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The Quiet Ones: 12 Leaders Who Get Things Done

While right-wing Republicans gridlock Washington, a dozen leaders are demonstrating just how effective government can be

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In 2010, a new generation of Republican governors rose to power by posing as pragmatic Mr. Fix-Its with "common sense" answers to the nation's most intractable problems. In his victory speech in Wisconsin, the newly elected Scott Walker vowed to find "solutions to the challenges we face," promising "every worker, every family in this state that you have an ally in the governor's office." Instead, Walker and his band of GOP brothers – including rookies like John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida, as well as veterans like Jan Brewer in Arizona – have used their offices to wage ideological crusades against union workers, immigrants and the poor. Far from finding solutions, these GOP fire-breathers have paralyzed their state legislatures, sparked federal litigation and even, in the case of Kasich, earned a direct rebuke from voters – who flocked to the polls last fall to roll back the governor's attempt to gut collective-bargaining rights for state workers. "The wave of recently elected, highly ideological Republicans have already seen their politics fail," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive think tank NDN. "Their numbers are in the toilet because they grossly miscalibrated the mood of the country."

But while these high-profile conservatives are giving good governance a bad name, a new wave of leaders across the nation, both in and out of government, is quietly creating real change – on issues ranging from mortgage foreclosures to marriage equality. "The policy gridlock in Washington is creating opportunities for entrepreneurial politicians in the states to move on things that matter to people," says Rosenberg. Click through this slideshow to meet a dozen of the most inspiring and effective movers and shakers at the state and local level.

By Tim Dickinson

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Andrew Cuomo
Governor, New York

What He's Done Cuomo has compiled an impressive track record as a reformer. As New York's attorney general, he busted the student-loan industry for corruption, forging a national settlement that saved students millions on their college loans. As governor, he eased the state's budget crisis – and provided a tax cut for the middle class – by pushing through a tax hike on the wealthiest. Most dramatically, he spearheaded a bipartisan move to legalize gay marriage in New York – an effort he described as being "at the heart of progressive government." Cuomo not only won the support of four Republican state senators – two of them fellow Catholics, conflicted by their faith – he also pressured hedge-fund managers who support gay marriage to fund an ad campaign that insulated the aisle-crossers from a right-wing backlash.

Admirers Say "I have great respect for his leadership on marriage equality," says Theodore Olson, the former Bush v. Gore attorney who is seeking to overturn California's ban on gay marriage. "It took courage, determination and considerable skill and patience to make this happen."

Enemies Say "He is the dirtiest, nastiest political player out there," according to former governor and bitter rival Eliot Spitzer.

Gives Us Pause His lack of transparency. In December, he gave lawmakers only a day to consider a 19,000-word bill revamping the state's income tax code.

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Van Jones
Founder, Rebuild the Dream

What He's Done Even before the explosion of the Occupy movement, Jones created a new grassroots organization designed to channel the anger and the energy of progressives who organized under the Obama banner in 2008. There's "no superhero, no single leader, no messiah," says Jones, a veteran community organizer who served as Obama's "green-jobs czar" before he was targeted by Glenn Beck. "Just the American people standing up for the best values of the country." What's needed now, he insists, is not budget slashing and tax cuts for "job creators," but the kind of investments in working families that made America great after World War II. "The private sector already imposed an austerity program on the American people," Jones says. "That was the crash. We don't need a public austerity program on top of a private austerity program."

Admirers Say "He is one of his generation's most eloquent spokespeople about social justice," says Al Gore.

Enemies Say "There will be chaos in the streets," Beck warned of Occupy Wall Street, "and then Van Jones will appear with his nice little organization that looks far more reasonable." The White House has also dissed its former star: "Van Jones," Vice President Joe Biden sniffed recently. "Whoever he is."

Gives Us Pause His tendency toward strident rhetoric, and his partnership with MoveOn.org, may limit the breadth of Rebuild the Dream's appeal.

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Kamala Harris
Attorney General, California

What She's Done Narrowly elected in 2010 despite a million-dollar barrage of attack ads directed by a group loyal to Karl Rove, Harris quickly demonstrated why the GOP's corporate backers wanted to keep her out of office. Last fall, she blocked a $25 billion settlement with the nation's too-big-to-fail banks – Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo – for fraudulently foreclosing on hundreds of thousands of homeowners. The White House had endorsed the deal, which would aid many struggling homeowners, but Harris said the settlement didn't do enough to compensate victims – while providing the banks with immunity for wrongdoing that has yet to be investigated. In December, she launched an "investigation alliance" with Nevada to target the major banks with civil and criminal penalties. "The mortgage crisis is a law-enforcement matter," she declared, "and we will prosecute those who are responsible."

Admirers Say "She's looking out for people who are suffering," says fellow bank-buster Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. "And she's going to take every action necessary to hold people and institutions accountable for the mortgage fraud she's seeing in her state."

Enemies Say Her GOP opponent blasted her as a "radical" who poses "a tremendous threat to public safety" and "doesn't value" the business community.

Gives Us Pause Her political ambitions. Is she truly committed to rescuing homeowners, or just after headlines?

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John Kitzhaber
Governor, Oregon

What He's Done Kitzhaber not only blocked the execution of a convicted double-murderer scheduled for lethal injection, he halted all executions in the state. "It is time for Oregon to consider a different approach," he said at an emotional news conference announcing the moratorium in November. "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer." Oregon's death penalty is unevenly applied – the same crime has earned some prisoners a death sentence, others life in prison – and inmates can languish on death row for more than 20 years unless they volunteer to be executed. Kitzhaber, who supports life without parole as an alternative to capital punishment, remains haunted by two executions he allowed to proceed. "I do not believe that those executions made us safer," he says now. "Certainly they did not make us nobler as a society. And I simply cannot participate once again in something I believe to be morally wrong."

Admirers Say "The governor took courageous and thoughtful action," says Richard Dieter, who directs the Death Penalty Information Center. "He's the rare politician who follows his conscience."

Enemies Say "He's a paper cowboy," complained Gary Haugen, the double-murderer who was pushing to be executed in December as a way of protesting the death penalty. "He couldn't pull the trigger."

Gives Us Pause Despite his belief that capital punishment is "morally wrong," Kitzhaber chose not to commute the sentences of Oregon's death-row inmates.

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Cory Booker
Mayor, Newark, New Jersey

What He's Done In 2010, under Booker's leadership, New Jersey's largest city experienced its first murder-free month in 44 years. The mayor persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to Newark's beleaguered public schools, which graduate only half of all students. The cash infusion enabled the city to extend the school day by up to two hours, provide free books to kids, and open four experimental high schools, including an academy catering to dropouts and teens released from prison. Last April, Booker also persuaded Panasonic to move its headquarters to Newark and build a riverfront skyscraper that will anchor more than 1,000 jobs. And he's refreshingly hands-on: After a major blizzard, he fielded a tweet asking for the city's help shoveling a pensioner's driveway: "I will do it myself," the mayor replied. "Where does he live?"

Admirers Say "Cory's done an incredible job in Newark," says New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. "He stands up to special interests. And he tackles tough problems with innovative solutions."

Enemies Say Glenn Beck, taking a break from bashing Van Jones, knocked Booker for failing to solve Newark's problems in a single term: "Four years in office, and Newark still ranks as the 10th-most-poverty-stricken city in America," Beck groused. "Word to your mommy."

Gives Us Pause Crime is on the rise again this year after a budget shortfall forced Booker to slash the police force.

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Antonio Villaraigosa
Mayor, Los Angeles

What He's Done Rather than waiting on Washington to bail out the city, Villaraigosa persuaded nearly 70 percent of L.A. residents to approve Measure R – a half-cent sales tax that will provide $35 billion to fund major transportation improvements, including a new subway line and light-rail extensions. The mayor is also leveraging the 30 years of revenue the tax will provide to secure federal loans that will enable L.A. to complete a dozen major infrastructure projects in just 10 years. The 30/10 plan, as it's known, would create 160,000 jobs, boost transit use by 77 million passengers and cut vehicle travel by 191 million miles. Villaraigosa has united the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO behind a national version of the plan, called America Fast Forward, and the Senate Public Works Committee recently endorsed the idea by approving $1 billion a year to guarantee loans for transportation improvements – by a stunning, bipartisan vote of 18-0.

Admirers Say "Villaraigosa had a brilliant, breakthrough idea at a very difficult time," says Sen. Barbara Boxer. "If we can get our bill passed, we can create up to 1 million new jobs because of the leveraging – and the federal government has literally zero risk."

Enemies Say Rush Limbaugh, on meeting L.A.'s first Latino mayor since the 1870s: "I thought he was the shoeshine guy."

Gives Us Pause His heavy-handed use of 1,400 riot police to crack down on Occupy Los Angeles in November.

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Peter Shumlin
Governor, Vermont

What He's Done Shumlin received national attention for his speedy response to Hurricane Irene, getting hundreds of miles of roads repaired within a few months at lower-than-estimated cost. But his more lasting accomplishment was succeeding where Obama failed: pushing through health care reform that is truly comprehensive. Last May, Shumlin signed the nation's first single-payer, universal health care legislation, which will cut medical costs by slashing administrative waste, ending duplicate procedures and paying health providers for good outcomes, not the volume of care. A long dance with federal regulators will be required; full implementation of "Green Mountain Care" will have to wait until 2014 at the earliest. But Shumlin tells his state's 197,000 underinsured residents that the program will be worth the wait, ensuring that the state's health care dollars will be spent to keep "Vermonters healthy – not on insurance-company profits."

Admirers Say "He put a lot of political capital into a very ambitious undertaking that could become a model for the rest of the country," says ex-governor Howard Dean.

Enemies Say His "single-payer system could very well be the biggest job-killer in Vermont's history," according to Darcie Johnston, head of the industry front group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.

Gives Us Pause The governor and state legislature must still design, finance and implement Green Mountain Care. "The really heavy lifting is ahead of us," Dean warns.

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Elizabeth Warren
Senate candidate, Massachusetts

What She's Done As chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, Warren exposed the Bush administration for giving big banks a secret handout worth $78 billion. Then she midwifed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into law, creating a host of new protections for average Americans. Now, attempting to oust Wall Street darling Scott Brown, Warren has unabashedly embraced Occupy Wall Street's fight to hold the nation's big banks accountable for their crimes. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," says Warren, a registered Republican into her forties. "Nobody."

Admirers Say "She's become the leading voice in our country on behalf of consumers," said Barack Obama, "and she's done it while facing some very tough opposition."

Enemies Say Karl Rove's outfit, Crossroads GPS, calls her a frontwoman for "extreme left" protesters who "attack police, do drugs and trash public parks."

Gives Us Pause Her intelligence and solution-oriented approach may be wasted on the Senate.

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Janette Sadik-Khan
Transportation commissioner, New York City

What She's Done In four years, Sadik-Khan has installed 250 miles of bike lanes in the city, doubled bike ridership, transformed half of Times Square into a car-free urban oasis and created bus express lanes. Such measures have reduced traffic fatalities to lows not seen in a century. Dubbed the "high priestess of people-friendly cities," she's sharp-minded – using data to drive her decision-making – and sharp-elbowed, pushing for change with a with-us-or-against-us intensity.

Admirers Say "She's a clear leader with a transformative vision for New York," says David King, a professor of transportation at Columbia University. "Seeing people sitting at tables in a wonderful pedestrian plaza, it immediately seems as if Times Square couldn't possibly be any other way."

Enemies Say New York Post columnist Cindy Adams snidely praised Sadik-Khan – "the wacko nutso bike commissioner" – for "turning this great city into a bicycle lane."

Gives Us Pause Her take-no-prisoners style pisses people off. "There is a needless level of conflict," said Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate. "Even if one appreciates some of Janette's goals, it's clear the approach has been very alienating."

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Paul Rieckhoff
Executive Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

What He's Done A former first lieutenant who served a tour of duty in Iraq, Rieckhoff launched the nation's largest advocacy group for veterans of Bush's two wars. This fall, he used his lobbying clout to spearhead the near-unanimous passage of the Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act. The new law addresses the staggeringly high unemployment rate for returning veterans by providing businesses with a tax credit of up to $9,600 for each vet hired. The law also expands funding for education and vocational training for all veterans, including those from past wars. Rieckhoff's advocacy was also essential in securing passage of the New GI Bill under Bush in 2008, and its expansion under Obama in 2010. "As Congress stalls on so many other issues," Rieckhoff says, "it's good to see them come together in realizing that one of the smartest investments they can make is supporting the New Greatest Generation."

Admirers Say "He's relentless," says Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "When he brings a new issue to me, I know that's what I should be fighting for."

Enemies Say Jim DeMint, the only senator to vote against the VOW Act, blasted veterans advocates like Rieckhoff for seeking to "privilege one American over another."

Gives Us Pause Began his career on Wall Street working at JP Morgan.

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Mary Nichols
Chair, California Air Resources Board

What She's Done On New Year's Day, Nichols inaugurated the world's second-largest cap-and-trade framework – the first time a state has harnessed market forces to curb global warming. Nichols fought hard to preserve the climate plan, despite a legal challenge and a statewide referendum backed by Texas oil firms that sought to kill it legislatively. The new framework, which places strict limits on carbon emissions, will reduce pollution to 1990 levels by the end of the decade. Environmentalists who hope the plan will provide a national model for curbs on planet-warming pollution are encouraged by Nichols' track record: In 2009, she moved to regulate carbon emissions for cars – prompting the Obama administration to adopt stringent fuel-economy rules nationally.

Admirers Say "She's a game-changer, because she knows how to put policies into action so they stick," says EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.

Enemies Say The California Chamber of Commerce, Western States Petroleum Association and other dirty-energy groups have teamed to defeat her "job-killing tax."

Gives Us Pause As campaign manager, failed to get former L.A. mayor Tom Bradley elected as governor in 1986.

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Mark Shurtleff
Attorney General, Utah

What He's Done While most Republicans would prefer to demonize "illegals," Shurtleff has confronted the challenge posed by his state's undocumented workforce through an initiative called the Utah Compact: a blueprint for "compassionate" immigration reform that calls on the federal government to act, but in the meantime urges local police not to go after illegals, opposes policies that break up families, and recognizes immigrants' positive roles as workers and taxpayers. The Compact spurred the Republican state legislature to pass a package of reform laws this year, including a program allowing illegal immigrants to live and work openly in the state if they register and pay a fine. Liberal activists have praised Shurtleff and the Compact, and other states are eyeing Utah's approach as a model of humane, common-sense immigration policy. "You hear constantly that undocumented workers are a drain on our economy," Shurtleff said. "Well, now we're seeing evidence that it's not true. It's quite the opposite."

Admirers Say "This is a pragmatic step forward," says Rosenberg of NDN. "It wasn't playing into the insanity that we've seen in Arizona and Arkansas."

Enemies Say Eli Cawley, chairman of the Utah Minutemen Project, says Shurtleff has played "a demonic role in reinforcing the grip of the organized-crime cartels over the flow of exploited human beings into our state."

Gives Us Pause How did Democrats let a conservative Republican from Orrin Hatch's home state get out in front on this issue?

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