We spoke with three John Jay Institute alumni who are leaders in state politics (Illinois, Colorado, and Washington). Here's what they said:
What advantages does state politics have over national politics?
Kiewit: State politics is so much more tangible, hands on, and accessible. You can walk into your U.S. Senator’s office in Washington, D.C., and never get to speak to them, having to go through layers of staff first. But at the state level, it’s possible to walk into your legislator’s office, sit there and wait for them to come back, and talk to them. The issues can also be more pragmatic, able to overcome partisan divides. For example, in my state of Colorado, water rights, usage, and storage are a very prominent state issue here, for which there really is no partisan answer. Broadly, it is a rural vs. suburban issue – but at its heart, it really is just a state issue, and legislators on both sides of the aisle must come together to find practical solutions. Of course you have your usual cast of suspect “statement bills” but at the state level, people and policies have a pragmatic side, too.
Smith: One of the obvious advantages of state politics is proximity. A lot of the business of government requires face-to-face interaction, and traveling to the state Capitol is much easier than to the national Capitol. Another advantage is the sheer size difference. The federal leviathan has been growing for many decades and is now massive, which complicates any interaction. State government has been growing as well, but there is a better chance for individuals to know and lobby key people and have their voices heard at the state level. Another advantage is that mistakes are easier to correct in a General Assembly than on Capitol Hill.
Heimlich: State politics tends to be more about the issues and less driven by controversy. National politics has become increasingly driven by theatrics and less by ideas. For the most part the 24/7 news cycle is skipping over state politics for the more glamorous national politics, but the decisions made by the state legislature will likely have more of an impact on your life than what happens in D.C. Operating in that space of solving problems and achieving policy solutions makes state politics very exciting.
In the same vein, state politics is superior because it is more accessible to citizen activists. One driven person can bring together a community and achieve policy change by organizing and working with their Legislators. That level of citizen participation is far greater than what is feasible on the national stage
In your experience, what is the most common misconception among the general public about state politics?
Kiewit: That not much goes on at the state level. To be sure, there are many federal mandates that govern what the state does. But there are also a lot of areas where there is great freedom in the states to craft their own course for many issues.
Heimlich: The general public generally doesn't separate state politics from national politics. There really is a pretty large divide between the two. And while most people were paying attention to the daily news of the presidential election, such events don’t directly affect state politics. Obviously the public mood toward parties and national brands impacts state campaigns, but there is very little overlap in reality.
Smith: One common misconception is that those who are running our state—from the governor's mansion to the General Assembly to those that head up the departments and agencies—have some kind of special knowledge or expertise. While specialized training is needed in a few areas such as medicine, law, and accounting, most of the rest of what the state does is managed by people who have no such experience and must learn on the job. While it is safe to assume that most Illinoisans know their state is in a fiscal mess, what they don't realize is that nothing will get fixed unless honest, wise, and sensible people step up to serve. What we need in leadership—and this is not a joke—are more elected officials who understand basic math and morality.
What is the proper role of lobbyists or nonprofit advocacy groups in state politics?
Kiewit: To be a resource for legislators, and help provide the history and context for different issues. Especially in states that have short term limits, a lot of institutional knowledge (for better or for worse) is built into the lobby corps and special interest groups. These can aid legislators in their policy-making.
Smith: Both lobbyists and nonprofit advocacy groups play an important role in educating elected officials and their staffs about key issues. Since state lawmakers have to deal with a wide range of policy areas and activities, it is nearly impossible for anyone to get up to speed on everything. Since January 11, 2017, Illinois state lawmakers have introduced more than 6,500 bills. It is incumbent on special interest groups to champion good bills or sound an alarm about bad bills. The specialized knowledge lobbyists and advocacy groups bring often makes the difference in helping officials and their staff get a better understanding of the issues. Of course, when armed with huge sums of money to contribute to campaigns, lobbyists often play a deleterious role in politics too. Similarly, when an advocacy group can bring large numbers of their supporters to pressure legislators, they can and do succeed in getting questionable legislation passed. Money and might don’t make right, but they can sometimes win the day in the state house and senate chambers.
Heimlich: Lobbyists serve an important role in educating lawmakers on the unintended consequences of legislation. A part-time legislature may not have the opportunity to fully consider the impact of proposed regulations or certain legislation on every niche industry that is impacted. Lobbyists are able to analyze important topics and organize impacted constituencies to stop some detrimental policies. I would say the same for advocacy groups; with state politics being more localized, advocacy groups are able to mobilize citizens to testify on bills that impact their community of concern. Having voices heard on these legislative issues is an important part of the process. Obviously the lobbying and advocacy process can be and sometimes is unfortunately distorted, but that is why elections are so important.
In your experience, is state government typically more or less effective than federal government? Why?
Heimlich: I would say it is significantly more effective. Obviously state politics is still very divisive with passionate opinions on both sides of many issues, but in our state where we have had divided government for the past four years, every year we have successfully negotiated a budget that passes with bipartisan support. It takes a lot of negotiating and posturing but we get things done. And in getting things done we have achieved policy improvements: reducing college tuition, investing in roads, and investing in education. There is a lot to be done, but we don't have the same level of complete gridlock that you see at the national level.
Smith: Since state government is closer to the people it serves, it has the potential to be more effective and have a greater impact. The unfortunate fact, however, is that according to their size – the different levels of government can do proportionate harm. There are many local governmental bodies that are in more danger of collapsing due to unsustainable spending and debt than larger bodies. Local taxing units are limited in the number of taxpayers they can draw from, whereas the state and federal government have a wider range of sources from which to raise revenue. In all cases, the “more or less effective” designation depends upon the policies you support. A simple example: a local school district can allow boys to use the girl's locker room more effectively than bureaucrats in D.C.
Kiewit: State government is better for making incremental, bipartisan change. Federal government, at least in recent years, has shown it is effective at making sweeping legislative changes. Between the two, I would argue that state government works better overall. There is more bipartisan work in state government, because the issues and the elected officials are closer to the people, and to (hopefully) practical solutions that both sides can agree on. You still have extremes in both parties at the state level, just like in the federal government, but even still, things like education reform, water policy, and transportation are areas that aren’t obviously partisan and can bring people from all sides together.
Also, many state constitutions have budgetary provisions written into them, and unlike the federal government, aren’t able to simply shut down or keep borrowing. In Colorado where I live, it is constitutionally mandated that the state is only allowed to take in so much revenue, and once it hits that cap, it triggers an automatic refund back to the people. Such little efficiencies force states to be more practical and focused.
One thing that can make a significant difference in the effectiveness of the state government, however, is the strength of the executive – the governor – of the state. A governor who is willing to lead does determine a lot of the effectiveness of that government. And given the power of the federal executive branch, this is one area in which the federal government may be stronger than any given individual state.
What draws you back to your job each day?
Heimlich: The ability to make a difference. I am blessed to work in the state I was born in and grew up in. Washington is my home. When I am successful in helping good candidates get elected, I know that I am shaping the future of my state for my family and my community. These elections have very real consequences on the economy, education system, transportation infrastructure, and overall well being of the state.
Kiewit: I work in a business advocacy organization, Our focus is nonpartisan and strictly chartered to advance business issues in the state. This is important work, because I believe that free market capitalism is the single greatest factor in bringing people out of poverty around the world and increasing our quality of life here at home. A good business environment means that businesses can grow, create jobs and wealth, and contribute to the local economy. This is one of the greatest pillars of a free society – when people can use their talents and abilities to create their own destiny. Advocating for business is the easy part – it’s up to the business owners and job creators to make the wheels turn. But anything that I can do to facilitate their work is time well spent.
Smith: The country has been on a downward slide for decades both fiscally and morally. This does not mean all is lost. If enough Christians would understand their responsibility to engage the culture and be involved in the political process, our state and nation could avoid passing destructive policies which burden or even oppress families. Each generation has a debt to the past and to the future. Our children don't deserve to inherit a culture rife with fiscal and moral mayhem. I believe there is no more important work in the political arena than to get people educated and motivated.
Julia Kiewit is Director of Membership at Colorado Concern, a nonprofit working to enhance and protect the Centennial State's business climate.
Caleb Heimlich is Executive Director of the Washington State Republican Party.
Dave Smith is a Christian husband and father of 7 children. Serving as the Executive Director, he has been with Illinois Family Institute for 14 years -- and prior to that he worked for an Alderman in the City of Chicago. Dave has a B.A in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is an alumnus of the Family Research Council’s Witherspoon Fellowship. He also serves as an ordained elder in his local church and a Republican Precinct Committeeman in his community.