Disappointed with Congress? Join the club. Since the GOP consolidated its grip on the House and Senate, the legislative branch has provided little check on President George W. Bush's executive imbalance. But in statehouses across America, progressives are winning fights for social and economic policies--and even achieving some foreign-policy goals--that represent an alternative to the right-wing agenda. Here are eight state legislators who provide examples of leadership that Democrats in Congress ought to emulate.
When Richard Alarcón and John Burton paid a visit to the Golden State Museum in Sacramento last year, they lingered over an exhibit recalling novelist Upton Sinclair's 1934 campaign for governor of the state on a promise to "End Poverty in California." Alarcón recalls turning to his friend and saying, "That's what I want to do." "Let's do it," responded Burton. Idle talk? No. Burton, president of the California State Senate, and Alarcón, the chair of the chamber's Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, created the Senate Select Committee on the Status of Ending Poverty in California. "Our objective is to draft a master plan--a substantive package of legislation, which will be held up as a commitment from our state to end poverty," says Alarcón, who has taken his committee into the day-labor camps, the sweatshops, the homeless centers and the immigrant neighborhoods of a state where 4 million people live in poverty. The goal is to develop programs that will over the coming decade reverse the trend toward increasing poverty. At the same time, Alarcón is going after a root cause of poverty with his "good corporate citizen" bill--one of several such measures being pushed around the country--which would bar corporate directors from performing their duties "at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public health and safety, the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of the corporation's employees."
Then-Governor George W. Bush failed to attend the funeral of James Byrd Jr., the African-American man who was dragged to his death by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. But Bush could not avoid contact with Byrd's family, or the issues his murder raised, because State Representative Senfronia Thompson would not allow him to. Thompson, a Houston Democrat, took the slain man's daughter, Renee Byrd-Mullins, to Bush's office to help lobby for the anti-hate crimes bill Thompson had drafted. It was an unsatisfying meeting, and Thompson told reporters that when Mullins started to cry, "the Governor did not offer a glass of water. Or a Kleenex." Thompson's tough, and effective. Named one of her state's best legislators by Texas Monthly, she regularly proves that even in the cradle of conservatism, it is possible to fight for social justice and win. She got the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill, including the protections for gays and lesbians that she insisted upon, passed and signed into law by Bush's successor, conservative Republican Rick Perry. And she got Perry to sign a contraceptive equity bill after a fight that Sarah Wheat of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League calls a classic example of how Thompson operates. "She uses all these tools: charm, humor, persuasion, passion, and if all else fails she will shame them," says Wheat. "If it's a tough fight, we always say: Put Representative Thompson on it, because if she believes in a bill she won't stop until it's law."
State Representative Mark Pocan has never been part of the majority in the Wisconsin State Assembly, yet he hasn't let that detail prevent him from shaping the debate. Elected from liberal Madison in 1998, Pocan knows how to work as an insider--he used a position on the Assembly's criminal justice committee to publicize abuses at the state's supermax prison so effectively that Republicans joined him in pressing for reforms. But Pocan, a gay, union-card-carrying Grateful Deadhead, is at his best when he indulges his Merry Prankster side: He gives out "Golden Turkey" awards to conservatives who waste tax dollars on pet projects, and when the Republican Speaker refused to give Democratic bills a hearing, Pocan launched a website that featured animated images of the Speaker riding a scooter over the rights of legislators and citizens. When a conservative Democrat who was pegged by party leaders to be the nominee for lieutenant governor sided with the Republicans on a key budget vote, Pocan got several dozen liberal legislators to sign a petition asking activist Barbara Lawton to enter the primary contest. She did, and won. "Mark is so good at getting attention for issues and so good at motivating activists that I often think about what he could do if Democrats won the majority in the legislature," says Lawton. "What he's doing now is proving that being in the minority doesn't necessarily mean you can't be effective."
"As you can imagine, passing genuinely progressive legislation even in a state like Vermont is not easy," says State Representative David Zuckerman of Burlington. It is even harder when you are not a part of either major-party caucus. But Zuckerman, the senior legislator in the four-member Vermont Progressive Party caucus, is proving he can have an impact: After years of crusading for an increase in the state minimum wage, Zuckerman and other Progressive legislators--as well as their small-p progressive allies in the Democratic Party--found an unexpected supporter this year in newly elected Republican Governor James Douglas. It looks like Vermont's minimum-wage workers will get a 50-cent-an-hour raise. That's progress, says Zuckerman, but not enough--he wants to tie increases to an inflation index and, ultimately, to get the legislature talking about a living wage rather than a minimum wage. Some of Zuckerman's most important work involves simply putting issues on the agenda. Two bills he has been pushing for years now have scores of co-sponsors from across the political spectrum: One requires labeling of genetically engineered food products; the other allows medical use of marijuana. Zuckerman and his fellow Progressives are also pushing for electoral reforms such as instant-runoff voting, real campaign-finance reform and a nonpartisan approach to redistricting.