One need not be a student of Tom DeLay’s dirty dealings to recognize that the corruption of Washington is very nearly complete. Occupied by a president and vice president who are oilmen first and statesmen last, a Congress where Republicans and Democrats delay their votes until they have checked their campaign fund-raising receipts and a judiciary that is rapidly being packed with “bought” corporate lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, the nation’s capital often seems completely beyond redemption.
It is not quite so true in the nation’s 50 state capitals, however. Despite the ugliest efforts of corporate America — via a lobbying frontgroup, the American Legislative Exchange Council — to warp the process from Augusta (Maine) to Sacremento (California) as thoroughly as it has in Washington, there are still openings for progressive policymaking at the state level. Those openings are the target of the new Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), a coalition developed to provide reform-minded legislators with strategic and research support as they seek to address the pressing economic and social issues that are left untended in a time of corporate hegemony.
“The goal is to bring as diverse a coalition together as possible so that our side has a cohesive agenda in the states,” says David Sirota, the veteran progressive activist who has helped organize the network. “For too long, conservatives have been able to use huge sums of money to push the most radical right-wing policies through state legislatures. PLAN is committed to putting together the necessary resources and necessary coalitions to help progressive legislators stop this unchecked extremism, and start passing legislation that makes state governments work for ordinary citizens, not just monied special interests.”
PLAN was set to formally launch Tuesday in Seattle, where the National Conference of State Legislatures gathers this week for its 2005 “Strong States, Strong Nation” annual meeting. The launch features appearances by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president who has reemerged as an aggressive advocate for political and economic initiatives aimed addressing the gap between rich and poor in the United States, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who for many years was the most powerful player in the California state Assembly, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, whose 2004 election proved that progressive Democratic reformers can win in so-called “red states.” The launch is being co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Steelworkers union, and progressive philanthropists Andy and Deborah Rappaport — support that provides an encouraging indication of the openness of powerful players on the left to the state-based work that will provide the models for renewal of the progressive movement nationally.
“Starting in the states” is not a new idea. In fact, most significant reform movements in American history have begun at the municipal or state level and built upward. At the dawn of the past century, the state-based progressive movements of the upper Midwest created what Justice Louis D. Brandeis referred to as “laboratories of democracy,” where problems were addressed by creative legislators and governors in ways that federal officials eventually chose to mirror — at first in the form of individual initiatives on issues such as child labor but ultimately with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Sirota, who has worked as an aide to U.S. Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and David Obey, D-Wisconsin, and his PLAN co-chair, former Montana State Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, know that while there are important precedents for state-based work, there are also mighty challenges. ALEC, the corporate-funded legislative network, has been polluting the process for decades, building alliances with both Republican and Democratic legislators; and corporate interests have begun to pour money not only into legislative contests but into races for state judgeships and attorney general and public service commission posts. Additionally, an increasingly corporatized and homogenized media no longer provides the distinct coverage of state politics that was the norm 100, or even 20, years ago.
Previous attempts to develop progressive alternatives to ALEC, in particular, and corporate influence, in general, at the state level have met with mixed success. And there are no guarantees that PLAN will be any more successful. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Sirota and Doherty are smart players with strong track records of progressive activism in challenging settings. They have headquartered their group in Helena, Montana, rather than Washington. And they have chosen an unapologetic approach best evidenced by Sirota’s remarks at this month’s Steelworkers union convention, where he told delegates, “Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power. Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be.”
Sirota’s got his history right. And he’s got his politics right. Recognizing that “there are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future,” he says that with this base of progressive legislators, “Now it is time to fight back.”
While the time is right, and the need to begin chalking up victories at the state level is more pressing than at any point since the last progressive movement took form, PLAN’s organizers understand that they are in entering a serious fight. Until there is fundamental campaign finance and ethics law reform, corporate interests will always be able to buy legislative influence with campaign contributions and huge lobbying expenditures. Progressive interests must rely on the willingness of honest legislators in both parties to entertain their ideas, and on popular pressure from grassroots groups.
While the task is daunting, the initiative is worth undertaking.As Louis Brandeis noted decades ago, “one of the happy incidents of the federal system (is) that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments.” Ultimately, the justice explained, states can lead the nation in a process that will “remould, through experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet changing social and economic needs.”
So what’s PLAN’s plan? Hopefully, to prove that the wisdom of Brandeis with regard to state-based activism has carried through to the 21st century.