State Policy Network mourns the loss of state leader and policy maven, Bob Williams, who passed away at the age of 80 on March 15, 2022.
“I’ve worked with Bob since the beginning of my career,” said SPN president and CEO Tracie Sharp. “He’s been a tremendous mentor and friend to me and to so many others.”
Bob dedicated his life to promoting responsible government and identifying practical ways governments could better serve their communities by getting their own fiscal operations in order. He became a trustworthy resource to policymakers and think tanks alike because of his experience as a government practitioner and public servant. He applied his training as a certified public accountant to working as an auditor at the Pentagon and Post Office for the US Government Accountability Office, and later he served five terms in the Washington State Legislature. In 1988, Bob was the Republican nominee for governor.
After his career chapter in state government, Bob founded the Washington Freedom Foundation in 1991 alongside Lynn Harsh, now SPN’s Vice President of Strategy. As leaders of one of the early free-market state think tanks in the country, Bob and Lynn were pioneers of what would become today’s 50-state Network of state-based think tanks working to improve lives and strengthen communities through policy reform.
For Bob, the Foundation was a new avenue for working alongside state and policy leaders to resolve complex challenges related to state budgeting, tax policy, pension systems, and other fiscal issues that affect state government’s ability to serve citizens and communities in responsible, trustworthy ways.
“Bob had worked on the inside of politics for 10 years. We both understood politics was a means to an end, but his real love was policy. Bob believed he could make a difference from the outside in,” said Harsh.
But even as Bob became a nationally recognized expert in the areas of fiscal and tax policy, his heart remained focused on what matters most about policy: people. He wanted to help everyone and demonstrated that it was both possible and essential for a policy wonk to espouse genuine care for the people working directly in the policy arena and for those who would be affected by the consequences of policy decisions.
“Yes, Bob was a true policy maven when it came to state fiscal and tax issues. But he understood that effective policy was about more than numbers. He had a heart for teaching the finer points of fiscal policy to those working in the field—everyone from state lawmakers to the youngest and newest policy analyst in the Network,” reflected Sharp.
In the later decades of his career, Bob traveled across the states and worked alongside organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and State Budget Solutions, to export his vast practical knowledge on state fiscal policy across the Network and to new generations of state leaders. Todd Davidson, Senior Director of Strategic Development at SPN, was one of the rising leaders who experienced Bob’s unique generosity firsthand when starting out his own career at Kansas Policy Institute.
“Bob was the greatest policy legend of all time,” reflected Davidson. “As a young guy coming into the liberty movement, Bob was a policy genius, but what I remember most was how willing he was to help me grow. The first time I reached out to Bob, I sent him a cold email. I was working at Kansas Policy Institute, and our state budget was a mess. I emailed him for help, and within an hour, he sent me 11 policy recommendations—all with links. And they weren’t just his ideas. He had sourced the best ideas from around the Network and was willing to hop on the phone and make introductions to help me put the ideas into action.”
In the midst of his passion for the policy ideas, Bob demonstrated only respect and compassion for those who might disagree. He agonized over policy messages because he wanted to connect with people and meet them where they were…even a sitting governor.
“Bob had a wealth of incredible stories. He once told me that while he was running for governor of Washington state, the sitting governor asked him for advice. So, Bob helped him,” recalled Davidson. “You don’t see that type of generosity in today’s political environment.”
A victory to Bob was a productive policy change—a problem solved rather than a side taken. To honor his impact in both the landscape of state policy ideas and in the 50-state Network, SPN launched the Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement in 2017. The Awards commemorate Bob’s legacy by highlighting the policy efforts and victories across the Network that demonstrate the same level of credibility, excellence, and drive to help real people that Bob exemplified throughout his life and career.
“Bob never got too important for anyone,” said Davidson. “If there’s one lesson that we in the liberty movement should remember today, it’s that we should be like Bob.”
“For more than half of my adult life, Bob and his wife Jane have been personal and dear friends, as well as colleagues,” reflected Harsh. “Bob will be missed, but we are deeply grateful for the example and legacy he has left for us to follow. We need it now more than ever.”