Maine politicians use social work skills

Mar 4, 2013

By Paul R. Pace

When Portland, Maine, Mayor Michael F. Brennan first entered the world of politics, he had just enrolled in school full time for his MSW degree. He did it to broaden his understanding of people and to make him a more conscientious policymaker.

“I wanted a better understanding of how to pass policy using clinical approaches,” he explained. “If you can mix intellectual justification with a good heart you can formulate good policy.”

Brennan is one of many social workers who discovered their education and clinical experiences can help them become highly effective elected officials.

In the early 1990s, Brennan was in his first term as a member of the Maine House of Representatives while he was earning an MSW degree. He remained in the House for four terms.

When he was elected to the Maine Senate in 2002, he said his MSW and field training proved invaluable.

“Throughout my legislator career I have used opportunities to draft policy with the clinical approach using my MSW,” he said.

His education proved especially helpful while serving on committees that dealt with health and behavioral health, he said, and also when he shared a joint commission on health care reform in the state in 2003.

Brennan, who maintains his clinical social work license, said he favors public office as a way to effect positive changes on a systemic level.

“In my mid-20s I worked for Ralph Nader and I saw what one person can do for thousands and even millions of people,” he said. “I understand the role the social worker plays. I have always been attracted to systemic change — to be involved in policy decisions that affect thousands of people. I find it very exciting.”

He is particularly proud of being part of groundbreaking pieces of legislation, including the laptop program to provide every Maine student with a computer, efforts to reduce the negative impacts of No Child Left Behind, and programs to expand health care access to all Mainers. Other states and the nation have used the latter as a model in adopting universal health care, Brennan said.

He feels serving in public office is tremendously rewarding and he encourages more social workers to serve their communities as elected officials.

“I think it is important for social work to be at the table and have a voice,” he said.

Brennan’s service in office has proved popular with residents. In 2011, he was elected mayor of Portland, the state’s largest city. This is a special achievement considering he is the city’s first elected mayor in 88 years.

A year before, city voters changed the city charter to an elected-mayor form of government rather than continue the appointment-mayor process by the city council.

As the city’s top elected official, Brennan has implemented several initiatives designed to encourage economic development and job creation as well as support and strengthen the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

His nonpolitical career includes being a policy associate with the Cutler Institute of Child and Family Policy at the Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine, specializing in education and health.

From the March 2013 NASW News