On Jan. 10, Kevin Concannon walked into the Oregon State Legislature and gave a seven-hour lecture on the workings of his department.
“I called it Human Resources 101,” Concannon said of the history-making session that turned boisterous, wheeler-dealer politicians into attentive students.
Concannon had plenty to talk about. Head of an agency with a two-year budget of $5.2 billion and 10,000 employees, he was about to leave his post to return to his home state of Maine.
Tapped to become Maine’s 11th commissioner of the Department of Human Services — a social services agency about half the size of Oregon’s — Concannon’s impending departure sent Oregon leaders into an informational tailspin as they tried to sort out the workings of the labyrinthine Human Resources Department.
“They wanted to squeeze every bit of knowledge and experience out of him they could while he was still here. He has a lot to offer,” said outgoing Gov. Barbara Roberts, who worked with Concannon for four years.
Never before had the governor and House of Representatives set aside an entire day to listen to, and learn from, a bureaucrat, especially one about to leave. Concannon had a lot to say, because he had started many new initiatives and set definite priorities during his tenure as Oregon’s social services leader.
“Maine’s gain is a tremendous loss for Oregon,” said Roberts who last month relinquished her post to Oregon’s new governor, John Kitchaber.
Hired eight years ago to clear up a legal mess involving a run-down institution to which the state of Oregon relegated almost everyone with mental or developmental disabilities, Concannon later found time to develop economical, ingenious solutions to problems ranging from health care issues to getting teen-age parents back into school.
“In terms of Maine attracting Kevin to come there — it’s a great coup,” said Stephen Minnich, Oregon’s administrator for adult and family services.
“He’s one of the most qualified persons in the country. There’s not half a dozen people who know more about human services than Kevin,” said Minnich, who was one of Concannon’s managers in Oregon.
Maine leaders, more than 3,000 miles away, quickly realized their political victory in drawing Concannon home. Gov. Angus King has praised Concannon as the “Dan Marino” of his new cabinet.
A Bangor Daily News editorial termed Concannon a competent administrator and an aggressive innovator who knows how to make efficient use of federal funds.
“Timid administators blame the federal government for tying their hands, making change impossible. Concannon gets waivers,” stated a Jan. 7 NEWS editorial.
A native of Portland, Concannon agreed to King’s pitch to become the state’s 11th commissioner of the Department of Human Services.
Riding high on a wave of successful programs in Oregon — especially a plan to prioritize health care needs that serves as a model in many states — Concannon’s future appeared secure in Oregon. And he may have been headed for a national leadership post when he decided to return to Maine.
“He’s going back to Maine, but he really is qualified to go to Washington, D.C. It must be a homecoming for him,” said Minnich, who appeared perplexed at Concannon’s career move.
At 54, Concannon said the idea of “home” is fundamental to him. It definitely influenced his decision to leave high politics in Oregon.
“It’s all about roots,” said Concannon during a mid-January telephone interview from his Oregon office. “I spent an evening with (author) Alex Haley three years ago in Seattle. We talked about the value of roots.”
He also likes King’s style, Concannon said.
“I really wasn’t planning on changing jobs. One day I picked up the phone and he (King) was there. It wasn’t an assistant. It wasn’t a campaign person. It was `Hello, I’m Angus King.’ That was very telling. He’ll be very direct in his outreach to people,” Concannon said of his new boss.
Obeying the call home, Concannon and his wife, Eileen, packed their belongings and headed, by car, across the country in late January. The couple has four grown sons.
Concannon has served on a welfare reform work group that advised the Clinton administration, and he recently completed a term as president of the national American Public Welfare Association. He also is a member of the APWA’s task force on self-sufficiency and is on several other national boards.
Concannon has received many national and state honors. He also is the former president of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
His climb to prominence in the social-welfare arena followed an early career in Maine.
He was tapped as Maine’s commissioner of mental health and mental retardation under Gov. Joseph Brennan in 1980. Before that, he served as commissioner of the old Department of Mental Health and Corrections in 1975 and 1976 during the administration of Maine’s first independent governor, James B. Longley. In this job, he had the awesome responsibility of locking down the Maine State Prison within days of his arrival in Augusta.
“I like to tell people I’ve served my time,” Concannon joked.
Quick to recognize an opportunity, in 1980 Concannon became the first high-ranking bureaucrat in the country to accept an unusual offer from the federal government. The Reagan administration wanted to unload several state military sites. For $1, the state of Maine became the owner of a site now known as the Charleston Correctional Center, a minimum security correctional facility on Route 15.
The deal saved money in the long run, but it took a bit of persuasion to convince local residents of its worth, Concannon recalled.
“I spent an exciting evening in the East Corinth town hall answering questions about why the building should be a correctional facility rather than a Job Corps center, a Native American center or other things. I called on my debating skills from college very heavily,” Concannon recalled.
Concannon devised the following approaches to social welfare issues while in Oregon:
The University of Minnesota and University of North Carolina refer to Oregon as the leading state in the country on long-term care for senior citizens and disabled people because of Concannon’s innovations in the state-federal Medicaid program there. Concannon obtained waivers to start small adult foster homes under Medicaid. “We have very impaired people in those home settings,” Concannon said. The switch has caused some controversy but “even private-pay senior citizens are opting at the rate of several thousand to go into these adult foster homes. They have more personal freedom and are less likely to get somebody else’s medication.” The system “costs less than half the rate of more institutional care,” Concannon said.
Oregon now has the highest rate of teen parents going back to school — about 86 percent — thanks to federal waivers to existing policy that enabled staff to offer assistance to teen-age mothers with the absolute requirement attached that they return to get a high school diploma. “When a teen mom comes to us for medical assistance, we’ll say, `We’ll help you but you have to help yourself and get back in school.’ Most states don’t impose obligations on a parent of children younger than 3,” Concannon said. “We said, `You must go back to school if your kid is 2 weeks old.’ We felt we had to interrupt the cycle in a constructive way.”
An experienced bureaucrat, Concannon has pledged to work closely with Maine legislators as well as the state’s congressional delegation, no matter their party affiliation.
“It’s not the D’s or the R’s on the stationery that matter. It’s solving problems together,” Concannon said.
He is most proud of his success in Oregon’s “benchmark” system wherein departments set goals and chart their outcomes. The King administration has expressed interest in a similar operational style.
It doesn’t necessarily take more money to solve problems, just a different way of looking at them, Concannon said.
In Oregon, “we reprogrammed the money, spent it in different ways.”
“The pot doesn’t have to get bigger if it’s freed of some cumbersome regulatory requirements,” Concannon said.
Concannon graduated from Cheverus High School in Portland. He received a master’s degree in social work from St. Francis Xavier University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and completed postgraduate work at the University of Connecticut in West Hartford.
He started out as a social worker in Waterville more than two decades ago. King, at the time, was a legal aid lawyer in Skowhegan. They were contemporaries, Concannon said, but neither could guess the extent of their future professional relationship.
Confirmation hearings, which Concannon professes to enjoy, will be held Feb. 15 before the Legislature’s Human Resources Committee.
Concannon is trading eight years of successful leadership in Oregon to become commissioner of Maine’s chronically troubled Department of Human Services, a big-ticket agency with a $324.6 million budget in fiscal year 1995, which is 20 percent of General Fund appropriations.
At best, DHS is an agency “ripe for change,” according to one newspaper editorial.
A man who likes to get things done, Concannon said he is undaunted by the challenge of getting a troubled agency back on course.
“At times, I take on challenges and may be addicted to the stimulation,” Concannon said.