It is rare that someone with deep roots in Washington state has his obituary published in the New York Times, but when Joe Dear died, the newspaper ran an extensive story.
Dear, who was raised on the East Coast and migrated to Olympia to attend Evergreen State College, was the powerful chief investment officer at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) in Sacramento until losing his battle with prostate cancer on February 26. He was 62.
Joe Dear was an anomaly. In this age of partisan vitriol, where the motives of politicians and bureaucrats are routinely suspect, Dear acted with integrity and humility.
Perhaps best known for his work at CalPERS, most of us remember him for his days in our state.
After graduating from Evergreen, he became research director for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Dear quickly earned the respect of Gov. Booth Gardner, who appointed him deputy director of the Department of Labor and Industries. The agency was mired in controversy because workers’ compensation rates were skyrocketing and the system was dysfunctional. Employers and workers were experiencing double-digit rate increases and prolonged waiting periods for claim closures and rehabilitation.
The state Legislature was in a tug-of-war over privatizing workers’ comp. Gardner soon realized that it didn’t matter whether the state or private sector ran workers’ comp, it was fundamentally flawed.
Dear quickly sized up the problems and brought warring parties to the table. Things changed.
Part of the solution to L&I’s woes was better investment strategies for workers’ comp trust funds. Dear, with a bachelor’s degree in political economy, quickly learned about investment strategies, something that would become his trademark. He eventually became executive director at the Washington State Investment Board before moving to CalPERS.
Dear had a knack for handling difficult issues with grace, wisdom and determination. In positions ripe for political sniping, he didn’t personalize differences; he solved problems in an even-keeled manner. He had the ability to develop a deep understanding of all points of view and found ways to respectfully address any concerns — even if you didn’t agree with his conclusion. He was a careful listener and a gifted mediator.
Those traits earned him the respect of President Bill Clinton, who appointed him to head OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Clinton needed Dear to tackle highly charged ergonomics issues because of the exploding number of carpal tunnel and lower back injuries. That was one of Dear’s toughest assignments.
When Gary Locke was elected governor, he immediately asked Dear to become his chief of staff, a tough job at any time but especially when an administration is just forming. In that capacity, Dear carefully organized the Locke’s cabinet and took on a number of touchy assignments.
For example, when the state was struggling to implement K-12 education reforms — the Washington Assessment of Student Learning — Dear was appointed to the linchpin group recommending the rewards for successful schools and the punishments for schools that failed to meet the learning standards.
The group was chaired by Boeing CEO Frank Shrontz.Educators, from superintendents of schools to principals and teachers, were on pins and needles awaiting the outcome. Dear was a guiding light in that group, which ultimately produced a set of thoughtful recommendations.
Dear’s accomplishment were many, as the New York Times pointed out, but he was one of those rare people who handled success with humility and dignity. Whether you knew Joe Dear as a student or as head of CalPERS, he was the same genuine guy.
There is an old saying that people are seldom criticized for being too humble or overly caring. That’s why people loved Joe Dear and will miss him.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.