By Burney Simpson
Washington, D.C.— Several hundred progressive state legislators met here this month, brought together by a new organization that seeks to influence policy much like their conservative counterparts have done for the last several decades.
The Denver-based State Innovation Exchange, calling itself SiX, is focusing on four key issues – criminal justice reform, equal pay, earned sick leave for working families, and voting rights.
SiX is not exclusively for Democrats, but they made up the bulk of the 300 or so state legislators that the organization said came to its two-day conference held near Capitol Hill. An anecdotal view indicated most attendees were white, with a mix of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.
Progressive state legislators are often a minority within a minority. They are a subset of the Democratic Party, and Democrats are a minority in many statehouses.
Republicans hold a majority in both the state senate and house in 23 states while Democrats hold both chambers in only seven states, according to SiX. Republican governors lead 31 states while Democrats lead 18 states.
Progressive legislation can be enacted, said State Sen. Gary A. Winfield of Connecticut, but the timing must be right and the benefits clear to legislators that usually oppose these efforts.
Winfield is an African American who represents New Haven and West Haven. First elected to Connecticut’s House in 2008, he is now the assistant majority leader of the state senate.
Winfield plans to introduce legislation that addresses drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. The rise in heroin addiction among white youth has many legislators in Connecticut coming around to his approach, he said.
“(Addicts) need to get treatment for what drives addiction. Putting people with a drug issue in prison is not the smart thing to do,” said Winfield. “This has become a middle- class issue.”
Winfield points to two of his legislative successes – elimination of the death penalty in Connecticut, and a bill calling for greater police accountability, more minority police officers, and lower incarceration rates for nonviolent offenses.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, offered similar advice to the conference. In 2007, Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, and the first African American elected to Congress from Minnesota.
“You can speak about race if you start by talking about an issue impacting all people. Then get into a specific race,” said Ellison. “People want to hear this. My district is 12 percent African American. … Whites in my district don’t mind if I speak up about black issues.”
The common issue
Being a minority is only part of the challenge for State Rep. James W. Byrd of Wyoming. He is one of the African Americans that make up 1.5 percent of the state’s population, and he often is the only Democrat at community events. The GOP controls the Wyoming the state senate and house, along with the governor’s mansion.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can’t agree on and fix,” said Byrd. “Philosophically, we may never agree on some things. That’s not compromise. That’s intelligent policy making.”
Jobs are the common issue for everyone in Wyoming, says Byrd, whether they live in an upscale community or a double-wide trailer.
“Those at the top want to grow business, and those at the bottom want to grow jobs.”
Political conflicts in Wyoming are driven by its vast energy reserves. The state is a major exporter of coal and natural gas but that puts it in the cross hairs of environmentalists fighting climate change.
Byrd, a geophysicist, said Republicans and the coal industry refuse to adapt to the nation’s shift to sustainable energy like solar and wind power.
“We have some of the best wind in the world. We have sunshine 340 days of the year,” said Byrd who argues that Wyoming needs to invest in business incentives for these renewables.
Denver-based SiX arises from the merger of four progressive groups that failed to catch fire as state political players. It was founded by Joel Rogers, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its eight board members include the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, the senior director of the National Education Association, and the president of the AFL-CIO.
SiX calls itself a “resource and strategy center” for state legislators as they promote progressive policies. The group also seeks to pair legislators with progressive organizations so they work together to pass legislation, says Nick Rathod, SiX executive director.
It is working to be the progressive alternative to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the influential 42-year-old, conservative think tank and research center.
ALEC says its 2,000 members, virtually all Republicans, make up about a quarter of all state legislators. ALEC says its members use its repository of legislation and position papers to craft their own proposals.
However, opponents like the Center for Media and Democracy contend that corporations and trade groups fund as much as 98 percent of ALEC’s budget, and that the funders write the legislation that ALEC’s members introduce in their state.
Impact of the debate
SiX might take a page from black activist group ColorofChange following its successful campaign against ALEC a few years ago, noted Executive Director Rashad Robinson who spoke at a conference seminar.
ColorofChange found that ALEC had been a proponent of the Stand Your Ground laws that led to the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Robinson’s organization and its
1 million members raised their opposition to Stand Your Ground to ALEC funders.
That convinced as many as 90 corporations to end their financial support of ALEC, said Robinson. The campaign played a part in the $1.1 million drop in ALEC’s revenues to $7.3 million in 2013, according to The Guardian.
“Opposition to Stand Your Ground translated into energy that forced corporations to (discontinue) their work with ALEC,” said Robinson. “Those most impacted must be at the debate. Get everyone involved so they are engaged.”