WASHINGTON — Progressive state legislators and strategists met this week to chart a course to reverse the Republican gains in statehouses across the country.
The newly launched State Innovation Exchange (SiX) is being billed as the progressive answer to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has for decades been remarkably effective at pushing conservative policy priorities at the state level and come under increasing criticism for the secretive way it conducts its business and for its embrace of controversial legislation, like “stand your ground” firearm laws and efforts to shred environmental regulations.
ALEC and other right-leaning organizations “have basically run the table in the states,” said Nick Rathod, SiX’s executive director and an official in Barack Obama’s administration who ran the White House’s outreach to states. “We never have had that infrastructure in a robust way on the progressive side.”
Part of the reason is that conservatives have always been more oriented toward states’ rights, while liberals have focused their energies on the federal government, Rathod said. But with Congress in a stalemate, progressives are beginning to understand that many of the most important policy battles are happening at the state level and demand appropriate resources.
“[Democrats] had these great successes in presidential elections, and it’s not enough,” said Paul Booth, an official for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who helped launch SiX. “You have to do the whole thing.”
Although SiX plans to replicate ALEC’s success by bringing together state lawmakers, unions, environmentalists and representatives from other progressive organizations to collaborate on legislation, strategy and messaging, Rathod says the organization will do things differently to avoid being perceived as the special-interest free-for-all that ALEC is often lampooned as.
ALEC has taken on that reputation by hosting forums in which corporate sponsors that fund the organization and state legislators work together on model legislation that, if approved by ALEC’s board, is introduced in state legislatures across the country.
“It’s stupid to create an organization that is mimicking something else,” Rathod told lawmakers Friday. “We’re going to be better than that. We’re different from them because we’re going to be transparent. We won’t go behind closed doors and vote with corporate America.”
Still, he said in an interview that although SiX has not secured corporate sponsorships, he sees a role for corporations in the organization in the future.
“If we have a broad coalition that includes corporations, I think that that’s OK,” he said. “We will have strict rules about the money we take from corporations and the issues we take on with corporations. It will not be something to advance corporate interests. We will be advancing people’s interests, which is focused on workers’ rights, the environment and communities.”
Rathod said SiX will release a list of its donors early next year. In two to three years, he said, he hopes the annual operating budget will grow to $5 million and by 2020 to $10 million, surpassing ALEC’s intake of $7 million.
Criminal justice reform, worker’s rights, environmental protection and campaign finance reform are all issues in which SiX plans to be engaged, according to its website.
The group seems to have caught the attention of at least one group of influential megadonors. Gara Lamarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, which connects wealthy liberal contributors to progressive organizations, said many of his group’s members were already contributing to SiX.
ALEC, meanwhile, took SiX’s launch as an affirmation of its model.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Molly Fuhs, an ALEC spokeswoman. “Only time will tell if their ideas will take hold.”
About 200 state legislators took part in SiX’s inaugural meeting, hearing from speakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
Attendees were briefed by and participated in breakout sessions with representatives from a swath of progressive groups, including Organizing for America, the National Resources Defense Council, the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“You are the ones confronting efforts to suppress the vote, to undo environmental regulations, to fight against pay equity inequities. You are the ones that are fighting to protect choice,” Strickland told the lawmakers. “These are the things that are valuable to us as progressives and Democrats that are at risk in the states.”