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After years of putting transgender issues at the center of the culture wars, several anti-trans candidates were defeated in Tuesday’s state and local elections. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, Nov. 11, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There is plenty of news to keep tabs on, but first: Happy Veterans Day! We at Route Fifty would like to thank all past and present service members. It seems fitting that Veterans Day falls so close to Election Day in the U.S., where this week millions of voters across the nation exercised their freedom to vote.
There were a lot of groups happy with how Tuesday’s elections unfurled, and one of those is supporters of transgender rights, who emerged victorious in many key races after years of being at the center of conservative-led culture wars.
In Kentucky, Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron repeatedly targeted transgender rights in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Andy Beshear. The Democratic governor vetoed a measure passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature earlier this year that bans access to gender-affirming care for transgender kids and dictates which bathrooms they must use. The legislature overrode his veto.
During the campaign, Cameron said Beshear “protects transgender surgeries for kids” and “demands that boys play in girls sports,” referring to transgender girls. Cameron, the state’s attorney general, said Beshear was “auditioning for a job with Bud Light’s marketing team,” referring to the beer brand’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Gender was one of the top three issues addressed by Republican ads in the governor’s race (along with crime and Joe Biden), according to AdImpact, a campaign ad tracking service.
Beshear responded to the barrage of criticism with an ad of his own, saying his faith led him to believe that “all children are children of God.” The governor also quipped about Cameron’s focus on the issue, “I think if you ask him about climate change, he’ll say it’s caused by children and gender reassignment surgeries.”
Cameron’s preoccupation with transgender rights perplexed some political observers, too. Cook Political Report analyst Jessica Taylor told reporters she has “not seen evidence yet either in Kentucky or elsewhere that [campaigning to restrict the rights of transgender people] is an effective argument.” She noted that Republicans had tried a similar tack with Gov. Laura Kelly in Kansas last year.
Of course, transgender rights played a big role in many races across the country, from school board races in Pennsylvania to legislative elections in Virginia. In fact, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won election two years ago promising to promote “parents’ rights” and imposing new rules on transgender students in schools.
But those efforts failed to gain traction or even backfired. Virginia Del. Danica Roem, a Democrat, won election to the state Senate Tuesday against a Republican incumbent who opposed transgender rights and wanted to ban transgender students from playing high school sports. That makes her the second transgender state senator in the country, along with Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride, who is now running for Congress.
Meanwhile, conservative activists backed by groups like Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project lost 70% of their school board races nationally, according to the American Federation of Teachers, although the conservative groups dispute that number. Liberal majorities took control of school boards in culture war hotspots such as Loudoun County and Spotsylvania County in Virginia and Central Bucks County school district in Pennsylvania.
“Extremist politicians on the Republican side have been really focusing on attacking transgender people,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund. “They did so cynically, because they thought it was going to get them votes. But what Tuesday night’s results really born out was that [attacking transgender rights] only captures votes in the primaries, because it only resonates with the fringes. When you get to the general elections, it really backfires on these anti-trans candidates.”
Transgender people make up a small portion of the population—likely less than 1%—so most Americans don’t spend much time worrying about them, Heng-Lehtinen said. So making them a huge part of a campaign platform, at a time when Americans are worried about gas prices, school shootings and teacher shortages, makes those candidates look “out of touch,” he said.
“We’re at a point where most people do recognize the basic humanity of transgender people,” he added. “They may understandably have questions about some more intricate policy matters, like school sports or health care, but they can generally recognize that we are people and no one should be subjected to discrimination. So when a candidate for office makes a point to attack us, it makes them look like a bully.”
Heng-Lehtinen said that politicians like Youngkin misinterpreted the angst of parents in 2021, the year when the Republican Virginia governor was elected. At the time, the public was tired of school closures, mask mandates and other COVID-19 policies, Heng-Lehtinen said, and parents from across the political spectrum became more involved in politics, particularly when it came to schools.
“These culturally conservative organizations tried to leverage that to also put forward anti-LGBT initiatives and anti-diversity in education initiatives,” he said. “They purposefully tried to seize the momentum around COVID organizing into these other cultural war issues, and they conflated COVID with everything else, when really, everyday parents did feel affected by COVID but most of them didn’t feel affected by trans people. I mean, let’s be real. There’s not a lot of us out there.”
But politically, the momentum swung against transgender rights in Republican strongholds. Conservatives wanted to burnish their credentials with their strongest supporters, and groups like Moms for Liberty formed to pressure school administrators and public officials to curb diversity initiatives and even remove library books about LGBTQ characters or people of color from schools.
In state legislatures, new records were set every year since 2020 in the amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced and in the number of proposals specifically targeting transgender and nonbinary people.
When trans people found that they were being targeted by public officials, though, many of them decided to run for office themselves, Heng-Lehtinen said. “It’s not a coincidence. There has been a marked increase in trans people running for office, and it’s only been in the last two years. It is to a meaningful degree in response to these growing legislative attacks on transgender people.”
This fall, trans candidates won election to the Minneapolis City Council, to the Nashville Metro council and as the commissioner of finance in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
But the anti-trans rhetoric in the political arena has affected trans people in their everyday lives, particularly for trans youth, Heng-Lehtinen said. They face mental health problems and growing suicidal ideation, along with physical attacks, murders and other hate crimes. “We are fighting for our lives in policy, but we are also literally fighting for our lives,” he said. “So in response, a lot of transgender people and our families who love us are now getting involved.”
It's not clear whether candidates will abandon their anti-trans rhetoric in the future, but Heng-Lehtinen said he found one encouraging sign since the Tuesday elections. During the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday, the issue of transgender rights was barely mentioned, even though it was a major flashpoint in previous debates. “In the last round of debates, they went after transgender people hard,” he said. “But now, the day after the election, they rewrote their script.”
More Election News
Tuesday was a big night for Democrats. It proved that the party has staying power in state elections: Voters reelected the Democratic governor of Kentucky and rebuffed the Republican legislature in Ohio by approving measures to legalize marijuana and protect abortion rights. Democrats also added to their wins by taking control of the Virginia House from Republicans. It was a historic night of firsts, particularly in local elections. ICYMI, check out Daniel C. Vock’s roundup of election results.
Housing and homelessness played a big role in this year’s elections, both as a candidate issue and on ballot initiatives. Route Fifty’s Molly Bolan found that Tuesday’s results reflect frustration with the issues and little agreement across communities on which policies are most effective in creating safe, stable and affordable housing for all.
Public transportation was also on the ballot in communities across the country. Voters on Tuesday approved 14 out of 19 measures supporting public transit. This week’s results add to the 15 public transit measures already passed by voters this year, bringing the total to 29 out of 36 wins for public transit in 2023, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
And finally, several tax initiatives were on the ballot Tuesday. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy rounded up its take on the elections’ results. But a few issues garnered national attention, including Ohio’s 10% excise tax on legalized marijuana and Texas voters’ decision to cut property taxes.
Texas voters weighed 14 constitutional amendments on the ballot Tuesday and approved property tax cuts, a raise for retired teachers and billions in investments in infrastructure, research, tech and energy. By far, the ballot measure with the most support was an $18 billion package that lowered school district property taxes for homeowners and businesses. Texans also approved a ballot measure denying the legislature the option to impose a wealth tax.
Meanwhile, a sweeping proposal to overhaul Colorado’s property tax system was rejected by voters. The plan promised property tax savings but packaged in significant changes to how the state collects, spends and refunds tax money for years to come.
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and if you don’t already and would prefer to get this roundup in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs and Notable Events
- VETERANS: Massachusetts governor wants to study psychedelics for vets. Just in time for the arrival of Veterans Day, the Healey administration announced a new plan to significantly expand benefits for Massachusetts residents who served in the armed forces and study if psychedelics could be useful in their medical treatment. During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Maura Healey announced the filing of an act Honoring, Empowering and Recognizing Our Servicemembers and Veterans, or the HERO Act, which according to her administration is the first “comprehensive and expansive” veterans-centric piece of legislation introduced by a Bay State governor in two decades. The HERO act includes 17 different spending and policy initiatives covering benefits expansion, modernization of services, and commitments to “inclusivity and greater representation,” according to Healey’s office. Among the provisions, Healey’s bill would establish a working group to study the “health benefits of psychedelics as treatment for veterans suffering from physical or mental health disorders related to their service.”
- ENERGY: Michigan passed one of the most ambitious clean energy bills. Michigan’s Democratic-controlled legislature on Wednesday passed a package of clean energy bills that includes one of the most aggressive state-level clean energy targets in the nation. The centerpiece of the new climate package, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign into law later this month, would require the state to generate all of its electricity from wind, solar and other carbon-free sources by 2040, eliminating the climate-warming pollution generated by coal and gas-fired power plants. The legislation would also tighten energy efficiency requirements for electric utilities, allow more residents to enroll in a rooftop solar energy program and streamline permits for new wind and solar power.
- ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Maryland picked for new FBI headquarters. The decision is a significant victory for the state following years of jockeying against Virginia and debate throughout several presidencies about where best to locate the law enforcement agency. The General Services Administration picked a site in Greenbelt, just outside Washington, D.C., saying in a written statement that “GSA determined Greenbelt to be the best site because it was the lowest cost to taxpayers, provided the greatest transportation access to FBI employees and visitors, and gave the government the most certainty on project delivery schedule.” The spokesperson added that the site also provides “the highest potential to advance sustainability and equity.”
- ELECTIONS: Minnesota Supreme Court allows Trump on primary ballot. Former President Donald Trump will stay on the Minnesota primary ballot after the state supreme court on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to end his candidacy under a rarely-used constitutional provision that forbids those who “engaged in insurrection” from holding office. The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to become the first in history to use Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to prevent someone from running for the presidency. The court dodged the central question of the lawsuit—does Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol disqualify him from the presidency—by ruling that state law allows parties to put whomever they want on the primary ballot. The court left open the possibility that plaintiffs could try again to knock Trump off the general election ballot in November.
- TRANSPORTATION: AI traffic camera program detects driver behavior. Police departments in Prince George’s County are piloting a new traffic camera program that uses artificial intelligence technology to detect driver behavior. Obvio, the company behind the technology, targets unsafe driving and gives real-time feedback on a digital message board. If a driver runs a stop sign, a digital billboard lets the driver know what they did wrong, displaying “AN UNSAFE STOP.” In one city that recently wrapped up its pilot program, the data collected so far showed a 76% decrease in stop sign runners. The camera can also detect bike and bus lane violations and drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians. The footage can be used by police departments for enforcement and used as evidence in court. Unlike most speed cameras, drivers don’t get a ticket or a fine when the camera catches them. But police can work in conjunction with the camera to catch offenders, pulling over drivers based on the violations caught on camera.
- EDUCATION: Portland, Oregon, teachers strike. Negotiations between the Portland Schools teacher union and school district leaders continued this week. School district officials notified families that schools will remain closed until a deal has been reached. With roughly 3,500 educators on strike, nearly 43,000 students are shut out of school. The two sides are mired in negotiations over cost of living adjustments, workload relief and class sizes, as well as health and safety conditions inside schools. It is the first teacher strike in district history.
- CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Feds launch probe into Mississippi police practices. The Justice Department is now investigating the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department to determine whether it “engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, excessive force or First Amendment violations,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Lexington, an 85% majority Black town on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, came into national focus in 2022 when the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting broke the story of a recording of then-Police Chief Sam Dobbins. The recording was filled with racist and homophobic slurs and Dobbins, who is white, bragged about killing 13 people in the line of duty.
- CRIME: Baltimore ramps up efforts to combat surge in vehicle thefts. City officials on Monday said they’re expanding a slew of efforts to combat auto thefts in the city, including distributing more vehicle wheel locks and making improvements to the city’s impound lot. The city also plans to obtain more digital tracking tags that can be used to help track and recover stolen vehicles. Auto thefts have been on the rise in cities across the U.S. In Baltimore, the number of vehicles stolen has nearly quintupled to rates not seen since the mid-’90s. Maryland State Police reported in April that thefts of Kia and Hyundai cars have increased nearly 50% over the past year after viral TikTok videos showing how to steal the vehicles using a screwdriver and a USB charging cord amassed millions of views.
- POLITICS: Texas' part-time legislature has been at it all year. When Texas lawmakers started their fourth special session Tuesday evening, they also made a bit of history. Never before has the governor called a fourth special session the same year as the regular session, underscoring the gridlock Gov. Greg Abbott has faced this year as he has pushed lawmakers to pass his priorities. Four special sessions are unusual but not unheard of. There were previously 10 times in Texas history where a governor called at least four special sessions after a regular session, the most recent being 2004. Special sessions are not without a cost to taxpayers. A full 30-day session amounts to about $1.2 million in per diem payments to lawmakers, which are meant to cover their expenses in Austin.
- TECHNOLOGY: California’s billion-dollar bet to overhaul unemployment. Five years, $1.2 billion and a new model for government contracting. That is what California officials say it will take to overhaul an employment safety net pushed to the brink by record pandemic job losses, widespread fraud and the political panic that followed. The biggest-ever attempt to reform California’s Employment Development Department, known as “EDDNext,” officially started late last year. A roughly 100-person team is leading the rebuild. Ron Hughes, a former state technology official and consultant who came out of retirement to run EDDNext, said his team is prioritizing “the biggest pain points for the public”—online accounts, call centers, identity verification, benefit applications—as the agency tries to turn the page on an era of mass payment delays and widespread fraud.
- AI: In Colorado's mountains, AI watches for wildfires. High-resolution cameras scanning Colorado forests once every minute, 24-7—linked to a smoke-detecting algorithm residing in a computer cloud—are popping up on Colorado high points from Lookout Mountain near Golden to Telluride’s Ajax Peak. The early detection system was developed and is operated by San Francisco-based Pano AI, and by the end of 2023 there will be 40 installations in Colorado. The biggest investment in the technology is being made by Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electricity provider, which Tuesday announced that it has committed to installing a total of 21 stations, each with two cameras, by year’s end. Meanwhile, Georgia officials want to use AI and bots to clear a backlog of SNAP benefits renewals. The state is currently waiting to see if a request to use AI will be approved by the federal government.
- INFRASTRUCTURE: California fast tracks first new reservoir in decades. Gov. Gavin Newsom put a long-debated water storage project north of Sacramento on the fast track for approval Monday, using his power under new infrastructure laws to accelerate development and reduce regulatory hurdles.The proposed $4.5 billion reservoir would be California’s first major reservoir in nearly 50 years. Supporters of the reservoir have long promoted the project as a way to boost water storage amid increasingly unpredictable climate swings. It can hold up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water—enough to supply 3 million households annually—for farms and cities across the state. While the project would not impact the river’s currents directly, critics have long warned that the project would remove much-needed water for fish habitat and represents a loss for other wildlife and natural landscapes along the river.
Picture of the Week
More than 2,600 designs were proposed for the new Minnesota state flag and seal during the public submission period that ended on Oct. 30. Eighty-five percent of the submissions are for the flag, while 15% for the seal, reported the Pioneer Press. The flag designs include classic Minnesota elements such as trees, water, loons, the north star and even the pink lady’s slipper. Many of those same components appear on seal submissions. Later this month, the State Emblems Redesign Commission will select five entries each for the new state seal and state flag. The 2023 legislature established the commission to develop and adopt a new design for the state seal and a new design for the state flag by Jan. 1. The state’s effort follows a wave of flag redesigns across the nation, Ted Kaye, a vexillologist and author of the book on flag design, Good Flag, Bad Flag, told Route Fifty earlier this year. (Flag submissions courtesy of State Emblems Redesign Commission)
Government in Numbers
The approximate number of glaciers that have disappeared across the American West since the mid-20th century. The new inventory of glaciers in the American West shows that 52 of the 612 officially named glaciers are no longer glaciers because they are either too small, no longer moving or have disappeared altogether. The effort focuses on named glaciers across the western half of the continental U.S. and has found that since the mid-20th century—about the time the U.S. Geological Survey first started mapping the entire country—about 360 glaciers have either disappeared or become permanent snowfields. Researchers said the disappearance of glaciers shows just how much climate change is impacting the landscape across the American West. For a mass of ice to be considered a glacier, it must be at least 0.01 square kilometers (roughly the size of two side-by-side football fields) and it must be moving.