Lessons for Pragmatic Leaders From Mallory McMorrow’s Viral Speech
Many people felt a political earthquake when we saw Democratic Sen. Mallory McMorrow’s recent speech on the floor of the Michigan state Senate. I certainly did. I was moved by her passion, her clarity and her moral outrage at the despicable, outlandish charges from a colleague who called her a pedophile and a groomer.
And I knew immediately that this was the blueprint for fighting the GOP’s culture wars against the LGBTQ+ community, teachers and people of color.
But countless others have decried the same divisive and discriminatory rhetoric that has become so popular among the GOP in election years. So what exactly was it that McMorrow captured in those four minutes and 43 seconds that transformed a state Senate floor speech into a viral moment with the power to change hearts and minds? Now, with the Supreme Court likely to strike down Roe v. Wade, dividing our nation even further, understanding this moment is more important than ever before.
Having worked to support rising state and local leaders for many years, including the past decade at the NewDEAL network, of which McMorrow is a member, I see four things that made her speech so compelling:
First, McMorrow’s authenticity came through, and it was grounded in her experience, story and values. “I’m a straight, White, Christian, married, suburban mom” who is “the biggest threat to a hollow, hateful scheme” because she’s “another parent standing up to say, ‘No!’” She explained who she is and what she stands for. She made a compelling case for why all of us need to bring our voices to the conversation.
Second, she cut through the noise and brought clear, common sense to the larger culture war that has thus far been defined by lies, caricatures and extremes. For example, she acknowledged that no one alive today is responsible (or should be made to feel guilty) for the horrors of slavery, but that everyone alive today is responsible for where we go from here, and learning our history is a vital part of informing how we move forward with compassion and understanding. We know that the majority of the country agrees with this — and believes that slavery and race should be taught in schools.
Third, she threw out the old conventional wisdom that says that responding to outlandish accusations only gives them credence. Instead, she landed a direct hit — with passion and impact. It’s hard to believe we live in a world where a growing number of people believe crazy, unsubstantiated accusations, but that’s our new reality. At the end of the day, you have an elected official calling someone they don’t agree with on policy a pedophile and a groomer. It’s nuts. Yet here we are, with a scary percentage of one of our major parties believing conspiracy theories. These charges must be debunked and dismantled immediately, no matter how crazy they are.
Finally, she did not just respond on their rhetorical turf; she laid out her values and her agenda for change. McMorrow rightly called out these culture wars for what they are: a distraction from the important issues and policies that actually impact Americans’ lives. As she laid out, these distractions will not help raise teachers’ salaries, lower health costs, fix our roads, or make children feel seen, heard and supported. Some people just want to make a statement. McMorrow wants to make — and is making — a difference.
As we head toward November, the rhetoric, the charges and the lies will get more ludicrous, and breaking through that noise will become even more difficult.
Maybe I’m naive, but I still believe that most people in America want their elected officials to work to address the very real challenges they face — putting food on the table, finding affordable housing and child care, and ensuring the next generation will grow up in safe, prosperous communities.
So as pragmatic progressive leaders think about how to stand up to the attacks and antics they will face from Republicans, look to how McMorrow did it — principled, direct, passionate, from a position of authenticity and with moral clarity — calling out the crazy and making the case for an agenda that will help people.
The blueprint is there. Now, let’s get to work.
Debbie Cox Bultan has 25 years of experience in center-left politics, public policy and nonprofit leadership. As CEO of NewDEAL, she oversees both strategy and day-to-day operations for the organization. She previously served as executive director for the Civic Leadership Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that prepares underserved youth for college, career and civic life. Prior to helping launch NewDEAL, she spent 15 years at the Democratic Leadership Council where she served in a number of capacities, including national political director and chief of staff. Among her accomplishments at the DLC was developing a network of, and policy tools for, state and local elected officials across the country. You can reach out on Twitter @debbiecoxbultan and @newdealleaders.