Discouraging as national politics seems at the moment, there is a groundswell of activity at the state level that ought to give progressives some cheer.
Senator Ted Kennedy and other Democrats have tried for years to raise the federal minimum wage without success. But around the country, eighteen state legislatures have now passed laws increasing the minimum wage above the federal $5.15 an hour.
In Maryland, the state legislature recently overrode its Republican governor’s veto to force Wal-Mart to start paying health insurance costs for its low-wage workforce.
And on other issues, from gay marriage in Massachusetts to auto emissions in California, states are pushing progressive legislation, even while the right keeps a hammerlock on Washington.
That doesn’t mean the left has won in the states. Republicans still hold twenty-eight governorships, and the American Legislative Ex-change Council (ALEC) funnels millions of dollars in corporate money to wine and dine legislators, sending them on fancy vacations, and providing them with boilerplate legislation so they can go home and deregulate industry and push a rightwing social agenda.
But there is more room for progressive change at the state level. State legislatures have a more pragmatic and less lockstep bent. Constricted budgets and “unfunded mandates” from Washington, like No Child Left Behind and the Medicare fiasco, make for bipartisan efforts to solve problems rather than simply enrich corporate lobbyists.
And then there is the backlash against the far right “God, guns, and gays” agenda.
“The polling in many states shows that the Republicans have gone too far,” says Mark Pocan, a progressive state assembly member in Wisconsin. He points to the unpopularity of recent legislation allowing pharmacists to withhold prescribed birth control from consumers. “Personally, I think the pendulum has swung too far to the right, and we’ve heard the thud,” Pocan says.
In general, polls show that people trust Democratic legislators more on bread-and-butter issues like education, health care, and the environment. And since national security is not a state issue, the Republicans lose their ability to scare up votes using the fear of terrorism. Tax-cutting is still a big Republican winner. But even here, as services crumble, voters are showing signs of fatigue.
Corruption is also not always as much of a problem at the state level as it is in Washington. In some states, it is still possible for citizens to be heard over the din of lobbyists seeking favors in exchange for campaign contributions.
With this in mind, progressive blogger, veteran political activist, and one-man ball of energy David Sirota has launched a new group called the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), which just received a $200,000 grant from George Soros’s Open Society Institute, as well as support from AFSCME, SEIU, and other unions and progressive groups, including MoveOn.org. The aim of the new organization is to push progressive legislation at the state level. PLAN bills itself as the leftwing answer to ALEC.
Ever since Republicans took over the entire federal government, progressives have been talking about the need to organize in the states. The only question is, what is the most effective way to do it?
State Representative Pocan already belongs to the Center for Policy Alternatives, which has been helping progressive politicians hone their skills, network, and draft legislation for the last thirty years. The group puts out an annual “progressive agenda for the states” that covers a wide array of topics and offers model bills on what the group considers the most important issues of the day. At its annual conference, CPA brings together large numbers of progressive legislators—to combat their isolation and help train them to be more effective communicators and lawmakers, and to build a network of likeminded people in all the states.
“It’s such a good organization, my first reaction is why would we start another one?” says Pocan, who only just heard about PLAN (the group is so new that its website was still under construction in early February).
Pocan and some other lefties worry that there are too many worthy progressive efforts competing for a limited pool of funds.
“The bottom line is we have lots of networks,” says Pocan. “These are feisty Chihuahuas. I don’t know if having six feisty Chihuahuas against one big gorilla does much.”
But Tim McFeeley, the executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, is more sanguine. “Too few people are doing state work,” he says.
The heads of the two groups—PLAN and CPA—have been in contact to make sure they are not simply duplicating each other’s efforts. And since CPA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and can’t do advocacy for particular pieces of legislation, PLAN will fill a needed gap—waging aggressive campaigns for particular state-level initiatives, McFeeley says.
“We could be viewed as a college and continuing education course. And they’re more of an action force that goes into legislative battles and wars,” he says.
Still, wouldn’t it be better if there was one big group on the left like ALEC?
“Yeah. It would be better,” says McFeeley. “It would be better to have a lot of money, too.” But McFeeley and other progressives, including Gloria Totten of Progressive Majority and New Party founder Joel Rogers, recently spent two years trying to interest funders in just such an entity—without success. (Rogers’s group ALICE, begun as an answer to ALEC, now works on the municipal level.)
CPA and PLAN are doing their best to work well together.
In response to the question about six Chihuahuas versus one big gorilla, Sirota says, “Right now we are getting beaten badly at the state level, so I don’t think there’s much to the argument that we don’t need to do some new things in that realm.” Plus, he points out, people from key progressive groups are on the board of PLAN. He says it is working with, not competing against, other groups. “I don’t think this is an either/or prospect,” he says. “Remember, the right has many groups that work closely with ALEC.”
Meanwhile, there are more progressive initiatives brewing in the states. Some thirty state legislatures are looking at legislation modeled on Maryland’s Fair Share health care act.
Bernie Horn, policy director at CPA, wrote a piece on TomPaine.com in January on other “progressive wedge issues” in the states that could help the Democrats in 2006. Besides the minimum wage and health care, they include energy efficiency, identity theft, and prescription drugs. In the wake of the Medicare prescription drug disaster, Horn points out that ideas like bulk purchasing plans, measures that punish drug company profiteering, and other populist efforts on this issue can benefit progressive candidates.
From child labor laws to New Deal legislation to the Family and Medical Leave Act, many important progressive federal policies started out in the states. The same goes for more recent gun control, gay rights, and economic justice issues.
“If I’m a wealthy activist and I want to put my money into making progressive change, I’ve got to do it at the state level,” says McFeeley. “And if I’m a poor young person who wants to put my time and my body into progressive activism, the states are where it is happening.”
These are not inconsequential efforts, he adds. Victories like raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour or providing health insurance to a large group of the working poor mean a great deal to people’s lives. “Hope is in the states” is the CPA motto.
And, of course, there is the hope that progressive legislators and activists who are brought together by groups like CPA and PLAN can move on to make their mark on our national government, as well.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.