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'All the way' is the only approach Mary Jo McGuire knows


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Charlie Ban

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Mary Jo McGuire doesn’t just watch the snow fall in Minnesota. She’s waxing her cross-country skis, eager to get out there. If there’s a bike ride, her helmet is on. She brings the water when it’s time to hike in the desert.

That attitude — to make the most of her opportunities — has driven her throughout her life. When she found her home as a Ramsey County, Minn. commissioner, she didn’t want to waste the chance.

“When I’m involved in an organization, I care about what happens with it and I like to be a part of the decision-making,” she said. “When I joined student government in college, I wanted to be making decisions and making an impact, and I feel the same way about NACo.”

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Forward Together - Mary Jo McGuire's theme

If McGuire learned anything as one of six children growing up in St. Paul, it’s that everyone has a voice, no matter how small. When it was her time to talk during family dinners, she had her points to get across. She was involved in student government while at St. Catherine’s University and carried that ethos into the Minnesota House after law school at Hamline University in St. Paul.

McGuire represented part of St. Paul for 14 years, during which she earned a masters in public administration from Harvard University, before declining to run against a friend after redistricting. She decamped for a stint in civic education then spent two years in the state Senate before again being redistricted. It was in talking to Colleen Landkamer, who she knew primarily as a fellow Minnesotan and Blue Earth County commissioner (and past NACo president), that she started to find her way forward.

“We talked and I told her she would make more of a difference as a county commissioner than she ever could in the Legislature,” Landkamer said. “She had the temperament and the toolbox of skills that was better suited for the kind of job that had her in contact with people all the time.”

Landkamer was at the time of the conversation, and is once again, Minnesota’s USDA Rural Development state director. McGuire won that seat on the Ramsey County Board in 2012.

“She’s not only smart, bright and verbal, but she loves people and loves engaging with them,” Landkamer said. “She should be out with more direct contact among her constituents and the county commission was the place that was best for her.”

That is not to say her talents were wasted in the state house. Scott County Commissioner Barb Weckman Brekke took notice of her state representative when Brekke was at the University of Minnesota and was excited to have a woman leading her district. They later bonded over, what else? Cross-country skiing, and Brekke found a philosophical kindred spirit.

Same with Trista MatasCastillo, once a constituent and now a colleague on the Ramsey County Board.

“What stands out about her is her absolute dedication and her willingness to listen to other people and really make conscious decisions,” MatasCastillo said. “She’s not quick to react. She’s very thoughtful, she listens to all sides and is truly a representative of nonpartisan leadership and really good policymaking.”

After 10 years of honing her skills on the county Board, McGuire is ready to represent counties across America, and she feels like that experience will ensure she isn’t over her skis.

The nature of county government, where the problems can’t be passed off to someone else, inspires creative action.

“I love that we don’t divide on party and nonpartisan levels,” she said. “We really are united in the work that we do. When we to go to Congress and our state legislatures and say, ‘Here’s what we need, here’s how we need to be able to do our work,’ that voice carries. Whether it’s ‘We need more resources’ or ‘We need flexibility,” it’s all tied to ‘We need mental health care,’ ‘We need transportation funding.’ We need this help and we’re unified on it. That’s what makes it exciting.”

 Chief among her goals is making sure counties are using what’s available to them, in terms of resources, knowledge and their voice.

“I want to continue to learn what people want from their association, how can we best help them with their work? How can we best educate our policymakers and our partners? How do we best elevate our intergovernmental partnerships?” she said.

While NACo maintains an all-time membership high, McGuire sees the potential not to just build on those numbers, but to bring in new perspectives.

“When I go to a state association conference, I’m going to ask to meet with all the counties that aren’t NACo members,” she said. “There are so many small counties that might not be able to pay for their members to come to our conferences, so I want them to still see our value. They can still be involved in our remote meetings, they can benefit from our resources and all the reports that we publish.”

McGuire plans to adapt her leadership approach to the national level.

“I just listen to people without any preconceived notions and figure out how we can move forward together,” she said. “I think one of my biggest challenges will be holding us all together, because people are going to, you know, follow the divisions of their politics,” and as counties move farther away from challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, they may forget what brought them together to persevere.”

That’s how Todd Patzer, a Lac qui Parle County, Minn. commissioner, sees her leading NACo.

“She’s concerned about all aspects of the community, all the people of the community, doesn’t matter if they voted for her, she cares about them, and that’s the county way,” he said. “She is a high-energy person; she’s got a motor that never quits. She loves everyone and everything and it’s a great way to go through life.”

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