Politico has an interesting article up which details the efforts in the liberal political donor camp to come up with something to combat the influence of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The new liberal counterpart will be named the State Innovation Exchange, or "SiX." Creative capitalization seems to be their first innovation.
But I shouldn't get snarky about their branding, because the basic idea is a good one: counterbalance the impressive inroads Republicans have made in state legislatures. ALEC has an excellent record of accomplishments, from getting laws passed (voter suppression and "Stand Your Ground" legislation, to name two ALEC issues) to providing support (read: campaign money) for state-level legislators.
ALEC has largely been operating in a liberal vacuum. Their model is to take money from big businesses and then use it to not only help conservatives get elected at their state level but also provide them with ready-made boilerplate legislation for ALEC's pet issues after they do get elected. Just fill in a few blanks (like "name of state") and an inexperienced lawmaker can easily create a bill ready to introduce into their state legislature.
From the Politico story:
SiX's goal is an ambitious one: to compete with a well-financed network of conservative groups -- including the American Legislative Exchange Council -- that for years have dominated state policy battles, advancing pro-business, anti-regulation bills in state after state.
SiX ultimately plans to raise as much as $10 million a year to boost progressive state lawmakers and their causes -- partly by drafting model legislation in state capitols to increase environmental protections, expand voting rights, and raise the minimum wage -- while also using bare-knuckle tactics like opposition research and video tracking to derail Republicans and their initiatives.
"Progressives are looking around to figure out where to go to push back, and there has not been a vehicle to do that at the state level -- it's the biggest missing piece in the progressive infrastructure," said Nick Rathod, a career Democratic operative who started and will run SiX.
Rathod is right. It'll be interesting to see how successful he is in his attempts to build a liberal ALEC, but it's hard not to wish him well in the effort. The idea has been tried a few times before in the last couple of years, but never with the level of funding Rathod hopes to get. One of these previous attempts actually had a much better name, as branding goes: the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, which translates to "ALICE" (to counter ALEC). But, again, I shouldn't get snarky, because the new organization will create one snappy moniker when it forms its own political action committee, to be known (of course) as "SiX PAC." Now that's a pretty memorable name!
Democrats have been getting pretty thoroughly trounced at the state level, at least beyond blue-state bastions. It's a basic fact that the United States Senate is still in play politically in each election -- but the House is pretty much guaranteed to remain Republican until 2022. This is a direct result of Republican success at the state level, where they were able to gerrymander House districts during the 2010 redistricting process. If Democrats have any hope at all of changing this underlying dynamic, it will have to involve taking over state governments before 2020.
Republicans weren't just big winners in the national Congress last week, they also did surprisingly well in picking up governorships and statehouses. Democrats need to fight back at this level a lot better than they've been doing, and a national progressive group dedicated to helping win those fights could indeed make a difference. Most of the successful union-busting and voter suppression efforts are currently coming out of statehouses, not Washington DC. Progressives need to fight back to defend voting rights and the right to collectively bargain, but they also need to push their own issues forward as well.
Providing campaign help for state-level candidates, in the political world, is the equivalent of buying wholesale rather than retail. It's cheaper for each individual item, but you've got to buy a lot of them. State-level races are nowhere near as expensive as national races, but there are thousands of statehouse seats to consider, to put this somewhat more delicately.
Aside from helping good progressive candidates get elected, SiX can use ALEC's playbook once they are in office. Drafting legislation is tough, so it's a lot easier to have a boilerplate bill to, say, increase ballot access to all. Using boilerplate also allows for nationalizing the idea behind the law -- for instance, call such a bill the "Right To Vote Act" in the same way the "Stand Your Ground" label was used by ALEC to introduce almost-identical laws in multiple states.
Purists will argue against the idea, for various reasons. The first comes from the decriers of money in politics, who will doubtlessly denounce SiX as just another way elections will be influenced by big-money donors. This is, at heart, a politically suicidal case to make. Sure, we can all denounce Citizens United until we're blue in the face, but the law is what it now is, and to ignore the way politics is currently being played is to lose -- lose winnable races, and lose on all your agenda items. See: last Tuesday, for more detail. Money in politics is not a good thing in the abstract, but it is a devastating thing for your side when all the money goes to the other guys. Foregoing money for purist reasons is to disarm before the battle begins. At least SiX will be making its donors public, something that ALEC never has done.
Others might argue that money is better spent on national elections, but this just perpetuates the problem of getting resoundingly beaten at the state level in election after election. You've got to have a "farm team" of legislators to do the nuts-and-bolts state legislating that creates the atmosphere for national action by Congress. Start in the easy states -- the ones Democrats still control, like California. Push ideas like mandatory paid sick leave (something California has already passed) in other friendly Democratic states. Then use the media buzz generated to push for the idea in red states, and at the national level.
ALEC has shown -- painfully, for progressives -- how successful their model can be in getting state laws passed. We've seen a whole raft of laws from red states over the past few decades which have pushed conservative ideology hard. Some might call the opposition's tactics evil or morally wrong, but this argument is misdirected. ALEC uses boilerplate laws as a tool to achieve its goals. You can disagree with the goals all you want, but you've got to at least admit that their method is working wonders for them. The method itself isn't right or wrong, it is merely a tool. A tool which can be used for other goals -- progressive ones. The tool itself is neutral, and should only be measured by its success.
Which is why I'm hoping SiX can make a go of it at the state level. National Democrats have been ignoring this layer of government for too long, and the citizens of the affected states have paid a heavy price for this neglect. An organization dedicated to leveling the playing fields (all 50 of them) strikes me as a very good idea indeed. It is far too early to predict how successful SiX can be at countering conservatives in the statehouses, but it's not too early to wish them all the success they can manage to achieve. If they can make some solid gains by 2020, it could mean the difference between the possibility of Democrats ever retaking the House and resigning ourselves to Speaker Boehner for another decade. That is a worthy goal, and one worth fighting for.
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