George W. Bush was the President of the United States. Fran Pavley was a freshman member of the California State Assembly. On the surface, it did not look like a fair fight. But when Bush decided in March 2001 that the United States would reject the Kyoto Protocol’s requirement for cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations, the Democratic legislator recalls thinking, “If Washington isn’t going to take a stand against global warming, then California is going to have to.” So the great-granddaughter of populist orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan penned a piece of legislation ordering the state’s Air Resources Board to adopt regulations to achieve “the maximum feasible reduction” in emissions of greenhouse gases emitted from cars and sport utility vehicles. Overcoming a $5 million campaign by the auto industry and its allies–and the taunts of Republican legislators who described her as an “environmental extremist”–Pavley shepherded the bill through the legislature, onto Governor Gray Davis’s desk and into law. That was no small accomplishment, but it was only the beginning of Pavley’s challenge to Bush’s anti-environment agenda.

Pavley’s California bill was embraced by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a low-budget, high-energy coalition of more than 200 lawmakers in forty-nine states, as a model–and an inspiration–for a state-based challenge to the President and the polluters whose side he has taken in the fight over global warming. “I took the information that she came up with in relation to California and reworked it so it would fit in the Maryland context. Then I introduced a bill that would have us set similar emissions standards and compliance requirements here,” says Maryland Delegate James Hubbard, a Democrat who heads NCEL. Democratic and GOP legislators who are NCEL participants have introduced related legislation in New Jersey, Connecticut and Hawaii, and Hubbard says he is fielding calls from legislators across the country who want their states to follow California’s lead. “It’s a grassroots kick in the butt to Congress and the Bush Administration,” says Hubbard. “Legislators are saying: Look, if you can’t get on top of these global-warming issues, we will. And we’re forcing the corporations to recognize that just because they’ve got the federal government, that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook. That’s what NCEL is all about–influencing the legislative process at the state level in a way that has national implications.”

Established as a response to 1994 election results that put Republican conservatives in charge not just of Congress but of legislatures that had not been in GOP hands for decades, and to the coordinated assaults on environmental protection in Washington and state capitals across the country that followed those political shifts, NCEL is one of a growing number of organizations that help progressive legislators–and activists who work on state issues–to link up across state lines. While legislators have long shared ideas through nonpartisan groups like the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the forging of progressive issue-based and ideologically driven groups of legislators is a newer phenomenon. “It always made sense for us to work together, but that didn’t necessarily happen,” says Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat who co-chairs the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, members of which have been in the forefront of promoting legislation to require more accountability from corporations. “What really caused a lot of us to recognize the need for this kind of organizing was the recognition that we were going to have to build some networks of our own to block ALEC.”

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a thirty-year-old conservative powerhouse that bills itself as the “largest bipartisan, individual membership association of state legislators.” Formed by conservative activist Paul Weyrich with early backing from John Birch Society member Joseph Coors, ALEC was once a relatively sincere if extreme right-wing group that opposed abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and the codification of advances made by the civil rights movement. In the 1980s and ’90s, however, ALEC was remolded by corporate lobbyists to implement their agenda. Flush with $6 million a year in funding from Amoco, Chevron, Texaco, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Cargill, AT&T, Wackenhut Corrections, the American Nuclear Energy Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and, until recently, Enron, ALEC has drawn a membership of 2,400 legislators–one-third of the nation’s total–with “junkets and other largesse,” according to “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council,” a study released last year by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

ALEC sets up task forces of legislators and corporate lobbyists who draw up “model legislation,” dealing with everything from expanding spending on prisons, to removing barriers to the genetic modification of food, to supporting the Bush Administration’s push to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas. The bills are then introduced by the legislators and promoted by the lobbyists. ALEC played a critical role in pushing Enron’s fifty-state utility deregulation agenda. It is so slavish to corporate antitax dogmas that this spring, it was busy promoting opposition to Congressional moves to increase aid to financially strapped states.

“What ALEC does is devastating for states and for the people who live in them, but now we even see a lot of Democrats signing up with ALEC because, of course, that’s where the money is,” says Leon Billings, a former Maryland legislator who helped found the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators to counter ALEC-promoted legislation that let corporations skirt environmental regulations by conducting “self audits” on their facilities. “But the interesting thing is that, at least at the state level, there are still a lot of Democrats and a good number of Republicans who refuse to bend to the corporate pressure. That’s the base we started to work from, and we’ve actually been able to beat ALEC–on its own legislation and on our bills.”

ALEC has also faced spirited challenges from well-established groups like US PIRG (the national association of state public-interest research groups), USAction and the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), all of which have track records of linking activists and legislators in campaigns for model legislation. For instance, USAction and CPA have been in the thick of efforts to promote state-level prescription-drug reform laws. “It was through CPA that we spread the word among legislators about how they could take on drug companies,” says former Maine Senate majority leader Chellie Pingree, now president of Common Cause.

For all the good efforts of CPA and other groups, however, there is general agreement that progressives still need more organizational muscle–and better coalitions–if they want to counter ALEC’s multistate, multi-issue thrust. “I wish I could take a pencil and erase the barriers that prevent progressives from working across state lines the way that conservatives do,” says Nina Moseley, executive director of Democracy South, which is working to “export” the model that was used to win public financing of judicial elections in North Carolina to neighboring states. “But it’s just not that easy. We’re going to need to get our allies focused on what can be done at the state level, and we’re going to need the money to build the infrastructure that rivals what the right has constructed. That means that the foundations have to get a lot more involved with these state and regional initiatives.” She adds, “We’ve got to become as good as the conservatives are at sharing resources, sharing ideas and sharing energy.”

The secret to doing that, argues Andy Gussert, who helped put together the “Trojan Horse in the States” study, involves building on the strengths of longstanding groups such as CPA and encouraging the development of newer groups, such as NCEL and the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, which he describes as “edgier, more aggressive organizations that are ready to go toe to toe with ALEC.” By focusing on specific issue areas such as environmental protection or by working on a regional basis, Gussert says, these groups are able to build tightknit networks of legislators who use close ties to grassroots groups–and whatever foundation funding they can scrape together–not just to battle ALEC but to pass progressive legislation. Working with labor, environmental and community groups such as ACORN, Gussert in recent months has been coordinating the formation of a clearinghouse for such groups, the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), which is intended to counter ALEC’s initiatives by spreading the word about right-wing stealth agendas, distributing model legislation, analyzing state budget issues and linking legislators to experts on how to craft and pass “high-road” economic development initiatives that benefit workers and the environment. ALICE’s official coming-out party will take place late this spring, but the group already has a website, “Think of ALICE as ALEC’s younger, smarter, more progressive and more feisty sister,” says Gussert. “We want ALICE to make ALEC’s life miserable.”