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Life Lessons in Public Service

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Maria Cardona and Secretary Ron Brown

Guest blog post Maria Cardona, Principal at the Dewey Square Group and a Political Commentator on CNN and CNN Español. She serves on the boards of several non-profit groups and has named several times as one of the top 100 Hispanic leaders in the country by Hispanic Business.

ED NOTE: Maria Cardona was the Deputy Press Secretary for Secretary Ron Brown and served at the Department of Commerce for six years during the Clinton Administration

Most everything I learned about public service, I learned from Secretary Ron Brown. He was the best kind of mentor, short on personal advice, long on teaching by example. The first time he walked into the Department of Commerce, he told his staff he wanted to meet the cafeteria workers and the janitorial staff. When he was taken to the cafeteria, the workers almost fainted. They had never seen the Secretary – any Secretary - walk into the cafeteria before. Some even cried. This exemplifies my biggest lessons from my time with Ron: to always meet people where they are, make it personal, and never think, no matter what title you have, you are better than anyone else in the room.

Ron had the ability to make you feel important no matter who you were. He was just as comfortable speaking with Saudi kings as he was shooting the breeze with homeless teenagers in the favelas in Brazil. His message was always the same no matter who he talked to: The United States business community was there to help bring more economic opportunity to their citizens, while expanding market opportunities for US businesses.

The Secretary would always say he was a big fan of “doing well by doing good.”  He was visionary about where the next opportunities for US economic expansion would come from, and he was unapologetic about making the deals that would help American enterprises sell more goods abroad, creating jobs and opportunities on both ends. But he never forgot about the people behind the progress. He would always want to meet the local business leaders, the workers, the families that were starting to prosper because of these expanded opportunities. Ron was always treated like royalty wherever he went in the world, but he never played the part.

He surrounded himself with committed public servants who were eager to have a Secretary who really believed in what they were doing. Ron loved to give opportunities to young, diverse, bright, up and coming leaders. He gave them chances to shine, to experience things they would never have dreamed of. And today, in an age where it seems everything is digital, on-line and in 140 characters, Ron’s unrelenting approach to get to know the people he was doing business with, working with, and to mentor by living example is far from common. His ability to live as easily in the simultaneously worlds of pomp and circumstance and the hard-scrabble neighborhoods he would visit both here and abroad, is an irreplaceable lesson that too few got the opportunity to learn firsthand. I was one of the lucky ones.

I believe Ron brought that personal touch philosophy and commitment to public service with him to Commerce from his successful days as the first African American Chair of a major political party, and as the man widely credited with getting Bill Clinton elected in 1992. And it was ingrained in him from his days as a community activist and organizer working at the Urban League and alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson - many people speculate that Barack Obama may not have been the first African American president raised as a community organizer had Ron not perished. We will never know.

What we do know for sure is that we lost an incredible leader 18 years ago today, along with un-imaginable potential both in him as well as in the committed public servants who were on the plane with him. We will never really know the depth of that loss, but we do know and should cherish, the priceless lessons that Ron lived and taught to all those who were brought into his brilliant orbit. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson so eloquently recited at Secretary Brown’s funeral 18 years ago, “Good night Sweet Prince, Good Night.” We still miss you.

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This is so lovely and

This is so lovely and heartfelt, Maria! We miss him, and I miss YOU, classy friend!!!