The Well News | For NewDEAL’s Bultan Good Government Is All About Encouraging Voters to Vote Their Aspirations
By Dan McCue
In an era when many lawmakers seem happier to sow chaos than to actually pass meaningful legislation, the members of NewDEAL, a Democratic Party-affiliated network of pro-growth and progressive state and local elected officials, are a marked contrast.
At their recent annual gathering in Washington, hundreds of members sat in rapt attention as one colleague after another spoke about solutions they’d found and strategies they’d employed to deal with local issues like a lack of affordable housing, or mass transit for the elderly and infirmed, or fairer access to educational tools and small business assistance.
Throughout a series of presentations that stretched over two days, several members could be huddled at tables taking and comparing notes.
At a time when the current 118th Congress can gain a measure of infamy by holding 724 votes, but only passing 27 laws, the untarnished, can-do spirit of attendees was infectious.
(By comparison, according to the data collected by the House clerk, the 117th Congress held 549 votes in 2022, and saw 248 of those bills signed into law.)
And then they all went home and got back down to work.
Hoping to learn a bit more about the NewDEAL, The Well News recently caught up with Debbie Cox Bultan, CEO of the organization, via video call to get her closing perspective of 2023 and her thoughts on what’s ahead for the new year.
We started with the question begged by the dire scenario above: Why do state and local governments — all politics aside — seem to work so much better than the federal government does?
“I love that,” Bultan laughed. “It’s the perennial question, right? But what I would say to that suggestion, in all seriousness, is that state and local governments work, arguably, better than the federal government, because they’re simply closer to the ground.
“I mean, people see their local elected officials in the grocery store and other places in the community, and I think as a result, they’re just held more accountable,” she said.
“Now, of course, some of the same rules don’t apply. On the local level, you have officials with direct, executive authority. And on the state level, legislatures are compelled to balance the budget and so on,” Bultan continued.
“But there is something to the American system, something inherent, that requires those in state and local government to be more effective, because they’re more likely to be held directly accountable for their actions or lack of action,” she said.
While Bulton may have agreed in theory that there’s a big difference between what different levels of government appear to get done, she was also quick to point out that a lot of the activity on the local level is the result of the last Congress passing the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Both have pumped billions upon billions of dollars into local economies to spur infrastructure projects, broadband’s expansion and other economic development-related activities.
“A big part of what state and local leaders are doing right now is implementing the things the president and vice president were able to get through Congress [before the Republicans gained the majority in the House in January 2023],” Bultan said.
“What’s interesting is people’s perception of what happened. I was just in Washington last week, and for many of the people I talked to, those major pieces of legislation were something that happened in the distant past,” she said.
“Meanwhile, much of the money those bills allocated for projects and programs is just starting to roll out, and people have yet to see the results of this historic investment on the ground yet,” she added.
Bultan was asked if that accounts for the apparent disconnect between what the Biden administration has accomplished and his woeful poll numbers.
“I think there’s some truth to that,” she said. “A lot of amazing things really have happened in terms of investments in our country, and yet the polls show there is a disconnect. I mean, there was a Third Way poll a while back that suggested only about 25% of the people they surveyed even knew a major infrastructure bill had passed in 2022.
“But that’s why it’s super important to understand that this is still an ongoing process,” she said. “The administration, with the help of like-minded people and allies in Congress, made this funding available, and now states and localities are using it to really transform communities.
“Frankly, I think Democrats need to do a better job of making sure people know what Democrats have delivered for them. And also, I think they need to help people understand that the good that comes from big legislative packages like these is not instantly evident,” she said. “It takes time for federal funding to work its way down to local government.
“And while we’re talking about the difference between perception and reality, I think another approach to messaging that would be helpful, in terms of the poll numbers, would be to remind people of the great work that was done during the COVID pandemic and the recession that followed,” Bultan said.
“I mean, with the help of federal dollars we had great work done by state and local leaders, NewDEAL leaders, to stave off the worst of the recession and prevent a second, deeper one. NewDEAL leaders across the country worked very effectively to help small businesses survive the pandemic and persevere in the face of what, collectively, was such a traumatic time.
“And it’s still going on. People are still anxious, and some are just starting to see the results of these efforts, so it is not surprising to me that there’s a little bit of a disconnect between what’s been really good news about the economy — about prices coming down and investments being made — and people continuing to feel concern,” she said, adding that “some of that anxiety stems from economics, but some of it is also about the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and some of it is just a byproduct of the vitriol of our politics.”
Anyone who has ever attended a NewDEAL event in the city, like the group’s recent conference at the Dupont Circle Hotel, has likely been struck by the general zest and verve of the group.
While some attendees are perennials — familiar, almost familial presences in the crowd and on the stage — a large percentage of those who attend the organization’s conference and meetings are fairly new to electoral politics and dedicated to seeking out pragmatic and practical solutions to their constituents’ problems.
“I love state and local leaders,” Bultan said enthusiastically when asked about her membership. “I mean, that’s why I do this. I’m such a cheerleader. And I really do think state and local leaders are the unsung heroes who are on the front lines, doing the work of governance and constituent service.
“One thing the gridlock in Washington has done is kind of force people who were of a pragmatic mind anyway to try to seek out new ways to deliver services their constituents want or need,” she said.
“And I think that meshes well with what the American people say that they want,” Bultan said.
“I was just looking at a national poll recently in which a majority of participants said they are looking to vote for people who are solving problems and putting partisanship aside. Now to some extent, I see that as heartening. But that desire is not reflected in our politics, and I find that incongruency really fascinating.”
Bultan then pointed to the last four years of federal elections, elections in which Democrats did fairly well despite dire predictions to the contrary.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about. If you look at the national polls ahead of recent elections, what we’ve seen time and again is a lot of bad news for Democrats, and yet, when people have actually voted, Democrats have done really, really well,” she said.
“So why has that happened? I think it’s because Democrats have been consistently putting forth an agenda that is about problem solving, that is about protecting freedoms and defending democracy,” Bultan continued.
“I think that certainly explains the party’s good showing in the midterms, and it has also held true in off-year elections like the one held in November, where Democrats won important victories in Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.”
“And when it comes to the next election cycle, we’re going to be advising them to just keep doing what they’re doing, which is solving problems. That, I think, is the most effective any candidate can do in terms of the ballot box,” Bultan said.
In November, NewDEAL and the New Democrat Coalition launched a joint effort called their “2024 Freedom Agenda.”
Very much in line with the thoughts Bultan expressed during her interview with The Well News, it was intended to show how Democrats from city councils to state legislators to Congress are fighting to protect Americans’ fundamental freedoms and expand opportunities.
At the same time, it strives to create a contrast with Republicans, who, the two groups contend, “continue to sow chaos, extremism and division at every level of government.”
“It’s an agenda premised on the idea that freedom is at the foundation of what it means to be a Democrat and is a core value of NewDEAL and New Dems,” Bultan said. “It is also intended to keep them on the path that has led to our success in recent elections.
“Looking ahead to the 2024 elections, I think it is important to caution people against looking at the current polls and reading too much into them — especially this far out from the election,” she said.
“Polls are only a snapshot and by the time we get to the actual election in November, a lot can change,” Bultan continued. “Right now, for a lot of people, candidates and positions and so forth are kind of being viewed in a soft focus, some of what they are talking about is a little bit abstract to voters right now and will remain so until we get a bit closer to election day.
“The other thing about polls is that people often use them to vent their frustrations and voice their anxieties; actually voting is a different thing. I think when people vote, who they vote for is based on their hopes, not their frustrations,” she said. “That’s why we feel so strongly about giving voters something to vote for … and that, again, is the idea behind the freedom agenda.
“Right now, the other side is really about tearing things down. Their agenda is all about everything they are against, and nothing that they are for … and I really believe that when voters are ready to cast their ballot, they are always going to choose to vote for something, rather than against something.”
Bultan said there are a number of races she’s excited about this year, particularly as a number of NewDEAL members are running for higher offices this time around.
“We have four or five who are running for Congress, another four or five who are running for governorships. And still more running for super-important offices like secretary of state and state treasurer,” she said.
“Among the races I’m excited about are state Rep. Janelle Bynum’s congressional bid in Oregon, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, who is running for Congress in Maryland, state Sen. Sarah McBride, who is running for Congress in Delaware … and then we’ve got people like Josh Stein running for governor in North Carolina … and Matt Meyer and Joyce Craig, who are running for governor, respectively, in Delaware and New Hampshire. … And the fact of the matter is, we have a good number of members who have thrown their hat into the ring for higher office this year and we are really proud of them for that.
“On the issue front, as I’ve said, there are certain issues, certain themes that we’ve focused on … abortion and … climate change, economic opportunity … and I think you’re going to see NewDEAL leaders, especially seeking higher office, doubling down on those. Voters really are afraid of their rights being taken away from them.
“The other thing I think is resonating — and we also talked about this earlier — is all of the economic rebuilding that has been going on post-COVID, and our emphasis being on rebuilding an economy that is more sustainable and inclusive and predicated on the idea that everybody should have a fair shot.”
Reflecting on the dysfunction that so often dominates the 24-hour news cycle, Bultan said the only way state, local and federal lawmakers will be able tamp down on the current cynicism and restore faith in government is if they strive to make government actually work and work well.
“I think that’s really what this is all about,” she said. “Having a functioning government that can solve problems is the key to a healthy democracy.
“Another component of it is encouraging civic engagement and civic participation. Because you really can’t ensure your government is working right if you don’t understand how a system works,” she said.