Four years ago Mark Ritchie wound up a quarter-century career as a farm and food policy activist and waded into the political fray. As a key organizer of the international fair-trade movement and a savvy legislative strategist, he might have been expected to run for Congress. Instead, he ran for Minnesota secretary of state.
Furious at the mangled recount of the Ohio presidential vote in 2004, Ritchie determined that nothing was more important than putting honest players in charge of running elections and counting votes. "All our talk about defending democracy adds up to very little if we aren't willing to run for and win the positions that make the promise of democracy real," he says. Two years after his election, Ritchie was in the thick of the ugliest recount fight of the 2008 election cycle, bringing what the Minnesota Supreme Court would hail as a thoroughly "fair and conscientious" approach to the seven-month review that made Al Franken's vote the sixtieth Democratic one in the Senate.
Ritchie, who is running for re-election this year, is the poster boy for an emerging understanding on the part of progressives that "down-ballot" victories are crucial. Once in office progressives in low-profile but powerful statewide legislative posts can play a definitional role in our politics by keeping elections for state and federal posts honest and fair; by working with policy-makers in Washington to implement healthcare, education and job-creation programs; and by providing models for how other states and the federal government can get social and economic policies right. Although most pundits can't be bothered to talk about much more than the president and Congress, and most money flows to federal races, contests for state posts have always been essential. That goes double this year, when states are choosing the officials who will draw Congressional district lines nationwide.
The looming redistricting battles of 2011—when governors and other state officials and legislators will, in effect, allocate House seats in Washington—mean that the November 2 election could set the tone for federal politics for the next decade. For national Democrats, winning a big-state governorship—in California, Texas, Florida, Georgia or Ohio—could matter more than winning a Senate seat. And with eighty-seven state legislative chambers up for grabs (forty-five statehouses, forty-two state senates), there are thousands of local races that have national importance.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, who have dominated statehouse politics since 2006 (they currently control the lower houses of thirty-two legislatures, compared with sixteen for the Republicans, with one tied and one, Nebraska, nonpartisan), the party's troubles at the national level extend to the states. "The Democrats control a majority of the governors' offices and state senates and houses at a time when a severe national recession and state fiscal crises are pushing voters into an angry, anti-incumbent mood," explains Governing magazine analyst Louis Jacobson. "Polls typically show Republicans and Republican-leaning voters more energized to vote than their Democratic counterparts, undercutting Democratic hopes in almost every state."
Although some setbacks are likely, Democratic statehouse advantages hold out the prospect that the parties could come out of this election closely balanced in most states. Then, while party labels will still matter, the integrity of individual officeholders will be even more critical. That's why the good news from this tough election cycle is that many new-generation progressive legislators, such as Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, are poised to win new terms. Raskin, who represents Maryland's 20th Senate district, promises to "counter the baffling activities of the Tea Party" with the progressive politics of "the District Twen-Tea Party." That's not just a fun turn of phrase; Raskin is pointing out another reason down-ballot races matter this year. If Washington gets even more bogged down by partisan wrangling after November 2—and especially if the White House opts for compromise with resurgent Republicans—state-based progressives will be essential players on issues ranging from clean elections to climate change to regulating corporate abuses to implementing healthcare reform.
Vermont might elect its first Democratic governor since 2002, Peter Shumlin, the State Senate president pro tem, who is campaigning as a backer of bold single-payer reforms. Healthcare is an issue as well in contests for state attorney general posts, thirty of which will be filled this year. Led by Florida's Bill McCollum, Republican attorneys general joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn key components of federal reform legislation. But McCollum, who lost a gubernatorial primary, might be replaced by progressive legislator Dan Gelber, once labeled by the Wall Street Journal as "Jeb Bush's chief nemesis." Democratic candidates like California's Kamala Harris, New York's Eric Schneiderman and Colorado's Stan Garnett are ready to join incumbent attorneys general like Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto and Minnesota's Lori Swanson on the right side of the healthcare debate and national fights for corporate accountability.
The same goes for impressive newcomers in other down-ballot races, such as Rhode Island general treasurer candidate Gina Raimondo, who wants to "exert the state's leverage as a major shareholder to address corporate misbehavior"; New Mexico public lands commissioner candidate Ray Powell, who promises to renew a tradition of "holding individuals and global companies accountable to take care of the land and to pay what they owe"; and Iowa secretary of agriculture candidate Francis Thicke, who has outlined an ambitious plan to battle agribusiness giants while making the state a leader in promoting sustainability, food safety and renewable energy.
As it was in 1932, when Justice Louis Brandeis referred to them as "laboratories of democracy," states are still producing the most innovative and progressive ideas. And as long as progressive reformers—like Wayne State University law professor Jocelyn Benson, a national advocate on election issues, and Arizona legislator Chris Deschene, a member of the Navajo Nation who made a name for himself battling the disenfranchisement of rural voters—keep entering and winning races for secretary of state, Mark Ritchie will be proven right when he says, "No matter what happens in Washington, we can make sure that democracy starts in the states."