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Ignoring state legislatures is a dangerous proposition

State governments impact nearly every aspect of our daily realities. 
Hon. Jessie Ulibarri & Neha Patel December 28th, 2020
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Ask yourself a question: Do you believe the problems facing your communities and your state will be immediately resolved under a new president? The presidency is an important job, but no one person can undo the harms of the last four years of division, the last 40 years of gridlock in the U.S. Congress, or the last 400 years of systemic racism.

Ask yourself another question: What are the names of your state representatives and state senators? If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Eighty percent of Americans don’t know the names of their legislators at the state level—even though state legislatures have enormous impacts on peoples’ daily lives. From allocating COVID-19 relief funds to keeping schools safe to building infrastructures like roads and universities to protecting and expanding civil rights, state governments impact nearly every aspect of our daily realities. 

As significant progress remains a distant hope in a divided Washington, D.C., state legislatures remain the most capable bodies to immediately advance transformative and liberatory public policy in every corner of this country. State legislatures are the critical front lines of the policy battles to build the world we want to live in. Don’t believe us? Look to Colorado, where the legislature just ended qualified immunity for police officers, or Virginia, which became the first southern state to pass an LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination law and to proactively protect abortion access. Look to New Jersey, which passed the strongest environmental justice law in the nation, or Maine, which capped the price of insulin. 

What’s more, state legislatures are starting to look more like America. For example, in Washington state, the number of Black women legislators tripled from the previous year; Oklahoma elected the country’s first openly nonbinary state legislator, Mauree Turner; and New Mexico’s House of Representatives is a majority of women. As legislatures begin to more accurately reflect the communities they serve, these state legislators bring lived experience to state capitols with a powerful mandate for progress. But they can’t do it alone.  

State legislatures will face an unprecedented level of challenge in the coming legislative sessions. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a swelling global depression, climate disasters, and mass civil uprising in the streets, the destruction and violence of exploitative capitalism and white supremacy are in full view. We need state legislators to meet these crises with urgent action–to keep people healthy, housed, and safe—and to simultaneously join with organizers and advocates engaged in the generation-long battles to build power. This looks like fighting for an increase in wages and PPE for essential workers today and building the long-term coalition that eliminates the concept of “disposable” workers from our public discourse.

We are talking about the need for power-building work amid urgent crises precisely because these crises are the result of neglecting this long-arc work. We don’t have to look far for proof. In 2010, conservatives consolidated power in state legislatures because many in the progressive movement believed President Barack Obama would solve all of our nation’s problems. When the progressive movement ignores states, conservatives exploit state legislatures to roll back our rights and freedoms and entrench the systems that divide the many for the profit of the few. We forget this lesson at our own peril—and we will find ourselves with another divisive demagogue in the White House soon if we don’t focus on power building in the states.

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In the 2021 legislative sessions, Republicans will control 61 chambers to the Democrats’ 37. This outcome isn’t the result of a single campaign cycle, but rather the direct, desired result of decades of work from conservative powers and special interest groups to use strategic racism to divide working Americans for partisan gain; to make it harder—especially for Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans—to vote; and to draw maps that allow politicians to choose their voters. As a result, we have outcomes like Wisconsin, where Joe Biden won 49.6% of the vote but Republicans retained 61% of all state legislative seats. 

State legislators need to publicly and aggressively contend with race and racism, or the chasm will continue to grow larger. And we need every person in this country to recommit to changing public policy from the states outward, not as an afterthought to what’s happening in the White House. We need the progressive movement, organizers, and concerned citizens to know their state legislators, to be aware of the public policy fights going on in the state capitol, and to get engaged. We need people to understand that the average state legislator earns $38,000 a year, has little or no paid staff, and must navigate complicated policymaking processes for hundreds of laws, all while outnumbered by hundreds of corporate lobbyists. Contact your representatives, get involved, and support legislators that are fighting for the issues that matter to you.  

Despite the unprecedented challenges of these times, legislators and the people they represent must meet this moment with historic levels of coordination, vision, courage, and grit. More than ever, the people of the United States are seeking a path to build a healthy, prosperous, and equitable future—and we know that this path runs through the states. Together, we can create the democracy each of us deserves, where every one of us helps build our daily reality. Democracy does not end or begin on Election Day. 

We have proof that visionary leadership and years of on-the-ground, deep organizing works. The long-term strategy to build a multi-racial community power paid off—it was proven successful not just in Georgia, but in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In each of these states, the work has been ongoing for years and should be the organizing blueprint for every state in the country. 

We need only look to one state legislator who everyone in America does know by name: Stacey Abrams. She’s a former state legislator who became a household name, not because of personal victory, but because of her work with, alongside, and in deep partnership with everyday people in Georgia–Black, white, and brown alike—to transform what power looks like. If they can do it there—we must do this everywhere.


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