During the end of President Bill Clinton’s turn in the White House, the American TV hit The West Wing captured hearts and minds with its optimistic vision of a government run by mostly good people who care about their country. I count myself among those who were inspired to pursue a career in politics because of the positive, engaging portrayal of Washington, DC on that show.
Today, a much grimmer vision Washington is what grips viewers.
The Netflix television show House of Cards portrays the political rise of the murderous and calculating Frank Underwood, played as the antithesis of a statesman by actor Kevin Spacey. HBO’s program VEEP is supposed to be a comedic yet depressingly accurate take on the ineptitude and self-interest of those working on Washington.
As America’s presidential candidates headed into the primary contests that would choose each party’s nominees for President, there is one thing that every candidate can agree on: Washington Is Broken.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and winner of the Iowa caucuses, who has been in the U.S. Senate for four years, rages against the “Washington cartel.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a socialist, continually calls for political “revolution.” Governors like Jeb Bush of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey regularly call for draining power away from Washington; Senators rail against Congress despite being part of it themselves.
It’s no surprise why everyone says Washington Is Broken. The American people agree. In January of 2016, Gallup found that eight out of ten Americans disapproved of the job Congress is doing. Survey after survey shows Americans deeply distrustful of and frustrated with the federal government and their representative government in Washington. Partisan gridlock and deep, fundamental disagreements between President Obama and Republicans in Congress have prevented much from moving forward.
It would be easy to look at American politics with a feeling of despair. Very little gets done in Washington, and despite the rhetoric of the Presidential candidates, it seems unlikely that the wheels of governing will start turning in the near future.
Yet one political television show in recent years took a sunnier and more upbeat tone, NBC’s beloved Parks and Recreation. The show tells the story of the city government of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Here, public servants are far from perfect, but are nonetheless able to make small yet tangible, positive changes in the lives of the people in this tiny town.
It can’t be a mistake that it is local government, a little closer to home, is where viewers are more willing to believe that good can triumph and that public servants are trying to do the right thing. In cities and states across America, mayors and governors and commissioners and state legislators are making progress toward a brighter future, toward real reform. Local and state governments offer younger leaders with fresh ideas to step forward, run for office, and implement change.
And the state of Indiana, the real state where the fictional Parks and Recreation is set, is where you can find deep political divisions, but nonetheless find young leaders eager to work across party lines to get things done.
America’s “Big Three” major auto manufacturing companies today are easy to name: Ford, General Motors, Chrysler. But back in the early twentieth century, there was another major player: Studebaker.
Founded in the mid- 19th century and headquartered in the town of South Bend, Indiana, Studebaker was a significant manufacturer of American cars and a major household name by the time of World War II. South Bend, also home to the famous University of Notre Dame, was a booming manufacturing town; most of the people in South Bend earned their livelihood from Studebaker.
But the 1960s were not kind to Studebaker, and in 1963, the Studebaker plant in South Bend closed. The population plummeted; people moved away in search of other economic opportunity. In the words of Kathryn Roos, former chief of staff to the mayor of South Bend, “We were a company town and we’d lost our company.”
The American Midwest and the “Rust Belt” states, former manufacturing hubs like Ohio and Michigan, have seen slumps in recent decades. South Bend was a town hit particularly hard. “It almost felt like the last fifty years, South Bend had been in this depressed state, still getting over the closing of Studebaker, “ said Roos in an interview.
But it was during that era that Peter Buttigieg was born in South Bend. Born in 1982, putting him at the oldest edge of the “Millennial” generation, Buttigieg was by all accounts a star student as he grew up: valedictorian, Harvard graduate, recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship that enabled him to attend Oxford University.
The tale has been told countless times: a young man or woman rises to great heights, leaving her or her hometown behind to pursue success in the big cities of New York or Boston. And for a while, that was Buttigieg’s path.
But eventually, the call of doing something good for his hometown was too strong.
In 2010, Buttigieg ran for Indiana State Treasurer, but lost to Republican candidate Richard Mourdock. Undeterred, Buttigieg turned his focus then to his hometown, which was still feeling the effects of the factory closing decades ago. His campaign for mayor was a success, and he was elected with by a large margin.
“For me, it was about my hometown. I grew up here in South Bend,” he says, when I ask him why he chose to run for Mayor. “It’s a great community but one with challenges too.”
The challenges facing South Bend were certainly great, with a high poverty level that had persisted from the days when Studebaker closed. For instance, home values were kept lower by neighborhoods dotted with abandoned buildings. Buttigieg set goals that were aimed at revitalizing the city, such as addressing 1000 abandoned homes in his first 1000 days in office.
“The city was in a bit of a rut. Nothing against my predecessors, they did a great job keeping the city going, but I saw an opportunity to keep things going.”
When I ask his former chief of staff, Kathryn Roos, to describe him, he refers to him as “Mayor Pete,” and notes that because he comes from the Millennial generation, he has embodied a spirit that values problem solving over discord, and the use of data and innovation to get things done rather than a reliance on the old way of doing things.
Innovation, collaboration, and a focus on making an impact: these are all things that “Mayor Pete” himself thinks are essential especially for those running cities. “More and more people are drawn to work in cities because you can make an impact. The same kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s or Silicon Valley in the 1990s are going to cities now to work in civic innovation because you can get so much done.” If you want to change the world, these days you don’t need to look to the stars; look to your neighbor and find a way to improve the community.
Buttigieg certainly did change his community. He achieved his goal of addressing 1000 abandoned homes, and did so ahead of his self-imposed deadline. Under his leadership, the government in South Bend partnered with researchers at Notre Dame to create a “smart sewer” that would monitor water levels and make the system work more efficiently, protecting the local river. As a result of his strong record, he was re-elected to office in 2015 by a remarkable margin, and was awarded the John F. Kennedy Library’s “New Frontier Award” for his achievements as a young elected leader.
When I ask Buttigieg what he considers his biggest accomplishment as mayor of South Bend, he lists many initiatives, but then pauses to note that there’s something intangible that has happened in South Bend since it elected it’s young mayor who has focused on good governance and innovation. “People have permission to believe in the city again,” he says.
A town beaten down by the loss of its economic engine is starting to get back up on its feet and stand tall.
Cities and states are a place where policy renewal is taking place. But it is also a place where fresh political talent and young rising leaders have an opportunity to get engaged and make a difference, and to begin their political careers.
After a disastrous 2012 election, the Republican Party in the US went on a soul-searching mission. The Republican National Committee, in response to the defeat, commissioned a report – the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report – that analyzed the party’s challenges. When released, the report’s very first words were:
The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself…
If any party was at risk of being branded the party of gridlock and inaction, and the party of the past, it was the GOP. Interestingly, at the local and state level, the story was the opposite. Republicans, in particular, have focused on building up their ranks of young leaders, focusing in particular on encouraging women and minorities to run as Republicans for state and local government offices. Since President Obama took office, Republicans have gained over nine hundred seats in state legislatures across the country.
The Republican goal in focusing on these races is not merely to create a crop of young leaders who are able to create real change at local and state government levels, focusing on opportunities not monopolized by an “old boy’s club,” but also to diversify the slate of candidates running under the Republican banner across the country.
For instance, the Future Majority Project, an effort of the Republican State Leadership Committee, works to “recruit, train, and elect Republican candidates from diverse communities on the state level who better represent the full diversity of America,” and supported over two hundred young rising leaders pursuing state-level election in the 2014 elections.
Or take GOPAC, another political action committee that focuses on rising conservative leaders. In 2015, they hosted an Emerging Leaders summit in Key West to provide training and resources to these local and state “rising stars”; I was in attendance, and while there, I came across Indiana State Senator Erin Houchin, a woman who had been honored as one of leaders to watch.
Sen. Houchin and I did not meet for the first time in Key West, however; we first met one another at the Yale University’s Women’s Campaign School in 2008. Her career had involved working for agencies and causes that fought to protect children from abuse, and she served as a regional director for Indiana’s U.S. Senator Dan Coats. Houchin and I were both young Republican women who had come to the storied Ivy League campus in hopes of learning how to run for office ourselves one day. Many of the women present were not necessarily focused on running for federal office right away, but first were looking to win a seat on the city commission or in the state legislature.
By the time I reconnected with Sen. Houchin in 2015, she had succeeded in that goal. She had been elected to the Indiana State Senate, representing her town of Salem and the surrounding area. She noted that serving in state government is special in part due to the closeness you have with those you represent.
“The closer you are to the people you’re governing, it makes you feel more accountable, even thought you should always feel accountable no matter what level you serve. I see folks at the grocery store and church and I think that activity in the district certainly helps to make all of the decisions you make very real.”
Raised in Southern Indiana, Sen. Houchin’s description of why she chose to run in the first place echoed that of Mayor Buttigieg: “If there’s something I can do to help improve my community, I can’t not try.”
Houchin has been able to get things done in Indiana to help those in the rural areas she represents. She successfully authored and passed legislation that would expand broadband Internet access to rural areas, noting that of the final four percent of Indiana not covered by this access, her legislation helped pave the way to get them connected. She was also the driving force behind a law that focused on protecting young men and women from being victims of human trafficking by strengthening laws governing adult entertainment establishments, holding them more accountable for ensuring that people are not being exploited in the gruesome and tragic industry.
In just a short amount of time, Houchin was able to pursue real, meaningful action on things like protecting young women and ensuring more residents have internet access.
Houchin is a strong contender in a primary election in her Congressional district, and in a few months she may be on her way to Washington, D.C. If she gets there, she will be a “freshman” member of Congress, and she will be one of over four hundred members of the U.S. House of Representatives. While she will be part of a small club of Republican women in Congress, she will also be part of a large, slow-moving, fractured institution.
She will bring with her the spirit that she thinks is particularly characteristic of people in Indiana: a drive “to continue to work hard, even if you get knocked down, toward a goal of making things better.”
One imagines she will find it harder to get things done in Washington than in Indianapolis, no matter how hard she tries. But one also hopes that she will be able to bring with her the spirit of action that led her to pass important bills and therefore rise as a leader in Indiana in the first place.
Not all young political leaders necessarily agree on every issue. Partisan divides still exist, even or perhaps especially in a state like Indiana, which is neither a strongly Republican nor Democratic state. (Indiana voted for Barack Obama in 2008, then Mitt Romney in 2012.) During the spring of 2015, the state of Indiana was a flashpoint for an extremely heated political and cultural debate about gay rights and religious freedom.
The Indiana State Senate put forward a bill known as a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which is intended to protect the rights of religious people from government action that would force them to violate their religious practice. Supporters argued that the law simply mirrored that passed in other states. Opponents of the bill argued that such a bill would, for instance, be used to allow businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers and employees. The debate in Indiana drew national attention, with people like Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, condemning the law. A number of companies, cities and states prohibited their employees from conducting official business in Indiana so long as the law was in place.
Senator Houchin was one of the forty Republicans to vote in favor of the religious freedom law. Mayor Buttigieg, a Democrat, was opposed to the law.
During the summer of 2015, Mayor Buttigieg wrote an op-ed in the South Bend Tribune discussing his opposition to the law, including a new, deeply personal detail: Buttigieg himself came out as gay. “This kind of social change, considered old news in some parts of the country, is still often divisive around here,” wrote Buttigieg. “But it doesn’t have to be. We’re all finding our way forward, and things will go better if we can manage to do it together.”
I asked Mayor Buttigieg if he felt that deep divisions like those exposed by the debate over RFRA made it harder to get things done with those in state government who supported the law. “I’m working now to coordinate with some state house Republicans with whom I couldn’t be further apart on this issue, but I’m totally on board with what they’re doing with road funding,” he said. “As mayor, I think you have to be pragmatic.”
In Washington, deep ideological divides seem to stop things from happening. And while deep differences don’t necessarily go away at the state or local level, they can sometimes be secondary to getting things done. “We’re not trapped in these categories or stale, ideological partisan fights,” says Buttigieg.
American politics may seem fraught with discord, frustration, and inaction. But if you want to see the future of American politics, don’t look to Washington; look to cities and states, places like South Bend and Salem, to find the fresh faces and fresh ideas that will drive America forward.