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.”