Empathic Leadership: An Interview With Supervisor Robert Brownell

Empathic Leadership: An Interview With Robert Brownell

MORE ABOUT Robert Brownell

Robert Brownell was re-elected in 2016 and is currently serving his fifth term.  Supervisor Brownell serves the citizens of Clive, Johnston, Urbandale, Windsor Heights, Grimes, Polk City, Alleman, Elkhart and a portion of Sheldahl that is part of Polk County. Brownell’s experience in government began as a City Council-member in Clive, elected in 1985.  He was elected as Mayor in 1993 where he served until his election to the Polk County Board of Supervisors in 2000.

Brownell was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  He attended Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri, and graduated from Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.  He obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa cum laude in English and Education.  He has attended Drake University for post graduate work.  Brownell served as Branch Manager for Yellow Transportation in Des Moines for 15 years.  Prior to Yellow Transportation, he held several management positions with Roadway Express across the midwest.  Bob is also a published author.  He is currently working with Carve Literary Services.  Brownell is married to Jenna Jurgensen and has a son, daughter-in-law and one granddaughter, Carmen and one grandson, Oscar.


Jeff Bullock: So we’re here today with Robert Brownell, who is a country supervisor in Polk County and has involved in a lot of interesting leadership work in his life of public service. And so Robert, we’re happy that you’re here with us. We thank you for being with us. This is a blog for the University of Dubuque, title, Leadership Matters for a Changing World.

Robert Brownell: Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Jeff Bullock: And we’re happy to have you with us and so tell me about… how do you, how did you become a county supervisor? How does that happen? There’s a story there.

Robert Brownell: Well, I was a… I’m one of these guys that kind of took it up by the ranks. And first, I was elected as a city council member in one of the suburbs. And after six, seven years, I ran for mayor of that city and won. And then, after six to seven years there, the position came open for county supervisor.

In Polk County, that’s a pretty much, pretty large plate. We had a lot much larger set of issues to deal with because it’s Polk County than I did in the city. City’s responsibilities is different from county’s responsibilities too, obviously. But being in Polk County, in almost 600,000, 500,000 people in Polk County, 600 in the metro, we have a lot of the same issues that any metro has. And those were the kind of things I was interested in taking on, so I ran for county supervisor and won.

We run in districts here. We have five of us. East district’s about a hundred thousand people. And the one the district I’m in is one that is exclusively suburban. I don’t have any Des Moines in my district at all, I used to. But after redistricting, I lost all that, so I just have suburban cities in my district now.

Jeff Bullock: Okay. So where did that sense of, you got a long history of public service, mayor and city council, and now, supervisor. Where did that come from? How did you get interested in that?

Robert Brownell: It’s kind of a long story but I’ll condense it for you. I, when I, I went to a military school in High School and got paroled basically, and went back to Cedar Rapids Public Schools. The Cedar Rapids Public Schools, they were, the book at the school I went to at least is very interested in politics. And this was you know, a long time ago but I really felt the excitement of trying to make a difference. And you know, trying to rally people around the cause, having the vision that you could articulate and keep your eye on it. And I think those are some of the elements in leadership that we see and we can easily identify is a person who has you know a level of confidence, self confidence even and has a vision and can articulate it and get people to understand what the vision is and why it’s a good thing. Some visions are good for the individuals, some are for the greater good.

And I think real leadership, and the kind that I liked anyway, was more for the greater good. And so I got me interested in it. And I was involved in politics for quite a while, I mean, just as kind of a person who volunteered on campaigns. I volunteered mostly for democratic campaigns. I worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and finally saw the light, I became Republican in early 90’s. And elections around here in the cities are non-partisan. So, but, you know, they kind of want to know when you run for mayor, they want to know what you are, Democrat or Republican. And then as a candidate for supervisor, we’re all partisan, so you have to run as a Democrat or Republican, and so I ran as Republican then. So you know, I don’t that it brings that much to the table the partisan side of it. I think that issues are issues particularly in the local level. And we’re able to work together as Democrats, Republicans, and try to solve things and see some things in common that we identify as issues, as problems, solvable problems. And we can work together on those trends to solve them.

Jeff Bullock: Well, I know just a little bit of background about you. Two of your really big passions are poverty and homelessness and mental health and all of those things are tied together, of course. Where did that come from for you? And what are you focused on now? So where did that come from first? Maybe that’s a good question.

Robert Brownell: Yeah, it is a good question. Now, start with homelessness. You’re right, these issues particularly when they, under the kind of giant subcategory of poverty, they all kind of blend together, after a while, homelessness, mental health, you know, habitual crime. A lot of that kind of thing tends to fall under the area of poverty. And so, if you solve poverty, could you solve all those things? To an extent, you could. They each kind of have their own individual elements.

Homelessness, in my case, I was involved in the county level with conceivably moving a homeless shelter from its current location to a different location because the one here in Polk County was too small. And they can only stay there at night, and they chase them all out during the day. And then, they’ll just be all around the city during the day because they didn’t have enough room for him to have a day room or anything so they had to clean the place up during the and then let them back in at 4 o’clock at night. And the course of trying to move the homeless shelter ran into a lot of public opposition to that. As you can imagine citing homeless shelters is you know, very difficult and so, because nobody wants them close to the neighborhood, totally understandable.

We had a lot of resistance. And I thought some of the claims that the residents were making were kind of far-fetched. And it seemed like we had a lot of people who were self-appointed experts when it came to homelessness. And so I thought, you know, I’m kind of a self-appointed expert on my own. I don’t even know what I’m talking about either. And so I, we all grew some scraggly beard and got some crappy clothes, and stuff like that, did my best to impersonate some homeless guy and checked into a homeless shelter, just to see what it was like, checked in two homeless shelters actually. One of them is Bethel Mission, one was the Central Iowa Services, homeless shelter. I checked in as a homeless guy.

And I learned a lot, you know. And I thought, one of the misconceptions is that I’d had which I think a lot of people have is that role you know, for you know, we’re just one paycheck away from becoming homeless ourselves but for the grace of God there goes I, you know. And that really isn’t true.

Homeless people have to really burn a lot of bridges before they’re homeless in Iowa. There’s a lot of ways not to be homeless in Iowa. And so you have to burn about every bridge you can burn in order to be homeless here. But, and people do that, you know. They run out, they were out of their welcomes. They stay with a family until the family cannot stand them anymore. They’ve usually got some other attendant problems that go with it.

So the question, after spending some time at the homeless shelter as homeless person, my question is what can you do about this? What’s the answer? And the answer is a tough one because… tough and easy at the same time actually. But tough because there’s so many different individual stories as to why as person’s homeless. And some people are homeless just for a couple days. Some people are homeless chronically like forever and so there’s everybody in between.

You know, I think there’s a lot of, what I found at least was that there’s a lot of mental health issues within the homeless population. That’s one reason they burn their bridges. You know, they can’t see beyond their actions very well, and so there’s a lot of that. A lot of that is exacerbated by substance abuse, drugs or alcohol and so you have that kind of element in there too.

So I think people have trouble kind of differentiating between… well, is the guy an alcoholic or is he a homeless guy that became an alcoholic? Or is he homeless because he’s an alcoholic? Or what… it’s kind of a mixture of a diagnosis that maybe don’t apply. So I got involved with them.

One aspect of leadership that I think is important is that you have to be willing to do the things that you’re telling people to do yourself. I don’t think people respect you unless you actually know what you are talking about and can get your hands dirty.

So I physically went out to other cities and looked and see what other people are doing. And under the Bush administration, they started something called Housing First. People are surprised that a Republican president can come up with this idea, it was a brilliant idea. And what it was, was, let’s just put these people into a housing unit. They don’t have to be a house, it can be a house, it can be apartment, it can be something like that, and wrap around services, and that will mean, that can make them no longer homeless, right?

And that model has actually worked brilliantly in places where they tried it. The upfront cost is high. The downstream cost is extremely low because what happens with our homeless folks around here a lot is a lot of public intox arrest, public exposure, assaults, different kinds of ways of getting in trouble with the police. So we’re tying up the time of a police officer, we’re tying up the time of who were brought to Rollins hospital which is usually where they take them. we’re tying up the time of a couple county attorneys to prosecute them jail time. I mean, the whole story adds up to a lot of money.

So if you can cut that off with a, you know, a lower level kind of home, it’s safe with some services, it actually works.

Jeff Bullock: So those services, you called them surround services, so those are basically, they’re located and stabilized in a home, I imagine, those are then, kind of customized or tailored interventions depending upon what the person’s challenges may be?

Robert Brownell: Right. We’ll get a case manager and the case manager will usually be a mental health professional but not necessarily, but mostly that’s what it is. And we will help them navigate their day to day lives, I mean, at the very least. But normally what happens is we’ll help them get employment and try to become self sufficient. That’s what we all want to see is for these folks to become self-sufficient again. You’re not going to bet a thousand on that but you will bet a decent percentage. And I just caught wrap around services, and after, the landlords that we deal with around the metro here, at least, are pretty receptive to that. They’d rather call a case manager on misbehaving tenant than a cop because they don’t want the other tenants who are well-behaving and paying markets rates and all that to see police in the hallways everyday. And so calling on a case manager really does work a lot better and we’ve gotten some fabulous deals from landlords around the metro here.

And we’ve managed to make it work. I mean, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I was first directed to a guy who spent the last 12 years out in the woods collecting cans. And a group I’ve worked with a little bit put him into an apartment over by Lutheran Hospital. And she’s going to take over this guy’s apartment. And there’s this woman I know, she said, “I’ll take care of this guy’s apartment”. And you can see for yourself what it looks like. I thought, well, this is going to be a disaster. I mean, this dude has been out in the woods collecting cans and getting arrested for public urination and stuff like this for years literally. The guy over the course of two years had 570 citations from the police. I mean virtually, every multiple times per week, just a high cost guy.

So I put him into his apartment and I walk in thinking, “Wow! What kind of drunken mess is this going to be?” This is me, I mean I was kind of sympathetic. And, but even I thought, this isn’t going to work. And we walked in and the place was immaculate. I mean, the place looks great and his proud of it. And the two years that he’d been in there, she took me over there after he’d been there two years, so they have stabilized him and all that. He’d had two citations. So he went from 500 citations over two years to two citations for two years. The cause of that is just hard to imagine. It was just tremendous.

Now, does the guy have a job? No, he’s not selling insurance at principle or anything but he is… he still collects cans. I mean, that’s what he does. But he’s inside, he’s at a place that’s safe. He is able to navigate his life. He doesn’t cause any problem to anybody else. And he takes care of his stuff. And you know, the cost for society is very low there. And it’s turning to be safe place for him and that actually works. So that’s kind of what we’re working for here, is that kind of stuff.

So you say, “What excites you about that?” What excites me about that is finding the solution that actually works, you know. And I think, it’s harder to do that if you’re not at a local level. In local level, you know, you actually see the effects of what you’re doing and you see it up close and you when it doesn’t work. You see when it does work. I think, when you’re at the state or national level especially, it’s just numbers, you know. Around here, whether it’s here in Dubuque, we actually can see the effects of what we’re doing or not doing. And even at Polk County, it gets hard and we say, we might say, “Well, there’s 50,000 people in Polk County that are developmentally disabled, for example, that’s what the number is, 50,000. Well, 55,000 is a hard number to kind of get your mind around. But if you actually know somebody, who is, or a family that has a son or daughter who is developmentally disabled, then it becomes more personal then you can kind of you know, get your arms around it and see what works and kind of keep track of it. I think that’s harder to do at a more of a national or larger level. So even at Polk County, it gets, it can be hard to do. But still, it’s kind of rewarding in that way.

Jeff Bullock: Now let me ask you this, we wind this up. Now, you’re clearly a very talented person. And you could be doing a lot of things with your life. So, the audience, a lot of the audience that will see this are a lot of millennials. I guess, the question that I’ll ask you is why care? Why not let somebody else do it? Why do you care?

Robert Brownell: Well, that’s a good question you know. I think each of us as our own individual answers to that because it’s easy not to care. And so I mean, there’s a lot of great things to do here in Metro Des Moines without having to worry about mental health people or autistic people or developmentally disabled people or anybody that’s less fortunate. I think what makes this a great city, to me, is that I’m not the only one who kind of has at least at the back of their minds an idea of what the greater good should be. Maybe you know, there’s something beyond just me. That really counts for something. And I think I’m not the only one who cherish that in this town. There’s a lot of us that think that way. And so when you see, when you kind of have that philosophy, and you kind of have that ethic, and you actually did do some good for people, and maybe they become self-sufficient, that’s a homerun if they become self-sufficient. It does happen. And it’s pretty inspiring you know. And that kind of inspiration you don’t get out of just going to a movie or skateboarding around, doing stuff like that. It’s the kind of inspiration that kind of drives you to the next thing.

Jeff Bullock: So no regrets? No regrets about it?

Robert Brownell: Oh I got tons of regrets. But not over this.

Jeff Bullock: Well, you know, as I’m a person who has a privilege of just being immersed in the lives of millennials, every single day. And listening to you talk, I think will resonate very much with what I experience to be their passion in many, many ways. And so I think what I’d end with, the question I’d end with is there are a lot of people today that understandably so at least in the political scene are discouraged and kind of pessimistic. I’m not because I have the privilege of being around young people. And it’s hard not to be optimistic when you’re around young people. How do you see the future? Where are your sources of hope for the next generation of political and civic leadership? And what do you see hopes happen long after the time of your contributions have been made past?

Robert Brownell: Well we got a lot of millennials that are contributing in a lot of ways in Metro Des Moines, and that’s inspiring because you know, they’ve had a real effect. I mean, they’re having a real time effect on things that are happening here in the metro. And I think that is encouraging to them.

To me, you know, we all talk about the discouraging part of politics, there’s a lot to be discouraged about. I mean, it seems like sometimes, the rules don’t apply to everybody. The rich and the powerful, the celebrity, they certain set of rules. The rest of us have our own set of rules, and all.

I think millennials, to me, at least, I mean, they get downplayed and trashed a lot but the ones that I’ve worked with which I think are a lot, are pretty optimistic. I mean, they’re pretty idealistic. I like that about them. Not all of them are unrealistic and anti-free speech and all that. I think they’re pretty talented folks and they can make a difference. And you know, for me, I was a, during the presidential preliminaries, I was on Mark Rubio’s campaign. And the reason that I like Mark Rubio was because his campaign was all about optimism. It was about looking forward with a positive view of things. This wasn’t an apocalyptic kind of election. This wasn’t going to be a dystopian future that we have ahead of us no matter who wins. And I obviously was disappointed when he got to get out of the race.

But I think the message there for me is still is that you know, we have to have leaders that articulate that and have that as a vision that it’s a great country. It’s a great state we live in and you know maybe, Iowa’s a little unique because we all understand and know each other to some extent. But you can make a difference here. And I hope, I just hope for anybody, not just millennials to stand. If you want to make a difference, Iowa’s a good place to do it because it can happen.

Jeff Bullock: Robert, that’s a perfect place to end. I want to thank you for your time. And genuinely for your amazingly good and I think compassionate work on behalf of you know, who Jesus called the least of these my brothers and sisters.

Robert Brownell: Ah, Matthew 25, right?

Jeff Bullock: Yup, thank you.

Robert Brownell: Yup, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Photo ofRobert Brownell
Robert Brownell
Job Title
Polk County Supervisor
Polk County, Iowa
111 Court Ave.,
Des Moines, Iowa, 50309

1 Comment

  1. An interesting and down-to-earth insight on solving/changing a major problem in our society into an opportunity to achieve positive results.

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