Three years into a pitched battle with George W. Bush and his conservative compadres, millions of American progressives have focused their fury on Washington-based battles to beat Bush and the right-wingers who rode in with him. But with Democrats in Congress frequently failing to forge a coherent, let alone effective, opposition, it is time to recognize that some of the most important fights–for affordable healthcare, education, environmental protection and clean politics–are taking place beyond the Beltway. Often there is far more space for debate on these issues, and more opportunities for victory, in statehouses, where even some conservative Republican governors have been forced to accept tax hikes, muscled-up regulations and reform of the criminal justice system. Thus, while it is essential to battle Bush and his minions in Washington, it is equally essential to understand that the road to renewal may well run through the states. “We can’t wait for Washington. Washington isn’t going to save us on the issues we care about–at least, not anytime soon,” says Maine State Representative Ted Koffman, a Democrat who has written some of the country’s most innovative environmental protection laws. “This is where the action is, and this is where we are going to come up with the ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda.”
Koffman’s right. And, while there are only seven states where Democratic governors and legislators control both branches of government, there are now Democratic governors in twenty-four states, and Democrats control at least one legislative chamber in twenty-eight states. The Supreme Court’s May decision to let Maine implement a program to lower prescription drug costs serves as a reminder that progressive Democratic legislators can beat even the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. Moreover, statehouse Republicans often operate differently than the party’s national leaders. It was GOP Governor George Ryan who imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois and then commuted the sentences of death-row inmates. And Republican governors in states as divergent as Connecticut, Arkansas and Idaho have responded to a slowing economy and budget crunch by raising taxes. “At the state level, I think there are more Republicans who recognize that you have to move beyond the rhetoric to the reality that decisions we make will have an immediate impact on people’s lives,” says State Representative Jim Marzilli Jr., a Massachusetts Democrat who has built a coalition to restore his state’s capital gains tax.
Legislators like Koffman and Marzilli, who argue for more attention to state-based activism, are actually borrowing a page from the right. “One of the reasons the right is so successful today at the federal level is the work they have done in the states,” says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who last year ran for governor of Massachusetts. “Don’t forget that the radical right spent twenty years building up its grassroots. They worked at the national level, of course, but they never ignored the states.” [See “ALEC Meets His Match,” page 14.] A decade ago, conservatives celebrated Republican governors such as Michigan’s John Engler and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson as innovative reformers on issues like welfare, privatization of public services and deregulation of utilities. Their corporate allies poured money into state-based conservative think tanks, backed statewide initiatives and funded campaigns to recruit and elect conservative legislators who would eventually become the foot soldiers in House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution.
The Republican push for devolution of power to the states was often troubling to progressives, especially when it came wrapped in the “states’ rights” rhetoric that they knew to be code for race-based politics. But with the tables turned in Washington, some of the best opportunities to assert progressive values are now found in state capitols. “I’m not trying to tell you that it is easy to win in the states. It isn’t. You face a lot of the same problems that you see in Washington–special-interest money and lobbying, for instance,” says Marzilli. “But it is still easier to work in the states. The scale is different. The fights are winnable, and while it takes time, while you have to go state by state, eventually you can develop the alternative to what is coming from Washington.” Marzilli has worked closely with groups like United for a Fair Economy and Neighbor to Neighbor to advance a state-based Working Families Agenda. Even against Republican governors, Massachusetts labor and community groups have won two minimum-wage increases in a decade, strengthened enforcement of prevailing wage laws and required accountability in privatization proposals. And those are not isolated wins. The Center for Policy Alternatives, which helps legislators develop model legislation, notes that states across the country have in the past year extended unemployment insurance and family-leave laws, required insurance companies to provide contraceptive coverage and beaten tobacco companies’ efforts to block new taxes on cigarettes. There are times, Reich notes, when states go beyond providing alternatives to define the debate. “If you are in a large state, on the regulatory front, you have enormous leverage,” he says, noting California’s moves to limit greenhouse gas emissions. “California can pass rules that corporations will decide they have to follow.”
But state-based activism cannot succeed on the scale that is necessary without increased funding. “Too often, we don’t have the resources we need to fight the right here, and as long as that is the case the South will get more and more conservative,” says Winnett Hagens, associate director of Democracy South. “That shifts the national debate, because so many Republican leaders come from the South.” But it’s not just about money; it’s also about building alliances across state lines and with allies in Washington. “I know as someone who came to Congress from a state legislature that a single line in a piece of federal legislation can have a dramatic effect on what people in the state capitol do,” says Wisconsin Representative Tammy Baldwin, who has worked with Wisconsin activists to promote state-based universal healthcare legislation. For Congressional Democrats, says Baldwin, aiding state initiatives needs to be a priority.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the early 1930s that “it is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Progressives must fight in Washington, but they must also take advantage of the “happy accident” that allows courageous states to become the laboratories out of which the antidotes to the Bush era will come.