The Obama administration and top congressional liberals this week are formally embracing a new big-money effort to turn back the Republican tide in the states ahead of a pivotal series of elections that could determine which party controls redistricting and voting rules in many states.
A delegation of about 20 Democratic state legislators from around the country representing a group called the State Innovation Exchange is planning to huddle on Thursday and Friday with administration officials in the White House, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the Hill and with policy experts at the Center for American Progress.
The meetings are billed mostly as discussions of the group’s economic equality agenda, which seeks minimum wage hikes, equal pay measures, family leave benefits, collective bargaining protections and increased access to pre-kindergarten and higher education.
But more broadly, they seem to signal that national Democrats are finally gearing up to counter a well-financed network of conservative groups led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) that for years has dominated state policy battles.
And the meetings are being interpreted in the institutional left as a de facto embrace of the State Innovation Exchange – known as SiX for short – as the chosen vehicle for Democrat’s catch-up effort.
“It’s an improvement, but it remains to be seen whether a progressive voice can be as loud and persuasive at the state level as ALEC,” said Minnesota State Senate President Senator Sandra Pappas, who is among the lawmakers in SiX’s delegation.
She had been involved with a predecessor group to SiX that had struggled to gain traction with either national Democratic leaders or donors, and said she had been debating whether to come to Washington with SiX this week. “This is a very busy time in our legislative session and the ticket was expensive, but when I heard there was a White House briefing, it got my attention and I decided I better go for this.”
The White House briefing, set for Friday morning, is expected to include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, political director David Simas, intergovernmental affairs director Jerry Abramson and a host of Obama policy advisors including Brian Deese and James Kvaal.
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the briefing, but it seems intended at least in part to encourage Democratic state lawmakers, interest groups and donors around the country to rally behind SiX, which was launched late last year. It comes as the group is forging relationships with other key national liberal groups, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and also awaiting a coveted endorsement from Democracy Alliance major donor club.
The DA, as the club is known in liberal finance circles, held a two-day board meeting this week in San Francisco, partly to discuss the funding recommendations it will make to its 100-plus donors.
Sources familiar with the club say it’s likely to include SiX in its portfolio of recommended groups for the coming years. And, while DA president Gara LaMarche said no final decisions had been made on the portfolio, he stressed the importance of state-level advocacy in an email last month to donors.
“Looking ahead, we need to invest more heavily in the vital infrastructure at the state and municipal level which is the key to any progressive future and where the right has made startling gains,” LaMarche wrote.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is already working with SiX to arrange a series of town hall-style meetings around the country pairing members of Congress with state lawmakers to build support for state-level efforts to raise the minimum wage, boost education funding, combat voter identification laws and other progressive priorities.
“From the progressive caucus standpoint, we kind of feel like SiX is what the doctor ordered,” said caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), who first huddled with the group’s leaders at the caucus’s retreat last month. “We know that a progressive group of state legislators can probably make more progress than us in Congress on these issues in this political climate, being so deeply divided,” said Ellison.
“Civil rights stuff like marriage equality, democracy stuff like photo ID, even minimum wage stuff is much more likely to move at the state and local level,” he said, adding that state politics takes on heightened significance as the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries approaches after the 2020 census.
That’s the thinking behind the Obama administration’s embrace of SiX as well, say people familiar with the relationship, which they say includes regular communication between the group and the White House political office.
SiX’s leaders hope the White House involvement will take the group to the next level, doing for it what Ronald Reagan’s embrace did for ALEC in the 1980s. That group was launched in 1973, but it really gained traction in the conservative firmament when Reagan included its leaders in his newly formed White House Task Force on Federalism, and began relying on them to develop and enact state-level policies that buttressed his administration’s push for lower taxes and less regulation of industry.
He would later praise ALEC’s members as “soldiers in a common cause to unleash the private sector, rebuild our economy, strengthen our defenses, and reaffirm our values.” And his overt boosterism helped ALEC win support from major corporate and individual donors, and participation from Republican state lawmakers across the country, who relied on ALEC’s model legislation and research muscle to win battle after battle for decades, mostly with little scrutiny and almost unchallenged on the left.
While the group recently has seen its corporate support eroded somewhat by concerted liberal attacks, it has still played a major role in advancing conservative positions in state-level policy fights that rev the GOP base, such as restricting union power and voter access and pushing controversial Stand Your Ground measures.
“In the same way that conservatives 30 years ago decided to put money and investment in the states and are now seeing the benefits of that – with the largest number of chambers in their control since the 1920s and their ability to move legislation – we hope that this is the beginning of a similar movement for progressives in the states, where we are able to advance progressive legislation and also build a farm team of the next generation of leaders,” said SiX’s founder and executive director Nick Rathod.
A career Democratic operative, Rathod has leaned on his influential ties in his effort to win support for SiX. He served as President Barack Obama’s liaison to state officials, worked for the Center for American Progress and directed state campaigns for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun safety group.
Previous liberal efforts to answer ALEC have mostly floundered. A handful of advocacy groups and think tanks focused on the state level had failed to mount a unified push across states, struggled to gain traction in the states or raise the funds necessary to sustain organizations of any heft.
Rathod spent much of last year working to build support for SiX in private meetings across the country with state lawmakers, union officials and donors. He hopes to be able to raise between $3 million and $5 million for SiX’s first year, and then as much as $10 million in subsequent years. He says fundraising is on pace, though the group is registered under sections of the tax code — 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) — that make it tough to track its fundraising and don’t require it to reveal its donors.
Rathod has locked up support from some key major donors, such as David desJardins, an early Google employee who is a DA board member.
DesJardins said SiX seemed to be off to a strong start, pointing to a summit it held in Washington in December that attracted more than 200 legislators, operatives and donors from around the country.
“It’s a startup,” desJardins said. “I’m a Silicon Valley guy, so I’m used to start ups that have high risk but high potential. This has a good chance but nothing is guaranteed.”
While SiX mostly has been focused on building networks of donors, state lawmakers and liberal interest groups, it has started working behind the scenes with lawmakers developing legislation and strategy.
The group rallied liberal opposition to a conservative push for a constitutional convention intended partly to pass a federal balanced budget amendment, and it has provided guidance to state lawmakers seeking to block conservative legislative initiatives and enact law enforcement reforms.
ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling said his group supports any effort to bring together state and federal lawmakers to develop policies. But he asserted that voters aren’t keen on the specific policies SiX and the Obama administration champion, pointing out that Republicans last year captured the U.S. Senate and substantially expanded their edge in state legislatures.
“Voters in November sent a message to Washington that big-government policies aren’t working,” Meierling said. “Discussions in furtherance of those same policies are against the will of the people.”