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Ambassador Suzi LeVine on the Unsung Power of the States

This year’s US midterm elections were as consequential as any in recent history. But it’s not just the headline-grabbing national races for Congress that will reshape the country in the coming years. There were also thousands of state-level elections on Tuesday, the results of which will have huge implications for Americans on issues including gun control, reproductive rights, the pandemic response, and climate change. 

On this episode of Trending Globally we’re stepping aside from midterm election analysis (there’s plenty of that to go around) — instead, you’ll hear from an expert on state-level government about the surprising, underappreciated power of US states to change people’s lives. 

And a warning: whatever your political beliefs, this conversation might actually make you feel optimistic about American government. 

Ambassador Suzi LeVine '93 is a Senior Fellow of International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute, and this Fall she’s leading a study group called ‘The Power of the States’. In it, she’s helping students to see the tremendous potential of US state governments to change lives, and the unrecognized potential everyday citizens have to make their voice heard at the state level. 

Transcript

DAN RICHARDS: A quick note before we start. This fall marks Trending Globally's fifth anniversary, and this is actually our 200th episode. We'll be doing a little more to celebrate in the coming weeks. So make sure to follow the Watson Institute on Instagram or Twitter to hear more about all that. And from everyone here, thanks for listening. OK, on with the show.

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From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. There were too many important races to count in yesterday's US midterm elections. And I'm not just talking about the ones that would decide what party controls the US congress. There were also thousands of state-level races across the country.

And while they receive far less attention, they're no less important. And that's because whether we're talking about gun control, reproductive rights, the pandemic response, education, or public safety, so many of the policies and programs that affect Americans originate not from D.C, but from the states.

So on this episode, we're going to turn our attention to the states, what powers do they have, how do these governments work in practice, and what role can citizens play in shaping them. You're going to hear from an expert on the subject who, brace yourself, might actually make you feel optimistic about the state of American government and politics.

Ambassador Suzi LeVine is a visiting senior fellow at the Watson Institute and is leading a study group this fall here called "The Power of the States." In it, she's helping students to see the tremendous potential of US state governments to change lives and the unrecognized potential everyday citizens have to make their voices heard at the state level.

You'll hear some examples of well-known state-led programs and movements, as well as some of the unsung ways these governments shape our society. We had a fascinating conversation, which left everyone in the recording studio surprisingly hopeful about our collective ability to make life better for Americans. We hope you feel the same way.

To understand how Suzi views the role of US state governments, it's helpful to learn a little bit more about her winding path into working at the state level.

SUZI LEVINE: So I've had a very non-linear career. I graduated from Brown in Nineteen Ninety-Three with degrees in engineering and English and looked for where I could communicate technology to non-technologists and landed at Microsoft over in the Pacific Northwest.

DAN RICHARDS: In Two Thousand Seven, Suzi volunteered on the Obama presidential campaign.

SUZI LEVINE: Which sort of started my path down the engagement in civics.

DAN RICHARDS: She was still working in tech but got more and more involved in politics and worked again on Obama's second presidential campaign in Twenty Twelve. And in Twenty Fourteen--

SUZI LEVINE: The president nominated me to be his ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein where I served from Twenty Fourteen to Twenty Seventeen.

DAN RICHARDS: While in Switzerland, she became fascinated with the government's commitment to training and supporting working people, specifically through their robust state-run apprenticeship model. These are programs that train people in 100 of fields and careers, and it's actually the most common type of post-secondary education in Switzerland.

SUZI LEVINE: And that's where I gained my, as I call it, my [? shwa-dizab. ?]

DAN RICHARDS: That [? shwa-dizab, ?] as she calls it, is the passion for figuring out how governments can make life better for workers, especially back home in the US.

SUZI LEVINE: Not just apprenticeship, but how the workforce system works and the importance of helping everybody access the dignity of work.

DAN RICHARDS: But this is not an episode about the Swiss apprenticeship model and how to bring something like it to the US. Although, we should do one on that sometime too. I'm bringing this up because this passion then played a central role in her next position.

SUZI LEVINE: Working for Governor Inslee, running his employment security department.

DAN RICHARDS: That's Governor Jay Inslee back in her home state of Washington.

SUZI LEVINE: And then working for President Biden, running the employment and training administration at the start of his administration.

DAN RICHARDS: Maybe it's because Suzi has worked in so many different realms, or maybe it goes all the way back to her education as an engineer, but her passion seems to be less in the politics of government and more in the systems of governing itself.

And as she came to see in her time in public service, state governments are so much more important and effective than many Americans seem to realize. And often, changes within states are building blocks to change at the national level. One famous example of this that Suzi explored with her class at Watson and that we started our conversation with, the campaign for marriage equality.

SUZI LEVINE: A lot of people think that marriage equality happened when the Supreme Court upheld the Obergefell decision.

DAN RICHARDS: That, of course, was the Twenty Fifteen Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional to ban same sex couples from marrying. It effectively enshrined marriage as a constitutional right.

SUZI LEVINE: That really was the culmination and the end of that point and not the beginning. The beginning, actually, was Evan Wolfson writing a thesis that he enumerated how it's a constitutional right for marriage equality.

DAN RICHARDS: Evan Wolfson is a lawyer and activist. And the thesis Suzi's referring to is his Nineteen Eighty-Three law school thesis, which laid out a legal case for allowing same sex couples to marry.

At the time, it was a far out position, but Evan Wolfson was committed to the cause. He started working for Lambda Legal, one of the nation's largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations, and became the spokesperson for the budding campaign for marriage equality. Wolfson and many others developed a strategy that put an emphasis on working at the state level.

SUZI LEVINE: In some cases, working on legislation, in some cases, working on initiatives, which an initiative is what a direct democracy can do where the citizens pass legislation and not necessarily the legislature. And then the other mode was judicial and where there might be court cases that would then bear out the constitutionality of marriage equality.

DAN RICHARDS: One reason they focused so much on the states, they found that at the state level, certain partisan divides could be overcome in a way that was almost impossible in national politics. One example that Evan Wolfson relayed to Suzi and her class at Watson.

SUZI LEVINE: About a New York State Republican legislator who had a disabled grandchild and related this opportunity to respect the rights of individuals to his relationship with his grandchild, and the opportunities for his grandchild. And that there were a lot of unlikely partnerships that they had.

DAN RICHARDS: And so in that example, the Republican legislator in New York, he was spoken to on the level of someone who's seeking more equality for someone in his life who's different from other people in some way--

SUZI LEVINE: Exactly. Exactly.

DAN RICHARDS: Another reason that politics at the state level are more unpredictable and fluid than those at the national level.

SUZI LEVINE: You also have a much more direct accountability. A state legislator is in the grocery store next to their constituents. Or, it's also very easy for individuals to go and testify before their state legislature if there's an issue on which they're passionate, or to go and advocate for that issue with their state legislator who probably lives around the block.

DAN RICHARDS: Evan Wolfson along with organizations like the Gill Foundation, as well as working with countless organizers and activists pushed state elected officials in the direction of supporting same sex marriage.

SUZI LEVINE: What the Gill Foundation also recognized was the importance of supporting those legislators who would support and uphold marriage equality and trying to displace those who wouldn't. And again, it wasn't necessarily along party lines that this orientation happened.

And what they ultimately were able to do is to help enough people in enough places to understand and recognize that people in their lives deserve the opportunity to love who they love, and really to bring it back to that and go state by state.

DAN RICHARDS: It, of course, wasn't a direct linear process. There were plenty of setbacks. But--

SUZI LEVINE: By the time it made it to the Supreme Court, there was enough momentum moving forward that it was upheld at the Supreme Court.

BARACK OBAMA: This morning the Supreme Court recognized that the constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they've reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. America should be very proud. Thank you.

DAN RICHARDS: Of course, when a state level campaign leads to a US Supreme Court decision, it's relatively easy to see how states can affect change. But state level campaigns or policies don't have to lead to front page news to have huge impacts on Americans, which brings us to our next example that Suzi and I spent most of our conversation on, the creation of paid family and medical leave in Washington state.

This was a program that Suzi oversaw the rollout of while serving as head of the Washington State Employment and Security Department from Twenty Eighteen to Twenty Twenty-One. Now, for those unfamiliar with the idea of paid family and medical leave.

SUZI LEVINE: It allows you to take leave from your job and receive partial wage replacement should you have a child come into your home, if you need time off for recovering from some health incidents, or if you need to take care of a family member who has some sort of health situation occurring.

DAN RICHARDS: And before Twenty Seventeen--

SUZI LEVINE: There were four states that already had some form of paid family medical leave. Rhode island was one of them, along with New York, California, and New Jersey.

But none of them had built it from scratch. They all had what's called temporary disability insurance on which they rolled out paid family and medical leave. Washington state did not already have temporary disability insurance. So it was the first state in the union to build from scratch a paid family medical leave program.

DAN RICHARDS: It was while working on this project that LeVine encountered the many quirks and features of state government that can make them potentially highly effective and also responsive to their citizens. So what are some of those features?

One is the smaller human scale of state politics that we already discussed. Your representative's kids might go to the same school as your kids. Your representatives might hit the same pothole on the same road that you do every day.

The physical and mental distance between a representative at the state level and their constituent just isn't that large. And this is related to another reason, one which I, at least, had never really thought much about before Suzi mentioned it.

SUZI LEVINE: Here's another crazy thing, totally crazy thing, right? These legislators are making these decisions. Many of these legislators, they don't come in equipped to understand budgeting. They don't come in equipped to understand many of the issues that they ultimately vote on.

They may come in as super, super passionate about education and know nothing about climate. They may come in as somebody who is all about agriculture and understand absolutely nothing about transportation. But the opportunity is if you are passionate about an area to help educate them.

DAN RICHARDS: These ideas that local politicians are more accountable, relatable, and perhaps persuadable are ideas that many Americans who follow politics might have heard before.

But there's another layer to what LeVine calls the power of states. It's a layer that's a little more in the weeds, a little less romantic sounding than convincing your legislator to take a new position on something while you're chatting with them at the grocery store.

But as Suzi explains, it's no less important. It can sort of be summed up by an assumption Suzi had going into the process of rolling out paid family medical leave. An assumption which you might have about state government too.

SUZI LEVINE: When I got into state government, I always thought everything was law-based, right? And the laws get things done. Laws are not actually operational.

DAN RICHARDS: What do you mean by that?

SUZI LEVINE: Laws need instruction manuals. And the instruction manuals themselves are the rules and regulations that you'll see. And then there's something that's even more nimble in that, and that's guidance. How do you even understand these rules and regulations?

And so it is the agencies and the public servants themselves who take the laws and work with the lawyers on, how do you interpret this law? How do you implement this law?

DAN RICHARDS: This is true almost no matter the law.

SUZI LEVINE: Whether that is distributing money, whether that is building new systems, whether that is creating interfaces for citizens to engage with their government and utilize services being provided, most of that is guided by regulation and rules.

DAN RICHARDS: And those details, they matter a lot.

SUZI LEVINE: The same law can be implemented in multiple different ways based on the rules and the regulations.

DAN RICHARDS: And rules and regulations are a spot where, in many states, citizens might have more power to make change than they realize. Creating rules and regulations in the state of Washington, for example--

SUZI LEVINE: It's a very public process. Any individual can engage in rulemaking. A person can come and say, I want this particular rule. This is how it affects me. I want to change my community in these ways. Or, this law isn't meeting all of what we need. Let's actually come and adapt the rule to shift it this way. And so a lot of people don't understand that I personally didn't until I joined state government.

DAN RICHARDS: Another relative strength of state governments is their ability to revise laws after they've been passed, what's often known as making technical corrections. Here's how Suzi describes it.

SUZI LEVINE: As somebody who comes from the technology industry, I think about nobody's using an iPhone 1. We constantly improve and expect the services and systems in our lives to improve. And we should be able to expect that our legislators and our government officials will continuously do that.

I'll give you an example of a technical correction that we had in paid family medical leave. In Washington state, the paid family medical leave law passed in Twenty Seventeen. But as we were developing it, we identified some gaps, some areas that weren't covered in the statute. An example being paid family medical leave provides what's called partial wage replacement. So you may make $100 a week, and it will replace, let's say, $60 of that.

And I won't go into the details, but let's say you get $60. Well, there were some employers who wanted to be able to supplement that to $100 and give you the full wage replacement as a nice benefit.

The law didn't allow that to happen and instead would have treated that very differently for that individual. And if they had done that, it actually would have changed what the wage is. It would have counted that supplement as wage and would have made them disallowed in certain ways. So a technical correction that we made was to allow employers to supplement the paid family medical leave benefit without penalty.

You were asking before about what's some of the differences between state and federal, for example. Well, right now the states are still able to have some level of comity, and to get along with each other, and to pass these kinds of technical corrections to continue to improve legislation. And I would argue at the federal level are not as able to upgrade federal legislation quite as much.

DAN RICHARDS: So you're saying that the gridlock that many people-- anyone who reads the news hears about gridlock in Congress at the national level, but that that gridlock goes beyond just passing a law. It then goes into updating the laws or maintaining the laws. These things that maybe don't make it onto the front page as well, but that gridlock just filters through the whole process.

SUZI LEVINE: Totally, 100%. When you look at the issues with the Affordable Care Act--

DAN RICHARDS: Which you may know by its other name, Obamacare.

SUZI LEVINE: --it was not perfect when it was finished, when the first version of it was done. But they haven't been able to update it to make it better. When you think about the Civil Rights Act in Nineteen Sixty-Four, what we now think of as that act had many corrections made to it to make it better over the subsequent years.

So laws need improvement too. And at the state level, that work is happening and things are getting better over time or getting addressed or considered over time.

And what I want the students in the class to understand is the role that they can play in both how our law is interpreted and operationalized, and then how might they also suggest technical corrections and how to make some of these laws better. And fundamentally, how can they be a part of improving their communities and making a difference every day?

DAN RICHARDS: So for listeners who are intrigued by all these ways to get involved, how exactly do they get involved? In the case of paid family leave in Washington, for example, were people just calling their legislators with technical corrections? Were they part of like activist groups?

SUZI LEVINE: All the above. First, we have an open forum for individuals to submit ideas. We also have an-- had, I'm no longer there, had, passed tense. They still have an advisory council that is comprised of business of labor and of advocates who come forward and share what they're hearing from their respective constituencies.

And then also in implementing it and building it, you learn, oh, wait, this has a gap. This doesn't work in this way that we thought it would. Just like if you're using a new device. And sometimes in that new device you're like, wow, that shouldn't be in the upper left hand corner. My eye is tracking to the lower right hand corner. Let's move it in the next update.

DAN RICHARDS: One thing that helped the state of Washington create their program, they could learn from other paid family medical leave programs that had been established in the four states ahead of them. One example of that--

SUZI LEVINE: What we'd seen in California where California did not have what's called progressive wage replacement, meaning the less you make, the higher percentage is replaced. Because what we saw was that people in the lower income end of the spectrum weren't utilizing California's paid family medical leave because they couldn't afford it.

DAN RICHARDS: So in the state of Washington, they created a progressive wage replacement.

SUZI LEVINE: What we also did in talking with businesses is we realized that small businesses, especially, couldn't actually afford to have their workers leave. And so we included basically a grant system to allow small businesses to get up to-- I believe it was $3,000 per employee to either hire up somebody else, retrain someone else, or figure out some other way if they needed to supplement while that person was out on leave.

DAN RICHARDS: Other states are now learning from Washington's experience.

SUZI LEVINE: Washington state is by no means been perfect. And what we have done is work very hard to share our learning very publicly so that we can get better, but also so that others implementing this can learn from what's worked and what has been challenging.

What's been fun too is seeing how states are leapfrogging each other with different aspects of the policy. So for example, Oregon in their policy leapfrogged Washington in rolling out something where if there was domestic violence situation, that was a qualifying event. Other states have upped us in terms of the amount of time. There's work being done to make the benefits all that much better in subsequent states.

DAN RICHARDS: So how did this whole process interact with partisan politics? I don't know much about Washington state legislature. But with paid family leave, was it passed along party lines, or was there strong political opposition?

SUZI LEVINE: The votes were bipartisan votes. Did everybody vote for it? No, not everybody voted for it. But it was bipartisan. And in fact, arm in arm were Joe Fain, who is republican, and Karen Keiser, who was democrat, moving that legislation forward.

And at the negotiating table was business and labor. So the Association of Washington Businesses and the Washington State Labor Council were right at the table negotiating the different elements of the legislation.

DAN RICHARDS: Wow. Yeah, that sounds wonderful and utterly unlike anything you hear about happening in national politics these days. Do you hope, though, that at some point paid family medical leave will become a nationwide program, or is this something that might sort of end at the states?

SUZI LEVINE: A person in the United States shouldn't have to win the state lottery in order to get this benefit. Now, I say state lottery, meaning living in a state as opposed to powerball or something like that. I believe to my core every person in the United States should have this just like every person in Germany gets this, every person in Switzerland gets this.

So many people in developed nations across the globe have this as a benefit to be able to take care of their children, to be able to take care of themselves, to be able to take care of their loved ones. The ultimate goal is to have a federal law on this.

DAN RICHARDS: Which makes sense. If you really believe in something, whether it's paid family medical leave, marriage equality, or, as we saw this summer, banning access to abortion, you ultimately want to see that change happen nationally and avoid the feeling of a state lottery. But even given that, as Suzi sees it, working at the state level is still often the best place to start.

SUZI LEVINE: It also goes back to my technology background. Before you scale something, it's often useful to test it out in a smaller scale, try something in a city, try something in a community.

I know that there are a lot of tests right now around universal basic income. Those are happening at city and community levels first in the United States to gauge and understand and measure and determine what works, and then to build from there.

DAN RICHARDS: As we look ahead at the numerous pressing challenges facing our country, our planet, are there particular places you get most excited about in terms of work that's being done at a state level, or where you see states having the best way into addressing these problems at this current moment?

SUZI LEVINE: So what I see-- for example, in today's session, we met with state senator, Reuven Carlyle, from Washington state who just successfully passed in partnership with the governor the most comprehensive climate legislation that the United States has ever seen.

That sets the template and model for what other states could do in terms of cap and invest. And how do you bring together business and labor, and in Washington state, the tribes to help move that forward in a way?

DAN RICHARDS: Suzi is referring there to the Climate Commitment Act, which was passed in the state of Washington in Twenty Twenty-One. It set legal limits for emissions and is set to reduce emissions significantly in the next 15 years and almost entirely by Twenty Fifty.

SUZI LEVINE: So I do think that areas related to climate, and when you look at jurisdiction, land use, and things like that, are typically more state-oriented.

That said, the federal government certainly has a lot of domain. But there are areas that are going to be more focused on the states than they are on the federal government. But I tend to recognize that even if something could and should be federal, a great place for it to start is locally.

DAN RICHARDS: What would you recommend or say to someone who is not an elected official, not working in government, but who's just living their life? What would you say would be something you hope people would take away from this conversation and just that you hope people might pay a little more attention to when it comes to state governance?

SUZI LEVINE: Well, for one, what I want is for people to understand that every single person can make a difference. Their voice matters. Their vote matters for darn sure. And there are so many ways for them to have impact on the issues and areas on which they care.

Many people only have in their viewfinder how to do it on a federal level. And what I want them to understand is that much of what impacts their lives is actually at the local and state level. And especially at the state level, there are many mechanisms and partners and state legislators who are waiting to hear from them.

DAN RICHARDS: As Suzi makes clear, working at the state level, though, isn't easy. It still requires dedication, creativity, and above all patience. When we see headlines marking a national transformation on some aspect of American life, it's often the result of decades of work that had been done at state and local levels before it. One example of which we saw clearly last summer.

SUZI LEVINE: When you look at the Dobbs decision that recently happened with regards to a woman's right to choose that overturned Roe, regardless of where you fall on the policy, what's really interesting to look at is that was a 40-year march that those individuals worked at the state level.

And again, like the marriage equality, they did it in a multimodal way. And they had those elements in place, those trigger laws in place very effectively. So whether or not I agree with what they were trying to do, what I admire is their patience and their persistence, and their unlikely partnerships that they put in place in order to move something that they were passionate about forward.

DAN RICHARDS: As you're describing that example just in this conversation, it feels like it's pulling a curtain back and you see so many of the most headline-grabbing issues in domestic politics.

When you start looking at them a little more closely, it's things that were happening at state levels that have bubbled up over years or decades, whether it's gun control, voting rights. I mean, it's unbelievable.

SUZI LEVINE: Transgender sports is happening now. And you can look at many of these different areas. If individuals go and look at the docket and the policies that are being put forward by different individuals at the start of their respective state legislative sessions, it's really fascinating.

DAN RICHARDS: Part of what brought Suzi to the Watson Institute, though, is her desire to share this passion with students. As she sees it, students and young people might be best positioned to get involved in state politics, even in the more esoteric details like rulemaking and technical corrections.

SUZI LEVINE: Students, it's almost like they have an extra glow in coming in and talking with these state legislators and/or with other entities, or in the executive branch of a state. Everybody wants to talk to students, just their passion. And they have a special superpower that they should be utilizing.

DAN RICHARDS: So it sounds like if you're a student especially, but even if you're not a student, if there's something you care about, get involved at the state level. Might be one of the best ways to start sort of making progress in that domain.

SUZI LEVINE: 100%.

DAN RICHARDS: Well, Suzi LeVine, Ambassador LeVine--

SUZI LEVINE: Please call me Suzi.

DAN RICHARDS: OK, Suzi, thank you so much for talking with us on Trending Globally.

SUZI LEVINE: Well, thank you so much for what you're doing. I appreciate it.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, Sam McKeever Holtzman, and Laila Wirth. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It really helps others to find us. And even better, recommend the show to a friend who you think might like it.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.