, a transportation planning and engineering consulting
firm. Concerned about the handling of development issues in
her community, Anderson Bomar sought election to the city
council in Duluth, Georgia. She took office in January 2006.

On the other hand, her expertise does pave


the way for more meaningful communication
with staff, as well as the occasional good-natured bantering between professionals.

The politics of it all

In western New York state, civil engineer and


C.O.O. Lehman said her training as a civil engineer has served her well as a trustee for the
Orchard Park Central School District. You
learn to look at all sides of an issue, to look at all
of the facts, she said.
As much as an engineer brings to the post, the
nature of an elected office can present problems:
The issue, she said, is politics, specifically the
drive to return to office.
Public officials often enjoy a grace period or a

Politics can
be very
frustrating for
people that
have logical
minds...You
have to be
concerned
with the
politics of an
issue, in
addition to
looking at the
science of it.
-Jacqui Irwin,
engineer and
city council
member

38

honeymoon with constituents when first elected, Lehman noted. Most newly elected officials
find the public agreeable with most of their decisions, or at least willing to try them. After few
years, though, that can change, particularly if
the engineer/elected official has to make tough,
unpopular decisions, she said.
If the engineer knows an agencys budget needs
an infusion of tax money to take care of streets and
roads, will voters stomach another levy?
Still, the pluses of the job are numerous,
Lehman said. Among her many decisions and actions as a trustee, Lehman said she has helped
make schools more energy efficient and has
helped to expand and modernize facilities. She
also helped insure that business matters, including
contracting and work rules, are conducted professionally. Given that her actions have an impact on
tomorrows leaders, Lehman said she has been
able to push for greater emphasis on math and science in the schools. An engineering background
gives you a unique perspective on that.
Engineering, preparation for any occupation,
even politics

Starting out in college, Jacqui Irwin couldnt


decide what to study.
My dad said, Why dont you just go into
engineering? He said it would prepare me for
anything I might want to do.
Her father had a good point. After graduating
from the University of California San Diego,
Irwin went to work first in the applied physics
lab at Johns Hopkins University and then as a
systems engineer for Teledyne. Having left engineering after the birth of her second child, Irwin
is now a city council member in Thousand Oaks,
an upscale community of 126,000, less than an
hour northwest of Los Angeles and a few minutes from the Pacific Ocean.
Irwin, too, credits her training as an engineer
for her entre into politics, specifically her ability to organize and get things done. A few years
ago, as president of the area youth football organization, her efforts caught the eye of a member
of the city council who appointed her to the
citys planning commission. It never would
have been something I myself would have said
I was going to do.
What Irwin did was garner enormous support for an athletic facility for youngsters to replace the old, unsafe playing grounds. I
organized parents, kids and coaches to speak
to the city council about the benefits of a partnership between the school district, the park
district and the city. The councilmember who
took note of Irwins work explained, Were always looking for the next generation to step
forward.
Irwin feels good about her contributions and
enjoys her role. She also thinks she will seek reelection. Still, she said, Politics can be very
frustrating for people who have logical minds.
Sometimes, even when all the evidence points

SWE WINTER 2007

to an obvious outcome, political sensitivities require a different approach or solution, she said.
You have to be concerned with the politics of an
issue, in addition to looking at the science of it.
Planning for Y2K

In 1996, a few years before widespread concern


over what havoc the so-called Millennium Bug
might cause, Wanda Munn was talking to colleagues on the Richland city council about
preparing the citys computer systems for the
21st century. I was the first person on our council who really paid any attention to what might
go on when 2000 rolled around, said Munn.
As in most parts of the world, the transition into
the new millennium resulted in few, if any, real
problems in southeastern Washington, where
Munn served on the council from 1996-2000.
Looking back, Munn considers that skill
anticipating and then taking measures to prevent or avoid problems was one of her primary strengths as an elected official.
Munn had just turned 65 when she ran for
council in Richland, the nearest city to the
Hanford Nuclear Site. She
had retired after 20 years as
a nuclear engineer at
Westinghouse, the worlds
most advanced research and
development reactor, where
her responsibilities as a plant
engineer included overseeing sodium and gas systems.
Im convinced that most
in the general population
dont know how things
After retiring from
work, Munn said during a
Westinghouse Electric recent interview.
Co. at the Hanford
And because we choose
Nuclear Site, nuclear
engineer Wanda Munn our leaders from the general
population, we have a magserved for four years
on the city council in
nitude of problems.
nearby Richland,
Thats one reason Munn
Wash., beginning in
would like to see more engi1996. Munn was the
neers, particularly women
first member of the
council to address the engineers, run for office.
issue of computer
Engineers have the logic
preparedness related
and
the ability to underto Y2K.
stand how things work.
Engineers have a bad rap about being unable to
communicate well. With women engineers,
some are shy, but I take the position that
women are natural communicators.
Connecting with constituents

The ability to communicate and connect is an


important consideration. Senator Sununu, for
one, observed, Engineers are blessed with a
great set of skills for making public policy,
and although there are always exceptions,
they also tend not to have the skills needed to
get elected.Lawyers, on the other hand, he
said, tend to have great rhetorical skills and the
skills necessary to persuade voters.

The latest changes in the way engineers are


trained should poke holes in the notion that engineers tend to be poor communicators.
New criteria set by the accreditation agency
ABET, Inc., requires engineering schools across
the country to demonstrate that their students are
learning to both communicate and work cooperatively, explained Patricia Daniels, Ph.D., associate dean of science and engineering at Seattle
University.
That should make some difference for engineers who dont feel confident as communicators, she said.
Still, Dr. Daniels said she isnt convinced engineers inherently are poor communicators.
I think the stereotype of engineers not being
good communicators has more to do with interest, she said.
Sometimes, someone becomes an engineer
because they may be more interested in working
on a process or a product, than talking about
what they are doing.
Patricia Daniels, Ph.D.,
associate dean of
science and
engineering at
Seattle University.

40

Seeing the light

Whether the sea change that washed over the


nation with the November 2006 elections will
also extend to a wave of engineers seeking political office in the next few years remains to be
seen. There are signals that such a scenario is
not out of the question.

SWE WINTER 2007

Across the country, the public is becoming


aware that the United States needs to train
more engineers and scientists. In response to
Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the
National Academies report detailing the
deficit, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators
crafted legislation calling for stepped-up
investment in research and education in
science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The National Competitiveness Act
also calls for investment in an infrastructure
for innovation.
In Louisiana, last fall, voters gave some
indication that they understand the value of engineers having a greater role in public business.
In the wake of the death and destruction caused
by failed levees during Hurricane Katrina,
voters overwhelmingly approved a measure
that consolidated a chaotic collection of levee
boards, and required appointees with engineering or hydrology expertise to oversee the flood
protection authorities.
Perhaps, that all means there is growing
recognition of the fact that in many instances,
the best candidate for public office just might be
an engineer.