By Trey Delida
The Henry Toll Fellowship, receiving its namesake from the founder of The Council of State Governments, has been an integral part of CSG outreach initiatives since 1986.
Annually gathering as many as 48 of the nation’s top officials from all three branches of state government, this five-day leadership boot camp strives to accelerate growth in each of their roles as leaders and public servants. To date, the Henry Toll Fellowship program has vetted more than 1,370 alumni that have gone on to illustrious careers in public policy and beyond.
Toll, a Denver native and Colorado senator from 1922-30, served in World War I and attended Harvard Law School before founding CSG in 1933. As CSG executive director, Toll applied his own innovative approach to public policy, forming a nonpartisan organization that has withstood 90 years while addressing a national need for states to cooperate in a way that advanced the common good without party affiliation.
The inaugural Henry Toll Fellowship class met under the leadership of then Executive Director Carl Stenberg. Stenberg recalled the inception of this program as an effort to convene legislators and state leaders, which is now a vibrant program spanning 37 years.
“The Toll program was actually a suggestion from Norman Sims, who directed the state’s information center, and his staff, and the executive committee really liked it. So, we made it happen,” Stenberg said. “But again, the program has survived for almost 40 years, and I felt very proud to see the class inducted and the sharing of memories of their experience and the like.”
Among that first class was South Carolina native Glen Browder, who, at the time, was a newly elected representative of Alabama’s 3rd District.
Browder is an alumnus of Presbyterian College and Emory University. After obtaining his degrees, he went on to serve as a political science professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. From there, his career pivoted to becoming president of Data Associates in Anniston, Alabama, before his ultimate move to politics.
The reason he started a career as a public servant was simple: he wanted to contribute to his state and country.
“I did not get into politics for any particular issue,” Browder said. “I got into it because I thought that I could contribute something worthwhile to how American democracy works.”
As a newcomer to politics, Browder was looking for opportunities to learn from others and advance his skill set. That is what led him to the Toll Fellowship program.
“I was fairly young and, of course, hoping to realize some progress in terms of my political career,” Browder said. “This [program] allowed me to not only connect with a lot of people throughout our country, but also to learn what was going on in other states. It looked like the kind of thing that I needed to do with my plans for what I wanted to contribute to American democracy.”
Nearly 37 years after graduating from the Toll Fellowship, Browder recalled how the experience provided him with guidance and connections to a political newbie.
“It provided me contacts with people throughout the rest of the country, knowledge about what was going on in the rest of the country, but also, it gave me the confidence that I could possibly do the things that I wanted to be done,” Browder said.
After graduating from the Toll Program, Browder went on to serve as Alabama’s secretary of state from 1987-89. He is known for his passage of the Alabama Fair Campaign Practices Act of 1988, which was designed to strengthen protections against corrupt campaign and election funding. To this day, it remains the basis of financial reporting law for campaigns in Alabama.
In 1991, Fran Ulmer, a member of the Alaska House of Representatives, was selected to join the Toll Fellowship program for its sixth class.
Ulmer started her career as a lawyer at the Legislative Affairs Agency in Juneau, Alaska. From there, she served as a legislative assistant to former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond. In 1977, Hammond appointed her as director of policy development and planning.
Looking to further her political endeavors as a state representative, Ulmer signed on to become a Henry Toll Fellow, an experience she said was a melting pot of career and life stories.
“It was a great opportunity to meet people who had some very similar career paths and some very, very different, and explore with them their experiences not only in getting to where they were but what they were doing at that time,” Ulmer said. “There was this cross-cultural mixing of both life stories and experiences in the field — that was everything from substantive legislation people were working on to strategies that they used in terms of how they got things done.”
Ulmer also said that, for her, there was tremendous value in the unscripted aspects of the program that went beyond programming.
“It was structured in a way that made it possible to have those kinds of informal conversations, which may have been some of the best parts,” Ulmer said. “Really, we were exposed, as I recall, to a lot of good presentations and group sessions, all of which was great, but it was that informal networking, and to a certain extent, the ability in some way — at least with a few people — to continue that relationship over time.”
Following her time at the Toll Fellowship, Ulmer’s political career took on many different forms.
She served as the seventh lieutenant governor of Alaska from 1994-2002, where she made history as the state’s first woman to be elected to statewide office. She was later named the chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2007 before she was appointed by former President Barack Obama to chair the U.S. Arctic Research Commission from 2011-20.
Ulmer now works as a senior fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School, which is a role that places her in a mentorship position to upcoming students seeking careers in public policy.
“There’s an old saying that ‘luck is when opportunity meets preparation.’ So, in that, there’s a bit of advice. Preparation means actually understanding the issues. It means understanding the job. It means taking time to do the homework,” Ulmer said. “The opportunity piece is being open to the doors that open to you that you can’t necessarily construct yourself. That means developing relationships with people so that they even think of you as somebody that they might call when an opportunity arises.”
Henry Toll Fellowship alumni live nationwide and hold positions across the political spectrum and beyond in state offices, elected positions, courthouses, commissions and much more. Yet, they all share a common thread: this prestigious, intensive leadership opportunity. What started from one senator who saw the immense importance of nonpartisan work has now grown to a family of nearly 1,400 individuals and counting who carry that legacy in how they serve.