Gridlock Leads Voters Out of Washington
Here's the big news from Tuesday’s election: Faced with gridlock in Washington, more and more voters are turning to states and municipalities to do the work that the nation's capital seems increasingly unable to do.
Let me give you one example: Voters in four states -- all of them won by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race -- passed ballot measures increasing their state’s minimum wage. In those states, many local Republicans favored the increases, even as Republicans in Washington have refused to take up the issue. I would have preferred to see Congress pass an expanded earned income tax credit, which is the most effective way of increasing real incomes for low-wage workers. But after it did nothing, voters decided to take matters into their own hands. Waiting for Washington is like a Samuel Beckett play without any of the intrigue or humor -- just absurdity. And voters have seen enough.
I share their frustration, and as a strong believer in the idea that cities and states are the laboratories of democracy, I share their determination to act. This fall, I supported state-level efforts on several ballot measures designed to bypass Washington on three major issues that are hurting the country: gun violence, obesity and political polarization.
So how did we do?
In Washington state, an organization I helped found, Everytown for Gun Safety, worked with local advocates to pass a ballot measure requiring a background check for all gun sales, a step 16 states have already taken. In those states, the rates of gun trafficking and gun suicides are half of what they are in states that don't require universal background checks. The vast majority of Americans support this common-sense step, but the gun lobby has fought it tooth-and-nail -- both in Congress and in states.
The gun lobby, however, has an easier time scaring members of Congress than it does scaring voters. In Washington, we worked hard to get out the facts and to bring voters to the polls. The measure passed with 60 percent of the vote, and the state will be safer for it.
In Berkeley, California, I backed local efforts to pass a one cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages. Economists will tell you that if you want less of something, tax it. Hence high taxes on cigarettes. Sugary drinks are a leading contributor to obesity, which contributes to millions of deaths -- and untold suffering -- every year. Taxing sugary drinks, in addition to reducing consumption, will lead the beverage industry to produce more products that are low in sugar.
The soda industry has successfully fought efforts to tax and regulate sugary drinks in the U.S., and although it spent heavily to defeat the measure, voters weren't fooled: 75 percent endorsed the measure. If it works, we should expect other cities and states to follow.
Of course, you can't win them all. I backed efforts in Oregon to switch from a system of closed party primaries -- where only party members may vote -- to an open “top two” system. Part of the purpose of a top two primary, which voters in California and Washington have adopted, is to push candidates toward the center by forcing them to compete for independent voters -- not just party loyalists. The partisan primary process, in which candidates race to the extreme left or extreme right, is a big reason Washington, D.C., is so dysfunctional. Unfortunately, the political parties weren't too happy with this measure and succeeded in bringing it down.
The hunger for more cooperation in our politics, as expressed through these measures, also came through in governor's races. Americans elected -- and I supported -- centrist candidates who promised to work across party lines to effect genuine change in their states. In Rhode Island, Democrat Gina Raimondo won the statehouse after leading one of the most comprehensive pension reform efforts in the country. In deep blue Massachusetts, voters elected a Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who pledged to work with Democrats on education, guns and economic development. In Connecticut, voters re-elected Democratic governor Dan Malloy, who has angered teachers unions; in Michigan, they returned Republican Rick Snyder, who has been a leader on immigration reform.
The story on Tuesday wasn't just that Republicans won back the Senate or that President Barack Obama lost. It was that Americans made clear they are hungry for bipartisan problem-solving and that they're focusing on those places where it can actually happen.
I hope the president can begin forging compromises with Republicans. We can’t give up on Washington -- there is no substitute for national action on many issues -- but we can’t afford to wait for it, either.
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