As a young boy in Belleville, Ill., Phil Rodriguez (LAS MPA ’11) spent many happy hours knocking on neighbors’ doors, passing out flyers and talking up political candidates. This early induction to the bustling world of campaigns left a deep impression on Rodriguez. “When you start volunteering… you get a passion for it and a drive to do it, and that’s what happened with me,” he recalls. Rodriguez’s enthusiasm for politics never wavered, and today, as director of public affairs for the State of Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, Rodriguez focuses on improving the lives of Illinois residents.
Rodriguez’s career sends him ping-ponging around the state, from Cairo to Waukegan and back again, but he’s accustomed to the road warrior lifestyle. While pursuing his master’s in public administration from DePaul, Rodriguez worked fulltime on three different campaign races — federal, congressional and gubernatorial. “I’d be in a hotel room at the end of the night, and I would study,” he remembers. “I would write my papers when I was in the back of the car, while the candidate was in the front.”
Though daunting at times, Rodriguez’s persistence paid off, and his political perspective helped enliven classroom discussions. “DePaul provided a really unique atmosphere that allowed me to have some fun debates from the start and see a unique worldview,” he says. “And it was literally a worldview. Students from all over the world were in those classes, and it allowed me to get an approach that I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And I thought that was really cool.” Rodriguez was initially attracted to DePaul for its “phenomenal reputation,” but he counts engaging professors and dialogues with classmates as the most enduring aspects of his experience.
Shortly before Rodriguez graduated from DePaul, he accepted a position working with the state comptroller on a new minority and small business development program. Rodriguez built this initiative from the ground up, and it helped lead to his current role. As director of public affairs, Rodriguez continues to focus on developing and enhancing relationships. “My team is about going out there, building these relationships, going to nonprofits, and talking to civic organizations and community leaders, saying, ‘where can we help, how can we provide support, how can my team be a liaison to your efforts?’”
Representing the state’s chief financial office is not something Rodriguez takes lightly. “It’s a crucial job right now, because the state is in such dire need in terms of financial payments,” he says. “We found that people don’t know where to go when they’re in [financial] trouble, particularly in the nonprofit community.” Faced with this troubling reality, Comptroller Topinka challenged the office and Rodriguez to create the Illinois Has Heart Tour, which helped educate nonprofits about their options. In particular, the tour highlighted the comptroller’s decision to prioritize payments to nonprofits.
Rodriguez considers the tour one of his great professional accomplishments. “We could see how it had an impact,” he shares. “We saw that the state of Illinois could do something good, find some solutions… we’ve just got to find more of that, and that’s the challenge.” The task won’t be easy, but Rodriguez is definitely up for it. “I really love public service,” he says, grinning. “I love being here, and I love the opportunity to stay involved with constituents and the public.”