by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

January 6, 2022. One year ago today, I, like everyone else, watched in shocked disbelief as American citizens broke down doors, smashed through windows and stormed the US Capitol in an effort to delay, derail or stop the certification of a new US President. This doesn’t happen in America. It just doesn’t. But it did. I saw it with my own eyes. Everybody did.

Once order was restored and the presidential election results certified, most thought things would return to some sense of normalcy. The defeated candidate would grudgingly concede a hard-fought loss, the incoming president would begin to govern and most of America would go on with their lives. But that didn’t happen. In the last year, Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been unable (or unwilling) to overcome the anger and bitterness that came to a head January 6, 2021. Significant bills pass on party line votes in the House only to die in the evenly divided Senate. Critical legislation never even makes it to the floor. The rare efforts at bipartisanship are stalled or buried by legislators on the extremes. Nothing gets done on criminal justice, immigration, infrastructure, voting rights, etc.

Nothing gets done, that is, in the nation’s capital. However, legislators in a few state capitols are proving that despite the bitter partisanship that is gripping much of the nation, government can work across the aisles to address important issues. Today, I want to highlight two states that seem to have overcome divided government to make real bipartisan progress on public policy: Michigan and North Carolina.

Michigan may be the most unlikely state in the nation one would expect to rise above partisanship and bitterness. Just months before the January 6 assault in Washington, thousands stormed the Michigan Capitol in Lansing demanding an end to Covid related lockdowns and two months later six were arrested and charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan’s Governor– not exactly a fertile breeding ground for working together! 

And yet, in 2021, the Republican legislature (Republicans hold a six seat majority in each chamber) and Democratic Governor came together to enact significant legislation on criminal justice reform, economic development and no fault insurance reform, all dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Wolverine state. Further, on September 29, 2021, Governor Whitmer signed a state budget that had passed both chambers with significant bipartisan support, a fact that she and Republican leaders recognized. According to Whitmer, ““All the legislators from both parties came together to get this done – it was overwhelmingly bipartisan,” and Republican Senate Appropriations Chair John Stamos added “I want to thank the governor and her team for their cooperation on this budget and hope that it is the framework for future bipartisan achievements to improve our state and the lives of the Michigan people.”

A little further south, while North Carolina has not seen the violence and threats of violence that marked politics in Michigan, the relationship between Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and the Republican General Assembly got off to a rocky start. Following the 2016 election, the closest in state history, Republican incumbent Governor Pat McCrory refused to concede for more than a month, forcing a recount and several lawsuits. Once it was clear that Cooper had won the election, the GOP-controlled lame duck legislature passed and the outgoing Republican governor signed into law several bills to shift power from and reduce the staff of the incoming governor. During Governor Cooper’s first term, he vetoed more bills (53) than the four governors who served before him combined (35), including three state budgets.

Just like Michigan, North Carolina seemed like an unlikely source for bipartisanship in 2021. And yet, once again, leaders in both parties rose above their history and put together significant bipartisan coalitions to address important issues. The chill began to thaw in March when the legislative and executive branch came together on a unanimous plan to reopen schools. In announcing the compromise, Cooper noted that “coming together after acrimony isn’t always easy, but it is the right thing to do for North Carolina. I appreciate the work of the legislators.” and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger thanked the governor for “negotiating in good faith.” That cooperation was followed by bipartisan bills on the environment, energy, police reform and hospital access to patients during a crisis. Perhaps more significantly, Governor Cooper signed the first biennial budget in his five years as governor, noting “I will continue to fight for progress where this budget falls short, but believe that, on balance, it is an important step in the right direction.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are still partisan differences in both states as there are everywhere. Democrats are still Democrats and Republicans are still Republicans. They did not reach agreement on critical issues like voter access, reproductive rights and redistricting. Governors Whitmer and Cooper still vetoed their share of bills in 2021. However, on the issues discussed and many others, leaders from both parties in both states prove that, with effort, patience and a little trust, bipartisan government can still work for the benefit of the people.

In his new original poem, “An Open Letter to the America that Will Be,” noted poet and author Regie Gibson delivers a powerful reflection on the state of American democracy in response to the attack on the US Capitol one year ago.

Gibson performed his piece “Call Me American” at our 2021 Leadership Conference in Philadelphia.