The Localist Legislator: Last Hope of the Middle Class?
With political courage and the support of the grassroots, state legislators can still do the hard work of governing.
Ronald Reagan chalked up his success in politics to its correlation with show business. Social critic Neil Postman ruefully agreed, adding that in American democracy “the idea [of politics] is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty, but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.” Without reading Postman, middle America knows from experience that the politicians they send to Washington are not always as they appear. However, the ones who stay close to home—the elected members of state legislatures—are a different breed.
Members of Congress are notoriously out of step with their constituents. One example is Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), whose district voted for Trump in 2020 by 16 percent, but who constantly blasts Trump—even after the former president’s exit from public life—and any Republican who dared support him. When Kinzinger voted to impeach the President in February, he was censured by his county’s Republican Central Committee—and denounced by his own family via handwritten note obtained by the New York Times.
The D.C. smog of special interests is enough to cloud the thinking of any politician, even setting a congressman at odds with his own “flyover” family. And this disconnect is by no means limited to Congress. Today’s forgotten middle class finds itself just as much at odds with judges, bureaucratic appointees, and even many who bear the populist label. No matter the election results, America always seems just a few votes short of ending Obamacare, one Supreme Court justice shy of overturning Roe v. Wade, or one presidential election away from reforming the military-industrial complex and surveillance state.
COVID-19 added lockdown mayors and governors—including many Republicans—to the list of detached elites. Hypocrisy, scandals, and catastrophic mismanagement plagued the administrations of governors like Andrew Cuomo (New York), Gavin Newsom (California), Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), and Tom Wolf (Pennsylvania). Texas Governor Greg Abbot drew praise in right-wing media for lifting his state’s mask mandate after nearly a year—but many Texans of the “forgotten” variety were asking why a conservative governor had ordered this restriction of civil liberties in the first place.
State legislators are the opposite. They don’t enter politics to fight a national culture war. Their thoughts are typically focused on small business growth, education, caring for seniors, fixing potholes, and beautifying historic parks and downtowns. But the crises of 2020 thrust many state legislatures into the limelight—and they haven’t yet retreated.
After the abnormal 2020 election—in which a majority of voters believe cheating affected the outcome—the forgotten middle class feared that the electoral system itself could no longer yield genuine representation or true change. But the events of the contested election revealed that state legislators, at least, still listen to their constituents and take action even when it’s not sophisticated or politically correct to do so.
During the post-election contest, large groups of Republican legislators in contested states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia made themselves pariahs in the eyes of corporate media outlets for their actions during the post-election controversy. State lawmakers held hearings, approved audits, signed on to lawsuits, and even appointed competing slates of electors to the Electoral College. And after the election was finally decided, 33 states introduced 165 election integrity reforms, including a comprehensive tune-up that recently passed in Georgia despite furious corporate outcry.
None of this would have happened without the close working relationship between state legislators and conservative grassroots. Agree or disagree with those who contested the 2020 election, these are clearly politicians who cannot be dismissed as owned by special interests. Governor Asa Hutchinson recently learned the same lesson when he tried to tangle with Arkansas’s General Assembly over gender reassignment for children—and lost. Despite the aggressive promotion of social change by the elite, the state legislator is still a formidable ally of the average American.
The left has long understood the populist power of state lawmakers—and it makes them furious. In 2019, New York Times writers attempted to prove that state legislators are just as detached as other politicians by forwarding a link to a mock website called “District Pulse” with constituent polling data to 2,346 randomly-selected state legislators. The lawmakers largely ignored the link, leading the Times journalists—who, strangely, were unused to being ignored—to conclude that state legislators “don’t care” what their constituents want. But clearly the opposite is true: These lawmakers care far more about a heartfelt voicemail from a local restaurant owner than a slick infographic from “District Pulse.” Their kinship with the middle class and dismissal of special interests has made them a special target of political spending by national union leaders, Democrat strategists, and Soros-backed NGOs.
To take an example from my own small town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a special election for state representative is currently being held following the tragic death of the former office-holder. The Republican nominee—who is practically guaranteed victory—is local conservative organizer Leslie Baum Rossi, mother of eight and creator of the famous Trump House, which is painted like an American flag and features a 14-foot steel cutout of the former president. If elected, Rossi would join a cadre of state legislators whose ears are more attuned to parents and small business owners at church cookouts than to journalists on CNN or Twitter.
Across the state near Allentown, small business owner Arthur Gillespie found his livelihood in jeopardy when his archery supply store was closed in March of last year. But thanks to the responsiveness of several state legislators he reached out to, he was able to secure an official waiver that reopened his store. At that point, he started receiving daily anonymous phone calls threatening physical violence—but continued to advocate with state legislators for pushing back on Governor Tom Wolf’s unilateral business shutdowns.
“As long as they’re sticking up for me, I’m sticking up for them,” Gillespie says. “They understand that Governor Wolf can’t keep dictating policy for the entire state on his own. They’re not perfect by any means—they’re still politicians—but they actually care about issues that impact my everyday life.”
Both in Pennsylvania and across the nation, state legislators have begun pushing back with bills, veto overrides, and state constitutional amendments limiting governors’ executive overreach and emergency powers. In just the last four months, 300 bills have been proposed in 45 states for this purpose, and many have already been enacted. This is not only happening on a partisan basis: Republican legislators in Arkansas, Utah, Ohio, and Indiana have shackled Republican governors. New York Democrats reached across the aisle for enough votes to slap down Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are just as intent on reining in Governor Tom Wolf, whose pandemic shutdowns of schools, gatherings, and businesses have had disastrous effects in the commonwealth. Over the past year, the legislature passed 10 bills focused on transparency and reopening, most of which the governor vetoed. Although several of Wolf’s shutdown orders were constitutionally questionable, the partisan state Supreme Court rubber-stamped them all—and has blocked most legislative pushback. Now, the General Assembly has advanced two state constitutional amendments that will permanently limit gubernatorial disaster declarations to 21 days, and require legislative approval to extend them. Pennsylvanians will vote on the measures in a statewide referendum May 18.
Yanking decision rights away from the governor to place them in the hands of Pennsylvania’s 7 million voters is emblematic of the populist power—and political courage—that state legislators wield. These local heroes may lack the showmanship of Ronald Reagan, but the work they do goes beyond keeping up appearances for their constituents. If the forgotten middle class has any hope in an age of COVID dictators, irregular elections, and out-of-touch D.C. swamp creatures, it is in the local representative’s small strip-mall office.
Andrew Cuff writes on conservative issues and policy reform from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.