The Morning After in Arizona

Mark Kelly’s successful bid for John McCain’s seat in the U.S. Senate is potentially a model for opportunity and hope.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Like many Americans, Arizonans woke up for days after November 3rd needing an extra cup of black coffee. An exhausting election night turned into an exhausting election week, at the end of a long, exhausting campaign, and left us with at least two extraordinary results. With the results certified, Arizona voters picked a Democrat for president and, stranger still, a Democrat to take the Senate seat once held by the late, great John McCain.

Mark Kelly defeated Martha McSally in the midst of a perfect storm, politically speaking. Many Arizonans were weary of a president who had denigrated their beloved Maverick and done little to safeguard their health. They were even less enthusiastic about Senator McSally. But their votes for Kelly were not borne of a magical transformation of the Grand Canyon State into a bright blue, liberal bastion. Arizonans were not hungering for radical change. Like most Americans, they crave genuine opportunity and public servants who will promote an opportunity agenda.

In many ways, Kelly is well suited to that task and the archetype of the type of Opportunity Democrat who should be running for elected office. As a former astronaut, he has the genuine persona of a hard-working, get-it-done kind of guy. His wife, former Congressional Rep. Gabby Giffords, is a positive, inspirational figure throughout the state. Kelly is also not afraid of speaking his mind and refusing to bow to public pressure, as his gun safety position clearly proves. You could even say, with all deserved respect to the McCain family, that Kelly has the makings of another Maverick.

All that is a great start. But Kelly will face re-election in two years, not the usual six, since his was a special election in more ways than one. His path to success in 2022 is, as it will be for many Democrats, an opportunity agenda.

In some ways, he has already started on that path. His advocacy for real infrastructure changes and a more effective, affordable public education system are issues that resonate with working class Arizonans and are the core of what the opportunity agenda has to offer. In his election night speech, he paid particular attention to locally owned businesses and their difficulties in accessing capital—especially during the pandemic. He also pointed out that infrastructure, public education, and job skills training have to be suited to this century, not bound by the past. He will also be aided by Biden’s win in Arizona, campaigning (as Kelly did) on issues that resonated with working-class voters.

From Day One

Kelly will have some unique opportunities to work for an opportunity agenda. Because it was a special election, under Arizona law, Kelly was sworn in on December 2nd—thirty-two days before the start of the 117th Congress. This means he’ll be of the minority party—and could remain so for his first two years. That will make it hard, but certainly not hopeless.

As a very junior senator in a politically raw environment, one is tempted to underestimate Kelly’s chances, but his temperament and history would suggest otherwise. By championing issues that appeal to working-class constituents, he has a real chance to make a mark—or even make inroads with politicians weary of the last four years.

The first priority, clearly, is recovery from the pandemic. If ever there was an opportunity for decisive, clear thinking under pressure, Congress’s next response would be it. Democrats like Kelly were born for it.

But beyond the immediate crisis, Democrats would be well advised to focus on long-term recovery:

  • Better access to capital will be a godsend for the many new startups and everyday innovators creating businesses in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Public education needs more than a facelift. The pandemic revealed its many shortcomings, and Democrats should be in the forefront of its reinvention.
  • Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Sure, there are roads and bridges to fix and new ones to build, but access to broadband, probably through public-private partnerships, should be Democrats’ Job One.
  • Family values means helping actual families. When Democrats champion early childhood education and meaningful family leave, they are speaking to real citizens—people who need help, not hype.

It’s tempting to idolize Senator-Elect Kelly as a “right stuff” outsider ready to take on Washington. After all, he is literally a former astronaut following in the footsteps of John McCain and John Glenn. But that would be telling only a fraction of the story. What will make the difference to his fellow Arizonans—and his fellow Opportunity Democrats—is his willingness to defy expectations and work for the benefit of everyday, working Americans.

We wish him every success.

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The Debates:
It’s the Policy, Stupid

In the presidential debates, much ado will be made about the clash of personalities and about who is lying to whom, but everyday Americans are desperate to hear about policies that will actually improve their lives.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

The first of three presidential debates will happen tonight in the swing state of Ohio. It is likely to be heated, personal, and mutually accusatory (just the way cable news likes it). Both sides are ramping up for a fact-checking “gotcha,” sound-bite-rich cage match. Our goal shouldn’t be landing the knockout blow that will encapsulate their grievances against Donald Trump.

We’d be missing the point.

At last month’s convention, speakers were united in their (legitimate) criticisms of Trump and his actions. But, to outside observers, the week-long event was disappointingly light on policies that would help a broad swathe of Americans improve their lives. Even in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic downturn in recent memory, one would be hard-pressed to recall a discussion about childcare, education, infrastructure, or supporting entrepreneurship.

We know. It’s not easy to talk policy during a media circus, and the debates will certainly be one. But we can’t let TV ratings or our confirmation-biased social media feeds control the story. The stakes are just too high.

So, as our candidates prepare for the events, they should plan on a strategy that will win over Democrats, independents, and some Republicans by speaking to what they will do for them, not fall into the trap of petty politics. Here’s how:

  • Ignore the mudslinging—there will be lots of it. A knowing smile and shake of the head will go far. At most, a quick acknowledgement, identifying yet another lie, and moving on will help the candidates focus on actual policy. Likewise, dismiss the inevitable cheap theatrics like planting what they believe will be embarrassing individuals in the audience.
  • Replace the pithy one-liners with brief, quotable, and substantive policy statements—these are the points that most people are tuning in for, as these will actually benefit them, their family, or someone they know. The majority of Americans know Trump is bad news and they don’t want to hear us spend valuable time rehashing every example why. Here are some suggestions for avoiding the Trump circus:
    • Universal, affordable childcare—unleash the full economic potential of working parents by increasing access to affordable childcare.
    • Paid parental leave—provide paid leave to working parents and increase earning power of families throughout their lifetime.
    • Real education reform—educate Americans for new careers in the 21st century economy.
    • Actual investment in infrastructure—improve America’s global competitiveness by rebuilding infrastructure with public/private partnerships.
    • Universal, portable worker benefits—update worker benefits to reflect the needs of America’s workforce.
    • Better access to capital—not just for Silicon Valley startups, improve access to loans for small businesses started by everyday entrepreneurs.

Millions of swing voters need an affirmative reason to vote for Democrats—at the top of the ticket and everywhere else. Loathing Donald Trump is simply not enough. It wasn’t enough in 2016.

Policies that actually improve lives, unfortunately, do not make for good political theater (or reality TV, or social media memes, or whatever). However, they do have meaning for millions of ordinary Americans—the people who will ultimately decide the future of this country. That’s how you win the debates.

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How Biden’s plan for childcare and pre-K education should reframe how Democrats talk about families and the economy

Democrats have ceded pro-family and pro-economy rhetoric to Republicans for years. Now it’s time to claim it back with policies for investing in children and families.

By Mayor Sly James & Winston C. Fisher

Recently, Joe Biden announced a $775 billion plan to help working parents, fund childcare, and promote national pre-K education. An estimated three million new jobs will result from the program—a solution that will boost the existing workforce of home-based caregivers and pre-K educators and alleviate the childcare shortage for parents.

For decades, Republicans have claimed the mantle of “family values” and “economic growth” with little pushback from Democrats. It should be untenable to be “pro-family” and also contend that parents should be forced to go back to work right after a child is born. It should be untenable to be “pro-economy” and also contend that working parents, primarily mothers, should haven’t access to affordable childcare and quality pre-K early education programs.

In order to win over working and middle-class voters, Democrats must put this issue front and center. It will change how we talk about the economy.

Revealing the Problem

The coronavirus pandemic revealed a shocking disparity in American life—how working parents deal with childcare and pre-K education. Lost amid conversations over whether to reopen schools this fall is a basic fact: for all except the select few who can afford private childcare and tutors, tens of millions of parents do not have viable options for educating and raising their children while they work to pay rent and put food on the table.

The lack of childcare and early education programs was a stark problem before the biggest public health crisis in a century shuttered schools nationwide. The United States does not have national programs for paid family leave or childcare. These glaring absences drive down workforce participation as many parents simply cannot afford to work given childcare’s rising costs.

Certain interventions can change the trajectory of a child’s life right from the beginning. For example, it’s enormously important to read, talk, and play with children when they’re young. But these programs are frequently starved for funding, and in too many communities, they’re simply not available. Childcare and early childhood education programs should be available everywhere in America, in communities, rich and poor, red and blue.

Early childhood programs shouldn’t exist simply because they’re a helpful service. They should be there because we know that it is critical to building a thriving economy. Studies have shown that children enrolled in early childhood education programs are 15% less likely to repeat a grade, more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and own a home.

One study suggests that the return on educational programs for four-year-olds is sixteen dollars for every one dollar invested.

The Opportunity

Democrats are inarguably the education party, but we’ve missed an opportunity to put investments in children and families at the forefront of our economic agenda. That needs to change. What happens during the first five years of a child’s life greatly affects an individual’s success decades down the line.

The Democratic message needs to be clear and direct: We are the party of opportunity intent on helping parents and caregivers thrive in our economy. We need to help voters understand that everyone should have the opportunity to strike the right work-life balance. This is an idea explicitly designed to promote family values and drive economic dynamism.

This does not mean that Democrats should abandon education-related issues we’ve supported for years. We should work to make college more accessible. We should address the dropout crisis among high school students. But for many families—particularly families with little kids—Democrats must offer a clear path to a better life. Nowhere in American life is the gap wider between what we do provide and what we could provide than in the first five years of any child’s life.

Democrats need to remind voters of that fact as often as they can.

Sly James is the former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Winston C. Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers and CEO of AREA15. Both are authors of the new book The Opportunity Agenda: A Bold Democratic Plan to Grow the Middle Class (Amplify, August 4th).

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Our Schools: Bridging the Skills Gap

When kids DO go back to school, what should they expect?

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Everyone is up in arms about schools reopening this fall—as they should be. At a bare minimum, going to school should not come with threats of bodily harm. But while most of us want schools to open—safely—not as many of us are thinking about the identity crisis facing our public schools.

Today, schools have assumed roles that twentieth century educators never envisioned: nutrition providers, counselors, advocates, therapists. To some, they merely serve as caregivers in lieu of parents with multiple jobs. (That’s the rationale behind sending them back too soon: to get parents back to work.) But when it comes to actual teaching and learning, American schools have not excelled. It’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity.

One of the main complaints about our current system is that it does not prepare students for jobs that actually exist. Technology, automation, and disruptive change have eliminated a broad swath of “9-to-5” jobs, but many companies are woefully short of qualified applicants for “new economy” jobs. Obviously, there is a widening skills gap that no amount of standardized testing will bridge.

Instead, let’s consider innovations that tend to get lost in the “labor versus management” squabbles that have defined public school policy discussions. For example, in upstate New York’s Fulton and Montgomery counties, local businesses actually got directly involved with local curriculum. Under the program, known as Pathways Through Technology or P-TECH, graduating students would have first dibs on jobs at those companies.

Specific skills development can happen without de-emphasizing core abilities like English, math, or science. More often than not, it’s the combination of critical thinking and practical skill that makes a student the ideal job candidate. Often, it is that very combination of practical and theoretical that inspires and engages students the most.

To do all this well, our schools must also consider lengthening the school day and year, which has been successfully done in countries throughout the world. This does not mean more of the same—more lectures, more testing, more “time served.” To be more effective, a longer school year should be a combination of time at school and time practicing in a real work situation. While it’s true that simply extending time spent in class has improved proficiency in schools across the country, think about how much more opportunity will exist when students are given the chance to learn by doing.

This kind of change will not happen by itself, or by ceding control of our schools to purely private interests. It’s time for Democrats to suggest bold changes to our country’s public education system—ones that actually prepare a new generation for the workforce and provide opportunity for Americans.

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