Taking It to the States: Fighting the Right at Home. (Articles)

By Nichols, John | The Nation, June 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

Taking It to the States: Fighting the Right at Home. (Articles)


Nichols, John, The Nation


Three years into a pitched battle with George W. Bush and his conservative compadres, millions of American progressives have focused their fury on Washington-based battles to beat Bush and the right-wingers who rode in with him. But with Democrats in Congress frequently failing to forge a coherent, let alone effective, opposition, it is time to recognize that some of the most important fights--for affordable healthcare, education, environmental protection and clean politics--are taking place beyond the Beltway. Often there is far more space for debate on these issues, and more opportunities for victory, in statehouses, where even some conservative Republican governors have been forced to accept tax hikes, muscled-up regulations and reform of the criminal justice system. Thus, while it is essential to battle Bush and his minions in Washington, it is equally essential to understand that the road to renewal may well run through the states. "We can't wait for Washington. Washington isn't going to save us on the issues we care about--at least, not anytime soon," says Maine State Representative Ted Koffman, a Democrat who has written some of the country's most innovative environmental protection laws. "This is where the action is, and this is where we are going to come up with the ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda."

Koffman's right. And, while there are only seven states where Democratic governors and legislators control both branches of government, there are now Democratic governors in twenty-four states, and Democrats control at least one legislative chamber in twenty-eight states. The Supreme Court's May decision to let Maine implement a program to lower prescription drug costs serves as a reminder that progressive Democratic legislators can beat even the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. Moreover, statehouse Republicans often operate differently than the party's national leaders. It was GOP Governor George Ryan who imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois and then commuted the sentences of death-row inmates. And Republican governors in states as divergent as Connecticut, Arkansas and Idaho have responded to a slowing economy and budget crunch by raising taxes. "At the state level, I think there are more Republicans who recognize that you have to move beyond the rhetoric to the reality that decisions we make will have an immediate impact on people's lives," says State Representative Jim Marzilli Jr., a Massachusetts Democrat who has built a coalition to restore his state's capital gains tax.

Legislators like Koffman and Marzilli, who argue for more attention to state-based activism, are actually borrowing a page from the right. "One of the reasons the right is so successful today at the federal level is the work they have done in the states," says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who last year ran for governor of Massachusetts. "Don't forget that the radical right spent twenty years building up its grassroots. They worked at the national level, of course, but they never ignored the states." [See "ALEC Meets His Match," page 14.] A decade ago, conservatives celebrated Republican governors such as Michigan's John Engler and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson as innovative reformers on issues like welfare, privatization of public services and deregulation of utilities. Their corporate allies poured money into state-based conservative think tanks, backed statewide initiatives and funded campaigns to recruit and elect conservative legislators who would eventually become the foot soldiers in House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution. …

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