2019 was a big year in state legislatures. Important battles to strengthen our democracy, improve the lives of working families, advance reproductive freedom, defend civil rights, and protect the environment were won and lost in states across the nation. These battles impact the lives of Americans every day, yet so many of these stories never reached the eyes or ears of most Americans. There are too many legislative victories to include in a list like this, so below are ten of our favorite moments of legislators standing up for their values.
Note: When looking back over the year, we did not screen for gender, and yet women took center stage. More women are running for office than ever before, yet still make up just 28.7% of state legislators. But as you’ll see below, these women are making an impact.
1. Women Took Charge in NV with the First Female-Majority Legislature in the Nation
Nevada became the first state in the nation’s history where women outnumbered men in the state legislature. More people of color were in Nevada’s legislature this session too, and all of these new voices in the legislature shaped which issues were discussed and which become policy. “I think growing up, you have this idea that politicians aren’t us. They don’t look like me. They don’t have my type of hair. They don’t come from our background. They don’t have to send money back to El Salvador to make sure that their family can make ends meet,” Assemblywoman Selena Torres said in an interview with the Washington Post. “But then you come to realize: That’s the problem.”
2. When OR Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell Donated A Kidney to a Stranger
This year, Oregon Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell donated her kidney to a stranger, survived a conservative recall attempt, and worked on legislation to include protections for organ donors under Oregon’s just-passed Paid Family and Medical Leave law, one of the most progressive leave policies in the nation. While Rep. Mitchell didn’t benefit from the law for her own surgery--the law goes into effect in 2020--she hopes her process and the passage of this bill inspires more people to consider becoming a donor. 2019 was also a huge year for paid family and medical leave progress in the states. Connecticut joined Oregon and also passed a new statewide law; California and New Jersey expanded their paid leave laws.
3. NC State Representative Deb Butler Did Not, and Will Not, Yield.
When Republicans in the North Carolina state legislature lied to progressives about whether they would be voting to override the Governor's budget veto in an effort to keep them off the floor, Rep. Deb Butler stood strong for her values and earned national attention for protesting the measure from the House floor. Standing up for progressive budget priorities, like education, clean water, and affordable health care, she refused to yield while calling attention to the trickery and deceptiveness at play. See the MSNBC story here.
4. Rep. Lamar Fought TN’s Abortion Ban as Only Female Legislator of Child-Bearing Age
In March of this year, the mostly-male Tennessee legislature (111 out of 132 members are men) was debating a six-week abortion ban. Rep. London Lamar fought against the ban, pointing out that she was one of, if not the only, female legislator of child-bearing age. “Access to abortion cannot be separated from human rights,” she said.
5. MI Rep. Tenisha Yancey Fought to Give Michiganders a Second Chance
Rep. Tenisha Yancey of Michigan said the crimes she committed when she was 17 continue to “haunt her and follow her,” as she encouraged her colleagues to vote for a package of criminal justice reform bills. The legislation is notable not only for the impact it will have on the lives of Michiganders but also its strong bipartisan support and continues to the state Senate.
6. Crossing State Lines, Women Came Together to Stand Up for Abortion Access
Faced with dangerous abortion restrictions in their own states, Missouri Rep. Cora Faith Walker and Georgia legislators Sen. Nikema Williams and Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick traveled to visit the Illinois legislature for a press conference to underscore the urgency of the issue of abortion bans as Illinois considered a proactive measure on abortion access, known as theReproductive Health Act. With a broader understanding of the national effort to prohibit abortion, the IL legislature ultimately passed the Reproductive Heath Act.
7. Sen. Stephanie Flowers Fought AR’s Stand Your Ground Bill: “You are not going to silence me!”
During a Judiciary Committee hearing on a so-called “stand your ground” bill, Arkansas State Senator Stephanie Flowers delivered stinging criticism of the bill. When committee leadership tried to speed debate along and cut her comments short, Sen. Flowers refused to be silenced. Fortunately, the bill died in the committee.
8. If You Can’t say “Tampons,” You Shouldn’t Restrict Them
“If you don’t want to say the word ‘tampon,’ then you shouldn’t restrict access to one,” said Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod advocating on behalf of incarcerated women who have limited access to feminine hygiene products in prison. The bill, which ensures incarcerated women have access to the products they need, is now law.
9. “If you’re not here fighting for the most vulnerable, why are you here?” Asks PA Sen. Katie Muth
When Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate called for a vote to eliminate funding that supports the state’s poorest residents, Sen. Katie Muth took the podium and read the testimony of a formerly homeless man who benefited from the program that conservatives wanted to defund. While she read, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman continuously shouted over her—so much so that he became hoarse. Sen. Muth refused to be silenced and read the testimony in full, guaranteeing that the testimony would make it onto the official record.
10. Rep. Howse Unleashes on Abortion Ban After El Salvador Trip
Five state legislators traveled to El Salvador with SiX staff to see the impacts of the country’s strict abortion bans. During the trip, conservatives in Ohio brought forward one of the most draconian abortion bans in the nation. Ohio Rep. Stephanie Howse returned from El Salvador recommitted to defending abortion access and unleashed on the bill in this interview with Scene Magazine. “Lawmakers are talking about ‘pro-life,’ but then give zero care about what sort of lives people are living. If they did, we'd have affordable housing. We'd have great education systems. We'd have family sustaining wages. We'd have access to healthcare,” said Rep. Howse.
There were so many more moments from 2019 that demonstrated the dedication progressive state legislators bring to their work. We are thankful to every state legislator who works tirelessly to strengthen our democracy, fight for working families advance reproductive freedom, defend civil rights and liberties and protect the environment. Follow @stateinnovation on Twitter for highlights throughout the year.