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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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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images ;Bennett Raglin/Getty Images; Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Joe Corrigan/Getty Images; Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

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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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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Joe Corrigan/Getty Images for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

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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?