In recent months, the need to build progressive strength in cities, towns, counties and states across the country has become crystal clear. Conservative coordination across state lines has led to assaults on workers rights, voting rights and women’s rights, and only an energetic, well-coordinated progressive response has prevented far more extensive damage to our democracy.
Mississippi soundly defeated a ballot initiative to legalize “fetus personhood.” Maine saved same-day voter registration at the ballot box. As The Nation’s John Nichols has so brilliantly laid out in his new book Uprising, the people of Wisconsin employed an inside/outside strategy to fight back against a right-wing attack on workers’ rights. Dozens of towns and states have passed resolutions calling for the repeal of Citizens United.
Increasingly, citizens and progressive politicians have begun to win sensible reforms. There have been key wins on paid sick leave and the minimum wage—common sense reforms that benefit the 99 percent. Gay and lesbian equality has advanced at the state and local levels.
The spirit and urgency of Occupy has inspired organizations and activists to work more nimbly and collaboratively—and has reduced some of the turf war fights that often plague these efforts.
“People are now looking to do what the right has done so effectively—coordinating ideas, narratives, legislators and activists to really push in a progressive direction,” says New York City Councilman Brad Lander, co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus.
It was in that spirit earlier this month that Lander joined Seattle Councilman Nick Licata, Philadelphia Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. and Chicago Alderman Joe Moore to convene a meeting in DC with other progressive municipal elected officials from across the country—and key progressive allies—to discuss the creation of a national network focused on local progressive action.
“There were also city council members from Los Angeles, Cleveland and smaller cities like Springfield, Massachusetts, and Pinecrest, Florida,” says Lander. “The legislators in the room were lead sponsors of an amazing array of progressive legislation—from responsible banking ordinances and local Community Reinvestment Act laws, to anti-blight and foreclosure laws, to paid sick days and a domestic worker bill of rights, to inclusionary zoning for affordable housing. And everyone had good thoughts on how to spread these ideas around the country.”
Part of spreading those ideas will involve working with existing organizations and networks, some of which were represented at the meeting, including New Bottom Line, Progressive States Network, Democratic Municipal Officials, PolicyLink, Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS, led by its director, Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers), Progressive Majority, Center for American Progress and the Working Families Party.
“There is a realization that a lot of progressive policies can be achieved at the local level, and there’s renewed energy to advance these policies in cities and communities around the country,” says Lander. “People are interested in helping each other and also in being part of a broader national effort, like we’ve been able to do with city council resolutions calling for the repeal of Citizens United. That’s exciting and energizing.”
Lander says the need for this kind of network to share expertise and “deepen the progressive bench” is clear. While New York City councilmembers receive “a full-time salary and a few staff—that’s not enough to do deep policy research and campaign strategy.”
“In a lot of places serving in the legislature isn’t a full-time job, and many local legislators have no legal or policy staff,” he says. “So you might be excited by the idea of making sure that all of your economic development projects pay workers a living wage, but you would be enormously helped by having some model legislation, and a network with the ability to help you draft it.”
In the case of living-wage laws, for example, legislators can count on opposition from most local chambers of commerce. In addition to model legislation, the network would help provide talking points and data showing its benefits.
“And then maybe when you have your hearing you can have someone come from another town who can describe how well similar legislation is working in their jurisdiction,” Lander says, noting that an executive from the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles made a big impact at the New York City hearing on its living wage bill.
Over the next couple of months an exploratory committee chaired by Licata will be working on the organization’s structure and funding, and by July 4 Lander hopes they will be ready to “bring a much broader set of people into the fold.”
There is a complementary project being pursued by Progressive Majority and its director, Gloria Totten. Totten has organized groups that have networks of state elected officials—including the Young Elected Officials Network, Progressive States Network, the AFL-CIO and others—to form the Elected Officials Alliance to coordinate lawmakers across issue and organizational lines. This work is part of a broader strategy Totten is pursuing to link state and local officials to policy networks, including the EARN network, groups developing model legislation, and state and local advocates.
The aim is to create a counterforce to ALEC, which for nearly forty years has provided model state law to more than 2,000 state legislators to increase business domination of American public life and weaken our democracy. In recent weeks we have seen ALEC’s regressive handiwork in action time after time, from helping Republican governors roll back workers’ rights to pushing an array of model voter suppression bills, to inventing new ways to harass and debase women who are trying to exercise their legal rights, to passing around the so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun bills that now blight twenty-three states across the country, as demonstrated so horribly in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
On the policy side, the centerpiece of this new organizing effort is the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) created by Joel Rogers of COWS. ALICE would offer model laws for both state and local legislators, citizen-directed efforts like ballot initiatives, and executive actions such as executive orders and regulations all based on the values of equity, sustainability, and responsible government.
While ALICE would be broader than the municipal political network Lander and his colleagues are pursuing, Lander says “it’s all part of the same big picture.”
“This is a great opportunity to connect people working on the ground in our communities—legislators, activists, labor unions and community-based organizations—to push together for policies that make our cities and towns more just and equitable places,” says Lander.
This conscious and coordinated sharing of successes and ideas at the local and state levels shows one kind of inside-outside strategy we need to keep the right in check and protect and strengthen our democracy. This is particularly true in our cities, urban counties and bluer states, our political base, where our next generation of leaders must prove that they know how to govern in a way that makes people’s lives better. ALEC has put itself at the service of the 1 percent for decades now; it’s time we built similar networks to boost the 99 percent.