It has been clear since the November election that the Democratic Party in our state is basically in a fight for its life. In her recent op-ed, state party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore did a good job of covering our past history of national achievements. We must now go beyond that to look at the impacts of more recent national policies, past achievements at the state level, and where we need to go from here in terms of our issues and how we convey them.
The bottom line is that our state Democratic Party must focus on the actual issues that affect real voters here and now. Who are we to say that a person is voting against his or her best interests? We must come together within our party as a big tent that includes people with some divergent views and define ourselves based primarily on what we are for. This is not just a matter of messaging but of fighting for and taking concrete actions that improve people’s lives.
Biafore states that we now take for granted a 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, health insurance, paid leave and pensions. While this may be true for the dwindling number of union workers and those of us in the professional class, our electorate includes large numbers of young people and people without college degrees who suffer from irregular hours, do not earn a living wage, and lack health insurance, paid leave and pensions. These voters have no reason to thank us as Democrats or unions for what they do not have.
The national Democratic Party has, unfortunately, worked in the past couple of decades against the interests of these same voters by taking them for granted, embracing tax cuts for the rich, supporting deregulation, abandoning unions and establishing free trade agreements with inadequate protections for our American workforce. The national party has also allowed the financial sector to develop an oversized role in the national economy that does not support or reward the reinvestment of profits into most employees and their well-being.
In addition, we know that many rural and working class voters have views on cultural issues that differ from the national Democratic Party. In the minds of many of these voters there is now no distinction in this regard between the national party, on the one hand, and the state party and down ballot races, on the other.
Despite these national dynamics, we also know that our state party has done some good things here in the past. These achievements include expanding pre-k to 4-year olds, increasing health insurance coverage via CHIP and Medicaid expansion, enacting the severance tax, imposing some necessary tax increases in the past, creating a great state park system and investing in the arts and community-building events. We also have a record of investing in colleges and raising the minimum wage, although these benefits have since eroded. We can undoubtedly do more to take credit for these past successes.
We still have a great deal of work to do to establish the conditions that not everyone can take for granted. These include a living wage, paid sick and family leave, adequate health care, food security and other supports for the necessities of life. We need to reinvest in our colleges after shifting from state support to higher tuition during the past several years.
In the short term we need to fight for the investment of federal CARES funds and other supports in the people and businesses who most need them to get by. We also must do whatever it takes to mitigate this pandemic that is ravaging our state and prevent further deaths.
We know that nationally about one-third of the potential electorate chose not to vote in the November election. In our state we can anticipate that there is still a large pool of non-voters, with many younger people and workers without college degrees who we need to keep trying to reach. We must listen to them to learn what their needs are and how we can best help to address them.
We can also learn from our successful legislative candidates what worked best for them in their districts. As I have mentioned before, I am personally heartened that the federal or state candidate with the third-highest percentage of the vote against the winning Republican — following behind two candidates who were current or past incumbents and had wide name recognition — had a well-managed campaign that did not accept corporate donations and clearly stated her support for progressive policies that can benefit our state.
In order to live up to its rhetoric in terms of being a big tent, everyone in our state party must recognize and respect divergent views. As one of my colleagues has stated, when you’re the underdog, you have to work together. Part of our outreach to voters must include promoting the issues that we can agree on. We also need to highlight that we are truly a Democratic Party that embraces differing views and agrees to disagree as needed.
We must also continue to work with our Republican allies on the issues that we all can agree on. During the last legislative session our groundbreaking bipartisan accomplishments included dental care for Medicaid recipients, increased compensation for foster families, and, in the House of Delegates, support for studying a just transition to an economy that is based on alternative energy. There is still more work to do this upcoming session to build on these accomplishments.
Our work is cut out for us. There is a deep bench that is prepared and willing to expand into this leadership.
It is time for us to leave the past behind and move into this new future with openness, dedication and resolve. It is by our acts that we will be known. The improvements that we actively fight for and are able to help achieve are essential to carrying the day.