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New Organization to Push Liberal Measures In State Legislatures

The old saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, might be a fitting motto for a newly organized group called the Progressive Legislative Action Network.

[IMGCAP(1)]This week, David Sirota, a former Democratic Congressional aide and activist, and Steve Doherty, a former Montana Senate Minority Leader, announced the launch of PLAN, and high-wattage Democrats such as former vice presidential candidate John Edwards, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former California House Speaker Willie Brown, will appear at an upcoming event for the fledgling organization.

The idea is to seed simultaneous policy efforts in the states, providing legislators with model bills that can be passed with minor adjustments essentially anywhere. Organizers hope this strategy will generate momentum and help refine tactics.

If that plan seems familiar, it is: It’s what the staunchly conservative

American Legislative Exchange Council has been doing for the last three decades.

Of course, Sirota and Doherty disagree strongly with the substance of what ALEC does — promoting free-market economics, legal reform, tax cuts and education reforms. But PLAN’s founders say they admire ALEC’s formula. Indeed, the news release’s headline explicitly credits ALEC as the inspiration for PLAN.

In an interview, ALEC Executive Director Duane Parde wished his new competitors well and said that if they have the right business model and “do good policy work, they may be able to make it.” But he added that the past is littered with liberal groups that have tried to mimic ALEC, and none of them, in his view, has become its equal.

The bittersweet admiration for ALEC among Democratic activists is tacit proof of that hypothesis.

Sirota and Doherty say they’re undeterred by the challenge of beating ALEC at its own game. They argue that it’s a perfect time to start organizing and energizing left-of-center state legislators. With the Democratic Party shut out of power in the White House and on Capitol Hill, why not head to the states to create the basis for a future renaissance?

“I think we’re facing a problem, that the Democratic Party apparatus in Washington is dominated by Washington, D.C., elites,” said Sirota, who has relocated to Doherty’s home state of Montana. “Frankly, our side as a whole will never succeed unless we really get out and use our grass-roots people and our state leaders.”

Sirota and Doherty aren’t alone. The idea of pursuing an aggressive outside-the-Beltway strategy is gaining currency among national Democrats.

“I think the most important thing about PLAN is that it’s a further indication that the states are being looked at with real seriousness on the progressive side,” said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the left-of-center Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

Bernie Horn, policy director for the Center for Policy Alternatives — a group whose mission overlaps with what PLAN intends to do — agrees that the timing is right for a state-focused approach.

“In 2005 and 2006, it will be essential for progressives to build at the state level,” Horn said. “Just about anything people dream about doing on Capitol Hill is being done in some form in the states. Some day, when progressives get power back on the Hill, they’re going to look for policy that works.”

An Incursion Into Red States

Skeptics, of course, suggest that liberal ideas are unlikely to find much support these days in red states. But that argument ignores some recent policies that won significant crossover support in theoretically unfriendly territory, often by playing off populist sentiments.

In 2004, voters in Florida and Nevada easily approved a hike in the statewide minimum wage even while pulling the lever for President Bush. Measures to combat high prices for prescription drugs have taken off in a number of states, including red ones. And on the local level, Sirota said, many communities have voted to condemn all or part of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Even when the statewide odds look grim, state-based efforts can help a party gain seats incrementally in the Legislature, noted Jeff Wice, a longtime counsel to New York legislative Democrats.

So can PLAN make a difference? Some veterans of the state legislative scene warn against irrational exuberance.

For starters, the world of state legislatures is no longer an undiscovered backwater. Each party now funds its own campaign arm for legislative races, and state lawmakers are wooed by independent groups ranging from ALEC on the right to the National Conference of State Legislatures in the center to CPA on the left, plus a variety of single-issue groups.

“Both parties are putting a lot more into it than they were 10 years ago, and both are better at it,” said William Pound, NCSL’s executive director.

What worries some left-of-center observers is that PLAN may be somewhat redundant. The Center for Policy Alternatives, with a $2 million budget and a staff of 11, already counts 2,000 legislators in its network and offers 100 model bills on its Web site, a variety of which have passed statewide. It also provided training that helped boost the state legislative careers of Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

While PLAN’s co-founders say their group is setting up a 501(c)(4) arm that will enable it to do political work — something the more think-tanky CPA doesn’t do — some liberal activists suggest privately that the time, effort and money spent on establishing PLAN might have been better spent tilling different soil.

“It troubles me that they may be reinventing the wheel,” said one liberal activist who isn’t connected to either PLAN or CPA. (For the record, Horn has accepted an invitation to moderate a panel discussion at PLAN’s Aug. 16 launch event in Seattle, and both Sirota and Doherty, who has worked extensively with CPA over the years, praise CPA.)

Another obstacle for PLAN could come from Democratic legislators themselves.

While Doherty jokes that “progressives don’t take orders quite as well as conservatives do,” the potential misfit goes beyond that, said Michael Davies, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s executive director.

Davies said that many leaders of chambers with longstanding Democratic majorities are reluctant to accept help from outside groups, figuring that they should be able handle lawmaking by themselves. By contrast, Davies said, many Republican legislative majorities are of relatively recent vintage, and the sudden need to run a legislative chamber created a strong demand among Republicans for the kind of fill-in-the-blank assistance ALEC provides.

At the same time, many states with significant numbers of Democrats in the Legislature, such as California, New York and Illinois, can rely on large, entrenched staffs of aides, noted Thom Little of the bipartisan State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Many Republican majorities, by contrast, operate in smaller states with fewer aides to rely on.

“If someone can hand a legislator a ready set of talking points, that can be a big help,” Little said.

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

The final two challenges for PLAN are perhaps the most crucial: money and message.

PLAN is entering a world in which ALEC’s budget outpaces CPA’s 3-1, mainly because ALEC’s conservative message resonates strongly with corporations with deep pockets. This revenue base has allowed ALEC, with an annual budget of $6 million and a staff of 30, to assemble top-notch materials and put on first-rate events for lawmakers.

By contrast, liberal groups have historically had to rely on a more diffuse roster of supporters, including foundations, unions, environmental groups and, most recently, wealthy donors. PLAN officials confirmed that venture capitalist Andy Rappaport, a big donor to Democratic 527s during the 2004 election, is pledging support to PLAN, alongside other institutional and individual donors.

Even with such backing, Sirota acknowledges that PLAN faces long-term financial challenges.

“I think it will take a monumental effort, both strategically and in fundraising, to counter ALEC’s business support in an effective way,” he said.

As for message, PLAN has not yet settled on which issues it will push, but observers say it could benefit once again from mimicking ALEC’s model. In recent years, ALEC has studiously avoided taking stances on divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage in favor of advancing, in the group’s words, “Jeffersonian principles of … limited government.”

Can liberals, a famously fractious fraternity, keep up the same degree of unanimity? Stay tuned.

While both Sirota and Doherty emphasize the value of pushing issues with broad appeal, they also openly use the term “progressive,” which suggests to many insiders a spot solidly on the left of the ideological spectrum. Moreover, Sirota doesn’t rule out the possibility that social issues could enter the mix, though they would end up being secondary.

“We are going to have a progressive agenda, and I don’t think we have to make any bones about that,” Doherty said. “Whether that’s to the right of left or some other organizations, we’ll have to figure that out.”

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