A Driving Force for Pima County
By Tara Kirkpatrick
It’s not enough to say that Jan Lesher loves her hometown.
In a substantive career that has launched her from a University of Arizona graduate to business owner, to Tucson’s Woman of the Year, to chief of staff for a governor and national secretary to Pima County official, Lesher’s devotion to her hometown drives everything she does.
“I was born here, I’m going to die here,” said Lesher, Pima County’s chief deputy administrator. “I come to work every day because I get to have some small way of impacting a variety of elements like finances, taxes, animals. I’m proud of this community.”
Perhaps Janet Napolitano, former Arizona Governor and former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said it best: “If the taxpayers are paying Jan’s salary, those are dollars well-spent.”
Lesher’s resume is a testament to public service and leadership. A political science graduate and former cable company executive, she founded Lesher Communications in 1990 to handle corporate and government relations. Besides working several years for Napolitano, she also served as director of the Arizona State Department of Commerce. Lesher has lent her time to countless organizations, including the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Arizona Town Hall, La Frontera, the Rotary Club of Tucson and several economic development groups. Lesher was named 2005 Woman of the Year by the Tucson Metro Chamber and Arizona Capitol Times Leader of the Year in Public Policy in 2008 among many leadership nods.
“She knows how to get things done, and to motivate others to join with her,” said Laura Shaw, senior vice president of Sun Corridor Inc., the region’s economic engine.
As chief deputy under the leadership of Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, Lesher helps to oversee a public agency that has tackled the crippling COVID-19 pandemic head on and is readying the region for recovery with responsive planning, data collection and innovative collaboration. The county’s Back to Business steering committee and Ready for You initiatives are just a glimpse of significant behind-the-scenes work by Huckelberry, Lesher and several others to help businesses, restaurants, schools, health centers and all stakeholders impacted by the crisis.
“We have really tried to find this balance of physical and financial health, helping businesses survive, but also recognizing the reality that people will not come back until they feel it is safe,” she said.
Yet, even in these unprecedented times, Lesher can look to her past for experience.
As chief of staff for Napolitano in Washington D.C., she worked in a Department of Homeland Security managing the H1N1 flu virus epidemic. “There was not a Health and Human Services Secretary named yet so it fell upon us to run point on it. We had so many of these same discussions on a slightly larger scale,” she recalled.
Lesher first ran Napolitano’s Southern Arizona office when she was governor in 2003, then became her chief of staff in Phoenix and ultimately, followed her to the nation’s capital in 2009 to oversee a staff of 200,000-plus. “Jan is just a wonderful person,” Napolitano said. “She has good judgment, she’s able to identify issues and priorities and she has the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.”
“Her heart has always been with Pima County,” Napolitano said. “After a year-plus in D.C., her heart called her home.” Lesher joined the county in 2010 and has served as deputy county administrator since 2011.
“I have always admired the work of the county,” said Lesher. “To be offered an opportunity to come back to my hometown and work for a government I admire greatly has been an amazing opportunity. I’m given so many opportunities to be creative. Not everyone in government gets to do that.”
Huckelberry especially lauds Lesher’s problem-solving acuity. “I brought her on to be one of the top management team members because of her prior experience in state and federal governments. She is very bright and an effective problem solver.”
One of her goals when Lesher first returned was to look critically at Pima Animal Care Center, where at the time, less than half of the animals were adopted – a live release rate of 49%. Because of her work and ensuing community investment, the live release rate is now above 90%. In 2019, the center set a record with 11,300 adoptions. “This community has demanded that quality of care for their animals,” she said. “Now, we have an extraordinary facility and extraordinary staff. Quality begets quality.”
Added Huckelberry: “She spearheaded an entire change in attitude. Remember, we used to call it ‘animal control’ and that had a negative connotation. She led a whole change in philosophy.”
Amid the pandemic, the county has been praised for its distribution of accurate, timely data. “It’s so important to us. We want to be the clearinghouse of unbiased, accurate information,” Lesher said. “We also see a strong role as convener. We may not have all the answers, but that’s why we convene many groups of people. We need to hear what they are seeing every day.”
Shaw, who chaired the county’s community updates subcommittee, has been pleased with the comprehensive efforts, as well as, Lesher’s determination.
“What I love and respect about Jan is she always has the end goal in mind,” Shaw said. “What are we trying to accomplish? Who needs to be involved or know about this? How will this benefit our community?”