NewDeal Marks 8 Years of Championing Innovative Good Governance

April 2, 2019 by Dan McCue
NewDEAL leaders at the 2018 Annual Leader Conference in Washington.

Eight years ago, the NewDEAL coalesced around a philosophy that forward-looking politics and economic development were not the opposing forces many on the political fringes had long argued they were.

For those who may not be familiar with the group, the NewDEAL — “DEAL” being an acronym for “Developing Exceptional American Leaders” — is a national network of pro-growth state and local Democratic officials who not only taking innovative steps to nurture their local economies, but are doing so in ways intended to expand opportunity for all and make government work better.

“The policies and governing philosophies that have led to their success do not fit neatly into the traditional left, center, and right divisions of American politics,” the NewDEAL says in an extensive policy statement on its website, The Way Forward: Making the 21st Century Economy Work for Everyone and Rebuilding the Democratic Party.

“Instead they are united by the belief that progress today requires embracing the keys to prosperity in the 21st century, as opposed to trying to turn back the clock to the way America used to be,” the 12-page document continues.

In the past year, a number of the NewDEAL’s members have become high profile national political figures, including California Governor Gavin Newsom; 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is one of 16 Democrats currently running for president.

But the organization and its members say career advancement is beside the point. What the NewDEAL is about, they say, is supporting “fresh voices and fresh ideas that offer an aspirational message to all Americans.”

One of those voices belongs to Amanda Edwards, a city councilwoman in Houston, Texas who is also co-chair of NewDEAL’s Future of Work Policy Group.

“To me, the strength of this organization is that it affords you the opportunity to collaborate with leaders from across the country, to benefit from their policy suggestions and ideas, and to objectively assess the shortcomings and strength of a policy you may be considering,” Edwards said. ” All of these are huge pluses for leaders.”

“At the same time, it’s more than just benefitting from another public officials knowledge and experience in promoting a growing economy. It’s equally important to all of us to achieve that growth in an inclusive way,” she said.

“I think it’s really helpful to have a network of people I can connect with who are committed to this approach to governing and who have ‘best practices’ they can share,” Edwards said.

Even a very brief list of NewDEAL leaders and their innovations is impressive.

For instance, Nebraska State Senator Kate Bolz championed her state’s Community College Gap Assistance program, which provides financial aid for lower-income students to pursue non-credit courses and skills certificates for competitive industries that face workforce shortages.

In Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer has launched a series of 12-week tracks, called Code Louisville, for workers to pursue a career in software development, at no cost to the student.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, State Representative Warwick Sabin sponsored efforts to create an innovation hub in the state to provide space, equipment, and provide connections between employers and potential workers, many of them students.

In Houston, Edwards has established a Task Force for Women and Minority-Owned Businesses that she says will cultivate the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating policies that eliminate the traditional barriers to access to capital that these businesses face.

“Houston is the most diverse city in the country,” Edwards said. “That’s a wonderful thing. But it’s not good enough to me for us simply to be very diverse. We’ve got to be solving the challenges that impact diverse communities.”

A Place to Be Steeped In Policy

Ryan Coonerty, a county supervisor and former mayor of Santa Cruz, California, jokingly said he doesn’t know why NewDEAL reached out to him and asked if he’d be interested in joining, but he said when he attended his first meeting with the group, he immediately saw its value.

“What drew me in, I think, were what I saw as two really valuable pieces of this,” he explained.

“One was that the members are all really steeped in policy, so you can go to a NewDEAL conference and talk about the future of work; you can talk about different approaches to healthcare; you can talk about different ways to address climate change and creating green jobs; and they really dive into the details of what’s been successful in one place, so you can take it back home and try it in your community.”

As an example, Coonerty pointed to a college savings account program the state of Oregon introduced to help low income families get their children into higher education.

The program was the brainchild of Tobias Read, who is now Oregon’s state treasurer, but was then a state legislator. After Read got his college savings account passed, the model was adopted by Tishaura Jones, then a Missouri state representative and now treasurer of the City of St. Louis, who got it though her legislature.

“Read and Jones showed us a successful model that we could replicate,” Coonerty said. “as a result, this year we’re going to be setting up college savings accounts for low income families in Santa Cruz County.”

But there’s more to the NewDEAL than simply swapping ideas, he said.

“The other piece of this is it is just a great network of people,” Coonerty said. “Public service can be a little discouraging these days. And to see people all across the country at all different levels who are really engaged in trying to make a difference in their community … it keeps you going.”

In fact, Coonerty finds it so inspiring that he even hosts the NewDEAL podcast, “An Honorable Profession,” on which he interviews the group’s leaders and members.

“The thing about the podcast is, I was going to conferences and finding out about all of these amazing people and the amazing things these people were doing, and then I’d get home and hear from my constituents just despair about the state of American politics,” he said.

“So I felt that if I could have some conversations about these with folks about both what they’re doing and why they do it, then maybe we could restore some hope to American politics … and maybe even inspire some people to run for office in their community.”

A Spirit of Compromise

Tobias Read, who has been Oregon’s treasurer since January 2017, said what appealed to him about New DEAL was “the idea you don’t have to accept the trade off that a lot of people seem to think is necessary between progressive values and policies in a growing economy.

“I think this group is pretty united around the idea that these are not mutually exclusive things and that in fact, they’re pretty complementary and that you need both,” he said.

Given the extremes much in evidence in politics today, it was suggested to Read that “progressive” has gotten to be a pretty incendiary term to toss around.

“Well, it is an awfully loaded term,” he admitted.

“But when I use it what I mean is — and what I’m hoping for — is a return to the idea of incrementalism and compromise, a return to normalcy, if you will,” Read said.

“To put it another way, my impression of the NewDEAL folks is they are people who are incrementalists in the most positive sense of the term. You can’t get everything you want? Can you get some of what you want? Well then that’s fine, because we’re still making progress. So I guess, in that sense, I’m talking about being ‘progressive’ in a very literal sense.”

Read continued: “I think as a group the NewDEAL is very interested in people having the opportunity to live up to their full potential and at the same time is devoted to the notion that there is a role for individual responsibility to yourself, to people, to one’s family and one’s community.

“I also think that among NewDEAL members there’s a recognition that we are all part of a community locally, nationally, and globally, and that we’re all better off when everyone brings their full selves to that effort,” he said.

Another aspect that NewDEAL members seem to share is a sense that even as it celebrates its eighth year, the organization is still vital and growing.

“I think there’s a real enthusiasm around it, and I attribute that to how unique it is,” Read said.

“I mean, there aren’t many places you can go as a state or local official and talk to your colleagues about issues and share direct experiences,” he said. “NewDEAL has made it possible for us to get to know each other as human beings and that’s only enhanced our ability to do what our constituents want, which is solving real problems. It’s not about scoring points, and I think that’s why we’ll continue to thrive.”

Edwards agreed.

“I think people do take note of the fact leaders have come out of this group and been tremendously successful in consistently serving their communities,” she said.  “And when that happens, you have an organization that constantly refreshes itself, adding more to the fold.”

The next NewDEAL New Ideas Summit will be held in Denver, Colorado on May 6 and 7. Click here for more information.

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