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To Build Back Better, Look to the States
COMMENTARY

May 24, 2021by Debbie Cox Bultan, CEO, NewDEAL
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The continued implementation of the American Rescue Plan across the country reflects exactly the type of bold and aggressive action from Washington that candidate Biden promised when he told the country how he would lead us through this challenging time. It also illuminates the huge role that leaders outside Washington will play in determining whether we achieve President Biden’s mission to Build Back Better.  

First, the plan allocates hundreds of billions of dollars that were just released to state and local governments, giving leaders the opportunity to shape their communities’ economic recovery and enact transformational changes in areas like education, broadband, housing, child care and more. Leaders at the state and local levels will determine whether our country moves quickly and boldly to make real the promise of that funding. 

Second, united Republican opposition reminds us that to drive progress on a host of issues, and make long-term investments in our recovery, Democrats will also need to invest in fighting political battles playing out in state houses and city halls. Democrats would do well to remember the hard lessons of 2010, when crushing down-ballot losses led to regressive policies. Many of those battles are still being fought in states today. Twenty-four states enacted voter ID and other measures that prevent disadvantaged populations from voting; 12 states still refuse to expand Medicaid; and only four states are spending more money on education per student now than they were before 2010.

Fortunately, we have reasons to be hopeful about the progress Democrats can make on issues from climate change to education to affordable housing if we support and invest in the work of leaders at the state and local levels. 

As CEO of The NewDEAL, which this week is celebrating its 10th anniversary of working with a network of 180 of the most innovative state and local officials across the country, it has been inspiring to see their ability to advance change, especially during the Trump era. Mayors banded together to cut emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. City and state legislators found innovative solutions to support workers and families, such as through Renter’s Choice Legislation, a low-cost alternative to burdensome security deposits. As the COVID-19 pandemic tore through America, states and cities responded in bold and innovative ways — from standing up multilingual mobile testing and vaccination clinics in vulnerable communities to repurposing old hotel properties as socially-distanced shelters and providing rental assistance to struggling tenants. 

In addition to relying on state and local leaders to implement the American Rescue Plan, President Biden cannot unilaterally undo the centuries of systemic inequities that plague our city zoning codes, venture capital ecospheres, and broadband coverage maps. Much of the hard work must be done by his local partners. With investment in building political support, that work is possible even in traditionally red states, as demonstrated by successful recent efforts to expand Medicaid in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah. 

Supporting a pipeline of talented, effective state and local leaders also has enormous benefits for the future of the Democratic Party. In addition to shaping policy on key issues now and making progress in the same areas in which we lost so much ground after 2010, they will be our national leaders of tomorrow, bringing with them the same governing ethos and political skills that have made them successful at other levels of government. As long-time NewDEAL Leader Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently wrote “[T]he lessons of South Bend continue to guide me today, as I consider how the decisions made here at the federal level will affect daily life in neighborhoods and communities across the country.” 

So while the future of the filibuster and the work to unite 50 Democratic Senators will have a major impact on the Biden agenda, national Democrats must also focus on the successes of state and local leaders. They must (1) support forward-thinking leaders organizing around key issues being debated in state houses and city halls; (2) capitalize on the success stories of state and local leaders who use funds from the American Rescue Plan to make progress; and (3) continue investing in state and local elections, including in off years. 

As the NewDEAL looks ahead to its second decade, we do so knowing that the problems elected officials are tasked with solving — a persistent pandemic, economic recession, and centuries of ingrained inequity — are formidable and numerous. However, we also know the recipe for success: people over politics, results over ideology. The next generation of American leaders is hard at work building a better future across the country. We must ensure they get the attention and support they need to win and build on their success.


Debbie Cox Bultan has 25 years of experience in center-left politics, public policy and non-profit 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 non-profit 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.

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