For the first time in a century, the House of Representatives failed to elect a Speaker on the first ballot, or even on the tenth, as Republicans were held hostage by a small group of extremists within their own party. Republicans ultimately found the votes needed in the 15th round, after tempers flared and concerns grew about the power that extreme members potentially would have in the new Congress. This kind of spectacle is the opposite of what Americans want to see.
In November’s election, voters clearly rejected extremist candidates, opting instead for leaders such as Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Michigan, who ran on platforms promising to solve problems and better meet the needs of constituents. “Chaos agents” and 2020-election deniers lost in major statewide races across the country. Now, in return for voters’ trust, Democrats must continue to deliver on issues that matter to ordinary Americans and show that we are the party that can deliver for our constituents.
Washington, it appears, is headed for two years of gridlock. This heightens the importance of state and local leaders, who must play a critical role through their work by putting forth innovative policies and by making the most of federal investments, including in infrastructure, housing and a clean-energy economy. Here’s how:
First and foremost, state and local leaders must stay focused on issues that matter to voters. They have a tremendous opportunity to do so and to show the value of Democrats’ approach to government, by making wise use of investments approved by Congress and signed into law by President Biden over the past two years.
The American Rescue Plan, for example, did more than just save scores of small businesses that were struggling to recover from the COVID pandemic. State and local leaders are using the funding to bolster child care initiatives in Columbus, Ohio, and expand broadband access in Brownsville, Texas. In Kansas City, Mo., local leaders are using that funding to address the issues of homelessness and affordable housing.
Similarly, school districts across the nation will be transitioning from diesel-fueled school buses to electric ones through funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The demand for electric buses was so overwhelming that the Environmental Protection Agency doubled the amount of funding available at the end of last year, to nearly $1 billion. Cleaner buses mean cleaner air for children and neighborhoods, as well as long-term financial savings for school districts.
There is the potential for thousands more projects across the nation to repair aging roads and bridges, and huge opportunities to grow a clean-energy economy that is sustainable and pays well. Plus, thousands of high-paying jobs will be created through the CHIPS and Science Act, an initiative to bring high-tech manufacturing back to American cities and towns.
Though the federal laws were largely pushed by Democrats, folks in red, purple and blue states also will reap the benefits. Increasing broadband access is not an issue of the political left or right but an American issue. The same can be said of safe bridges, access to affordable child care, quality education, and protecting our planet for future generations.
In addition, elected leaders must maintain focus on preserving and strengthening democracy. This means building upon safeguards to ensure that American elections continue to be safe from interference and malfeasance; expanding access to voting, both in-person and by mail; and fighting against anti-democratic and anti-voting legislation.
While Jim Crow-type voter discrimination tactics may appear to be in the rearview mirror, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in December 2022 that a GOP-backed voting law “was motivated by a racially discriminatory purpose,” adding that the law was “formulated with an impermissible intent to discriminate against African American voters.” Voting rights underpin all other rights in a functioning democracy. While some may seek to suppress the voices of Black and brown Americans, Democrats must continue to listen and heed the voices of all voters.
Finally, Democrats cannot be distracted by fights that don’t matter to their constituents. Rather than comment on the chaos in the House, state and local leaders should use every opportunity to show constituents what a functioning governing body can deliver in terms of good-paying jobs, affordable child care, and access to fast, reliable internet connections. After all, this is what voters have demanded.
Much success over the past two years came from local elected officials working with state officials, who together work with federal officials to bring positive change to communities. This is what happens when those who believe in government — who believe in democracy — work together for the betterment of us all.
Democrats can — and must — continue that work for the next two years. By being beholden to extreme members of their party, it seems that Republicans in Washington may continue to deliver nothing but turmoil.
Debbie Cox Bultan is the CEO of the NewDEAL, a national network of Democratic state and local elected leaders, and the NewDEAL Forum, a nonprofit that identifies and promotes innovative state and local policies.