Public Service is ‘an Honor in and of Itself’
Michigan Rep. Phil Cavanagh won’t say that public service is in his blood—even though he comes from a long line of public servants, including his father, who served as mayor of Detroit from 1962 to 1970.
In fact, Cavanagh had no interest in serving in any office until he saw what two of his brothers did as members of the Wayne County Commission, which serves Detroit and 42 other communities in Michigan.
“I basically said, ‘I can do that,’ but it wasn’t necessarily a calling or anything else,” said Cavanagh, a 2013 CSG Toll Fellow. “It just seemed like a job.”
That attitude soon changed.
“Once I got in there, I realized I could make a difference,” said Cavanagh. “Elected officials, if they have their head pointed in the right direction, can make a real difference in people’s lives for the good. With good pragmatic decisions, you can help those less fortunate. You can increase the people’s quality of life.”
He’s been striving to do that for the past decade. He left the commission when he was elected to the state legislature, where he’s in the middle of his second two-year term.
He now is running for the office of the Wayne County executive, who leads the county commission. Cavanagh believes that, while Detroit is on a stronger financial footing, the county that surrounds it isn’t doing as well.
“As a state representative, I’m one in 100 in the House,” Cavanagh said. “I do believe strongly in my work and I’m honored to be there, but I believe I can make a bigger impact at the county level.
“We need to bring back a feeling of hope. People have lost confidence and they want to believe that their money isn’t just being stolen or wasted.”
He believes his experience on the commission and in the state legislature can help him restore that hope. His leadership style, he said, is one of listening and working across the aisle. Wayne County is heavily Democratic; only one Republican served on the county commission when Cavanagh served on it. The conflicts, he said, were typically city vs. suburban, black vs. white.
“I see both sides or try to come to a compromise,” Cavanagh said.
That helped him shape an image as a moderate and level headed and has helped him in the state legislature, which is dominated by Republicans.
“If I just spewed partisan politics, I wouldn’t get anywhere,” he said. “Everybody knew me as approachable and reasonable and, of course, I never had to deviate from my core values.”
The CSG Toll Fellowship program helped to reinforce Cavanagh’s leadership style. The program, which brings together leaders from across the country in all three branches of state government, begins with participants unaware of their classmates’ political party or role in government. They had to work together to accomplish the task at hand in whatever exercise they were participating.
“It taught you that a lot of times, … if you’re focused on the project, do it to accomplish it,” he said. “Put aside your partisanship.
“I met a great group of people who taught me that if you really strive on the objective and take the best from each person, you’re going to end up with a great work product and everybody feels vested,” he said.
Cavanagh is a native of Detroit, but he moved to California after graduating from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1983. While most expected him to attend law school—his uncle will be the longest-serving state Supreme Court justice when he retires and another brother is a circuit court judge—Cavanagh had no interest at the time.
A high school buddy bought a small vacuum store and asked Cavanagh to come out to help him expand his business. He was in San Diego at 25-years-old and thought it was a great place to be. But when he and then-wife Lily had twin daughters, Veronica and Erin, then another daughter, Mary, 10 months later, Cavanagh thought things needed to change.
So he moved his young family back to Michigan and did what he had been expected to do after college—he attended the University of Detroit Mercy where he earned a law degree and master’s in business administration in 1998.
Then he gravitated to public service, where he learned how important it is to serve the people.
“I didn’t get into it just because my father was mayor,” Cavanagh said. “But I guess it is in the blood because once I got in there, it’s my catalyst, stimulus to go to work every day, (the thought) that I can make a difference.”
That would be his advice to anyone looking into public service.
“Run for the right reasons,” he said. “Public service is an honor in and of itself. It shouldn’t be a career because we’re vested and entrusted by the public for a duration of time, so make the best of the time, but never lose focus as to why you’re there.”