Connecting state and local government leaders
Where the party has majorities, they hope to focus on issues like housing, voting rights and criminal justice. In GOP-controlled states, they want to hold the line against Republican proposals on abortion, school vouchers and guns.
With state governments playing a more important role as Washington is expected to be stuck in gridlock the next couple of years, top Democrats in legislatures where they hold majorities say they plan to press for priorities like increasing affordable housing.
Elsewhere, in states like Florida and Iowa where Democrats hold legislative minorities, lawmakers, speaking during a webinar organized by the group NewDEAL, said they are focused on stopping Republican proposals to limit abortions and increase gun rights.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats won control of the state's legislature in November for the first time in 12 years. “With our new Democratic majority, we want to expand some of the things that we've done to help people stay in their homes,” said House Majority Whip Jordan Harris.
For example, he said Democrats want to broaden the Whole-Home Repairs Program the state started last year using American Rescue Plan Act dollars, which gives low-income households up to $50,000 in grants to rehabilitate their homes.
“We've used that as an opportunity to keep people in their homes,” Harris said. Not being able to afford the cost of a project like a substantial roof repair, he added, makes it more likely that people will sell their homes and move out of a neighborhood.
“We were able to use those dollars to get money into the hands of folks to say: ‘Hey, fix up your home, so you can keep your property,'” he said.
Harris said Pennsylvania Democrats are also planning to increase tax credits to build more low-income housing and clean up blighted areas, including in rural regions, where they have old industrial sites, but lack resources to clean them up and put them to new use.
Similarly, Connecticut’s Democratic Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said housing is a priority for the party in his state, including homes for seniors, recent college graduates and lower-income residents. Duff said lawmakers want to work with cities to address zoning.
“But we also don't have the time or luxury to wait any longer,” he said. “If we're going to build this economy in Connecticut. If we're going to grow jobs in Connecticut, if we're going to bring in population in Connecticut, we've got to have the housing.”
The discussion held by NewDEAL, a center-left group of state and local officials, came a week after the drama among House Republicans over naming Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker.
“We all witnessed last week, the kind of chaos that is in the House of Representatives this year,” said NewDEAL CEO Debbie Cox Bultan. “We can all hope that the cooler heads will prevail and things will get done, but I think we have to be realistic about the fact that there could be two years when Washington is able to get very little done.”
In addition to housing, Harris, the Pennsylvania lawmaker, mentioned voting rights and criminal justice reforms as priorities. Duff said Connecticut Democrats are hoping, among other things, to reduce taxes, improve transportation and make college more affordable.
Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said Democrats there will look for ways to preserve manufactured housing and mobile homes for residents. “One thing that we've seen is institutional investors snapping up manufactured housing and mobile home communities and raising rents,” he said. “It's a really big problem and I fear it's gonna go from bad to worse in the coming years.”
But with Republicans having expanded their majority in the Senate to 34-16, Wahls said Democrats are focused on fighting what he called “radical” proposals, like expanding private school vouchers. He said that plan would undermine public schools. Republicans argue it would give parents more choices about where their children are educated.
Democrats also oppose an expected attempt by Iowa Republicans to revive a law struck down by a state court in 2019 that barred abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
In Florida, Democrats hold only 35 of the House’s 120 seats. House Minority Whip Christine Hunschofsky said she, too, was concerned by Republican attempts to increase vouchers to send children to private schools and efforts to restrict the ability of women to have abortions.
Hunschofsky also voiced worries over Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ support for allowing people to carry guns without a permit–which she called “untrained carry.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.