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.
Nan Orrock has been on a long march that she says began when she “stepped into the streets on August 28, 1963, to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The Virginia native organized campuses for the Southern Student Organizing Committee, helped organize textile workers in North Carolina, co-founded Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird underground newspaper and served as executive director of the Fund for Southern Communities. In 1987 she marched into the Georgia Statehouse, where she took a seat among legislators who in some cases had served since segregation days. The Atlanta Democrat worked her way into spots on some of the House’s most powerful committees and, ultimately, to her current position as the House majority whip. Ever the organizer, Orrock has over the years pulled together coalitions to pass the Georgia Family Medical Leave Act and the Georgia Hate Crimes Act, among others. Last year she led the fight to make the state’s unemployment insurance system fairer. Even as she builds coalitions, however, Orrock refuses to trim her progressive sails; while some Democratic legislators defended inclusion of the Confederate flag on the state banner, Orrock declared, “It’s common knowledge the Confederate Stars and Bars have become a symbol of racism.” When she isn’t stirring things up in Georgia, Orrock is organizing legislators nationally, serving as a board member of the Center for Policy Alternatives and as president of the Women Legislators’ Lobby, a network of women legislators that campaigns to cut excessive military spending.
At the behest of US-based agribusiness corporations, the Bush Administration is demanding that the World Trade Organization force the European Union to lift restrictions on genetically modified foods. But resistance to the re-engineering of food supplies isn’t just coming from Brussels, it’s also coming from Bismarck. Since her 1996 election to the North Dakota Statehouse, Democrat April Fairfield has been at the center of the fight to make sure that farmers and consumers–not multinationals and the WTO–decide what is planted, sold and eaten. After Fairfield won House approval of a bill placing a two-year moratorium on the sale of GM wheat seeds, the chair of the state Senate Agriculture Committee prevented it from becoming law. Fairfield challenged him in the 2002 election and won. In a Republican-controlled legislature, Fairfield is continuing to wage an uphill battle for the moratorium, and she is expanding her activism beyond the Capitol. The woman who marched with farmers from around the world during the 1999 anti-WTO protest in Seattle has joined the Dakota Resource Council and farm activists in filing a legal petition calling on the US Secretary of Agriculture to deny biotech behemoth Monsanto’s request for permission to start selling GM wheat seeds until the USDA has fully analyzed the environmental, social and economic impacts of such a decision. “April’s so in touch with farmers on these issues and she’s so determined,” says the North Dakota Progressive Coalition’s Don Morrison. “There are a lot of powerful interests pushing on these issues–right up to the White House–but my money’s on April to win.”
Legislators are called “lawmakers,” but sometimes the most important work they do involves the unmaking of laws. Washington State Senator Adam Kline reminded his constituents of that fact when, as part of a list of his accomplishments during the 2001-02 legislative session, the Democrat declared, “This past session, I used my power as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to kill a particularly evil bill: HB 2416, which would have expanded the authority of police to wiretap phones during investigations of ‘terrorist acts.’ Coming in the wake of September 11, this bill would have altered much too drastically the fragile balance between police power and traditional American civil liberties.” Retaining all the passion that drove him as a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi and as a lawyer for the ACLU, Kline still sees himself as an activist. He has stood up to the state’s Democratic governor, as he did when he built a coalition of liberals and anti-big government conservatives to block the “terrorist acts” bill; and he has crafted groundbreaking legislation, such as a bill he co-wrote to shorten prison sentences for possession of drugs and create treatment programs for addicts arrested for drug crimes. As the representative of a progressive district, Kline says, he’s expected to be “out there leading the charge.”
As President Bush moved the United States closer and closer to war last winter, Congress was virtually silent. So the Maine State Senate stepped in, passing a resolution urging the Administration to “support the full pursuit of diplomatic resolutions and weapons inspections.” The sponsor of the resolution was Ethan Strimling, a Portland Democrat who usually works on issues like keeping Casco Bay free of cruise-ship discharge and expanding healthcare coverage. Why did Strimling work to pull the Maine legislature–which also includes Green State Representative John Eder, another champion of antiwar legislation–into a debate about Iraq? Because, he argued, “this war’s going to cost $200 billion, while the families up here are struggling to pay their bills. How is it that we find enough money to be able to bomb Iraq, but we don’t have enough money to provide healthcare for Maine families and daycare for our children?” “I wish the Democratic leaders in Congress would have framed the issue as well as he did,” said the Institute for Policy Studies’ Karen Dolan, who coordinated the national Cities for Peace campaign.