CNCounty News

‘Keeping us together’ informed McGuire’s year as NACo president

NACo President Mary Jo McGuire of Ramsey County, Minn. at the 2023 Annual Conference. Photo by Denny Henry

Key Takeaways

Each year, County News interviews the outgoing NACo president to review their year in office leading the association. Ramsey County, Minn. Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire was sworn in July 24, 2023 as NACo president at the NACo Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas. She will become the immediate past president of the organization after the Annual Business Meeting July 15 at the 2024 Annual Conference in Hillsborough County, Fla.


Q: You grew up as one of six siblings, and you’ve spoken about how at dinner every night, a timer was brought out and everyone had three minutes to talk about their day. How did that lesson of “everyone has a voice” translate into your time representing NACo, an organization with 40,000 members?

A: We really try to get everyone’s voices.  I’m always trying to be available to talk to people and meet as many people as I can — not just those that come up to me, but to really be present to those that may not always feel that they have the forum to speak, because we want to hear from everybody. One of the lessons of the timer is everyone has a voice, every voice matters and I think one of the most important lessons is just to listen to people. These state associations are really crucial, because lots of people belong to their state associations, and maybe don’t always come to NACo, and the state associations are where they can really have a voice, so by attending as many as I could, I was really trying to hear those voices.


Q: Your spotlight was “ForwardTogether: Connect, Inspire, Lead.” How did you land on that and how did counties best embody it during your NACo presidency?

A: I knew I wanted to work on bridging divides and keeping us together, and one of my biggest things is about connecting. Unfortunately, we have a lot of divisions in this country, and I [said], ‘Let’s find ways to work together and keep us moving forward together,’ so it was, I think, a reflection of what we all see is happening in our country and in our own counties and states. We want to do the good work together, because NACo has such amazing connections already, and we wanted to enhance those and then build on more relationship-building and connecting.


Q: Of the many trips you’ve taken representing NACo across the country, which was the most memorable or made you feel proud to be serving America’s counties?

A: There’s no way that I could pick one state or one area, because it was all memorable, and I’m proud every time I’m at a NACo meeting, whether it’s virtual or in-person, whether it’s statewide or a focus group. I am so proud to be a county commissioner and to be a member of NACo and so proud to carry a NACo message. It gives me hope — I think that’s the biggest thing, that I find a hope in America and in the work that we do, because of all of us. I’m in contact at all of these meetings with people who maybe feel differently about issues, but they try to find ways to work together, and we don’t let our divisions get in the way. We try to find ways to move forward, to work together, and I saw that in every meeting, every state association, every group that I would talk to, and I am just so inspired by my colleagues around the country with the work that they’re doing and the work that we can do together.


Q: When you first stepped into the NACo presidency, you made it a goal to engage all residents, including those who are most difficult to reach. In what ways do you feel like that was accomplished?

A: I made it the spotlight for what NACo does, so it’s not just me doing this. It’s what I want to have present in all of the work that we do — in every committee that we run, every task force, every initiative and every issue that we work on. I want to make sure that we’re reaching out, that we’re not always bringing the same people in, that we’re looking around to find people that may not be trying to find us, but we find them and ask them to be a part of this. 


Q: What was the most challenging aspect of being NACo president?

A: Not having as much time as you’d like, and just having so many opportunities to be at different places that are at the same time. Having conflicts and scheduling and not being able to do it all is really hard, and it’s just trying to do the best job that you can, with limited time. You want to make a difference and you want the organization to be better, and you’re just working all the time at doing that, so it’s those expectations that you have on yourself to do that that’re challenging. 


Q: What NACo achievements over the past year are you most excited about?

A: I brought Convergence in, which is our partner in collaborative problem-solving. They produced a toolkit that will help all of us in each of our communities, our boards and our states to really try to problem-solve together. I say this about my county, and I say this about NACo — we’re a great organization, not because we do everything perfectly, but because we’re always striving to be better at what we do. And I think Convergence can help us to be better. And NACo has just done such great work in bringing groups together. We’ve done so much in our advocacy, in our growth, in our intergovernmental partnerships and with other partners — private, public, civic — and I’m excited that we’ve expanded so much with our civic education. 


Q: What advice did you find helpful and what would you recommend to a NACo president?

A: My colleagues and my former presidents are just so amazing. I learned so much from them. And they did say, ‘Enjoy it. Appreciate it, and take advantage of every moment that you can, because it’s going to go really fast.’ And it did. It’s going super-fast. They said to keep a journal, and I have a video journal in my camera. They said, ‘Keep track of all the amazing things that you’ll get to do, and amazing people you’ll meet,’ so I would recommend that to the next president – to just appreciate and be grateful for the opportunity. Have patience with yourself, because you’re going to want to do a lot, and you’re an elected official back home, so you have to balance that as best as you can. Take advantage of as many opportunities as you can, do the best work you can, and then give yourself grace.

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