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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

2 strengths and a weakness: Democratic/Progressive policy strategy

Updated: Feb 4

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!


The strengths are related to progressive and Democratic Party policies vs GOP policies, and the resulting effects on people.  Our policies, generally speaking, are better for people.  And they result in better outcomes for people in “blue" states and cities.  But we’re getting smoked by the GOP’s strategic and relentless efforts to spread their nefarious policies across this great nation. 


Recently, Democrats and progressives have put more effort into trying to compete strategically in this area.  How can we build on this by coordinating more and scaling up until we gain a majority?  What are the obstacles?


2 Strengths


Where Democrats have power, they’ve used it (at least sometimes) to create innovative, people-centered, and effective policies.  An example that comes to mind from New York City is former Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s universal pre-K and 3-K childcare program. A real game-changer for parents of young children, it can save parents $2,000 a month.


By contrast, the family-loving Republican governors of 15 states recently refused federal money to feed poor children in the summer.  The naysayers include small, desperately poor states like AL and MS, and large states including TX and FL.


Many policies on the state and local level fall this way along party lines, resulting in more poverty, sickness and early death in “red states.” Even wealthier people in “red states” don’t do as well as those in “blue states,” where people often earn more, have better health, and live longer.

This is not to say Democrats are always better. Of course, they are subject to corruption, stupidity and timidity. This is where it gets hard for progressives to work within the party, and where they encourage people to think there's no difference between the two parties, losing elections along the way. But policy is where the rubber meets the road, and we have to stay in there and fight.

The states are a laboratory for policy, and they're the best place to develop solutions that really work, and build momentum for those solutions nationally. Of course Congress matters, because federal money for states to do things, and federal regulations, matter. But I would focus on states first for several reasons, which we don't have time for right now.

The Weakness


The GOP has a giant policy and state legislature snowblower called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).  Democrats and progressives have some groups and coalitions that train and support legislators and campaigners, form networks and provide policy research in the states to promote progressive agendas. But they don’t begin to compare to the size and power of ALEC, which was founded in 1972, the same year as the Heritage Foundation.


The Center for Media and Democracy has a fine project called ALEC Exposed, which describes ALEC this way: 


Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called "model bills" reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations.


In ALEC's own words, corporations have "a VOICE and a VOTE" on specific changes to the law that are then proposed in your state. DO YOU?


For example, ALEC Exposed notes that at least around 700 ALEC-affiliated state lawmakers around the country have voted to ban abortion.  A spinoff group of “Christian” lawmakers, NACL, led passage of SB 8 in Texas, the controversial abortion bounty-hunter bill, and crafted it into model legislation that was introduced in a dozen other states.


ALEC is secretive about its members, both corporate and legislative. But as of 2022, according to ALEC Exposed. they had state chairs listed in 47 states.  Obviously, this includes many “blue states” as well as “red” ones.


What do progressive and Democratic efforts look like?

I’m sure I’m not aware of all that goes on, so I apologize if I’m missing something here.  I will mention three groups that, in my view, are playing an important role in building progressive and Democratic coordination and success on policy, especially on the state level.


Working Families Party


WFP was formed in 1998 in New York. It started as a coalition of organizations, such as labor unions, Acorn, and Citizen Action, but now has individual members as well.  As a political party, their focus is electoral.  Letitia “Tish” James, Attorney General of New York state, currently leading a key lawsuit against Donald Trump, is one of their most prominent electeds.


It is very difficult to make an impact as a “third party” in the United States, and many compromises are involved.  That being said, WFP is an important nexus for the progressive movement as it contests for power.


They have a presence in some 15-20 states, including mostly “blue” and swing states, but also some “red” states.  They run quite a few candidates in some places.  They are growing, and held their first national convention in 2023.


They support their own candidates and elected officials as well as Democratic ones, partly because election laws are different from state to state.  They support mostly local and state candidates, but also some Congressional candidates.  They will call out mainstream Democrats, as they did recently in Connecticut when a Democratic-trifecta legislature did not deliver on economic issues in the legislative session, and run against them, at times.


They do not have national policy priorities or policy research they can make available to candidates or electeds, as far as I can tell.  They seem to focus on support directly related to campaigns, such as data and volunteer resources.  But they are a progressive force in the areas where they’re active, and perhaps they have some informal policy coordination among their elected officials and organizational partners like SEIU.



SiX (State Innovation Exchange)


SiX formed when three smaller groups merged in 2014: the Center for State Innovation, the Progressive States Network, and the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE).  When asked if they’re “like ALEC,” they say, “No, we’re better.”  They don’t take money from corporations or charge dues, for example.


Their self-description is clear and focused: “Getting elected is the starting line, not the finish line.  While many organizations work to get people elected to office, SiX gives legislators the tools and building blocks they need to move bold, progressive public policy.”  What they’re doing couldn’t be more fundamental to building long-term progressive power.


Their vision: “We envision an equitable, resilient, healthy and prosperous future for every person in the United States, which is secured and safeguarded by progressive state legislators.”


Their mission statement spells out more of their activities: “We empower, embolden and equip state legislators to build and wield progressive governing power by/with/for the people they represent. We do this by providing legislators with the tools needed to shape impactful public policy and building their capacity to lead with their constituents. We foster long-term collaboration between legislators—across chambers, across regions, and across state lines–and with grassroots movements.”


Policy-Plus Approach


Six takes a “ 'policy plus' approach–they develop and share policy research from issue experts, as well as communications, strategy, connections with movement partners, and other types of support that legislators need.”


They’re not far behind ALEC on one thing:  last fall, they put together over 600 state legislators to sign an amicus brief to preserve medication abortion access. 


They focus on several key issues.  They also have a partnership with National Women's Law Center called the State Gender Policy Collective, and one called the Progressive Governance Academy (PGA),  a partnership between SiX, Local Progress, and re:power, a training organization, committed to building and developing the leadership and governance skills of state and local elected officials across the country.


While they work with legislators in all 50 states, SiX has on-the-ground State Directors in states including Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, and North Carolina, who provide deeply tailored support to legislators, especially on issues of democracy and economy.


Perhaps my favorite aspect of SiX is their Co-Executive Director, Jessie Ulibarri, who grew up in a trailer park and once worked for Wellstone Action, as well as a stint as a Colorado legislator.


The States Project


Which of these is not like the others?  The States Project is a different animal in important ways.  Yet they are doing some good work. What I am especially impressed with is their emphasis on POWER.  As they say on their website:


“We see our electoral work and our policy work as two halves of a virtuous cycle to build power for state lawmakers who will defend our democracy, safeguard our individual freedoms, and improve lives.”


“We supercharge campaigns to secure vulnerable incumbents and flip competitive seats — that’s how we build and gain power.


“We’re laser-focused on building majorities in state legislatures and only invest in the states where we see a path to shift power and improve lives.”


According to the New York Times,  The States Project was founded in 2017 and made a financial splash in state legislative elections in 2022, pouring $60 million into races in five competitive states: Arizona, Michigan, Maine, Nevada and Pennsylvania.


They helped build four new majorities, creating new trifectas in Michigan and Minnesota, and helped protect governing power in Maine, Nevada, and Nebraska.  This matters in a world where, according to Ballotpedia, there are 23 Republican trifectas, only 17 Democratic trifectas, and 10 divided governments.


Founded by a rich man

What they don’t mention on their website is that one of their founders is Adam Pritzker.  If that name sounds familiar, it may be because of his family, which has no less than 11 billionaires on the Forbes list.  JB Pritzker, the current Democratic governor of Illinois, is a billionaire, the richest legislator in the US (and that’s saying a lot).  The Pritzgers are the wealthiest family in Chicago and one of the wealthiest in the country, best known for their Hyatt hotel chain.


Adam Pritzker is a young (39) nephew of Thomas, one of the family’s leaders. He is an “entrepreneur” with a fashion brand, not a billionaire himself, but no doubt has access to family money.


The other founder is Daniel Squadron, a former New York legislator, who the Times says “has sought to focus [the organization’s] ample resources and attention exclusively on state legislators, trying to fill the void on the left.” 


What I like about States Project


On their website, they place the right-wing agenda and their agenda side by side, which is something Democrats and progressives should do far more often.

More importantly, they do have real money, and that helps us win, no doubt about it.


What concerns me about States Project


You do have to wonder how sincere they are about supporting policies that could take money out of their family’s pockets. 


Most concerning, the only activity they list under “getting involved” is fundraising.  They are clearly much more about fundraising than anything else. They do ask people to form "giving circles," reaching out to friends and family to support their candidate. They also do list the same types of support for their lawmakers that SiX does for theirs.

Also concerning is the fact they mention no humans on their website: no founders, no staff, no board of directors, no endorsed candidates, no funding info. Such secretiveness doesn't inspire confidence.


That being said, what they focus on - flipping state legislatures and governors to Democrats - IS a key component of gaining power for progressives too.  Also, in a sense, they're bringing in new grassroots donors, which certainly beats more corporate money.


What should the medium to long-term goals in this sector be?


In my view, medium- to long-term goals would be along the lines of:

  • Build the capacity of groups like SiX to cover more of the country, strategize about the policy solutions that are not only great in themselves, but can help us build power, track policy developments, coordinate with other groups, and elect more people

  • Improve our communications strategies so we get more credit for our policy achievements, and draw the contrast with the GOP more strongly. We need this to up our winning percentage.

  • Develop expansion strategies, leaning on what the local policy needs are, to prioritize cities and states where we have current opportunities AND that can help us get a leg up on future growth.

    • A glance at any electoral map shows the large areas where Democrats are weakest - chiefly the Deep South, the Plains states and Mountain West. We need to be working there now, while recognizing that it will take time, probably a long time, to change the balance of power there.

  • Increase the Democratic/progressive share of electeds, and our base, in places where we already have a presence.

  • Develop priorities on both issues/policy solutions and where to run campaigns that will help us meet our goals on growth, working closely with grassroots movements.

  • For progressives, a very important goal is to elect our own people as much as possible, so they can have more seats at the table when policy and legislation are made. This will be easier in lower-level races, and our support can help those junior reps move up to bigger seats in time.

  • Long-term goals would be:

    • Dems take over a majority of state legislatures. We could do this by increasing our share where we have a presence (say, moving up to control both Senate and House where we now only have one), recapturing some "purple" states like Ohio and Wisconsin, and choosing some red state targets wisely and investing long-term.

    • Win a key policy target in many states or even on the federal level. A Voting Rights Act for our time, that kind of impact.

What are some ways these 3 groups could move such an agenda?

Issue-based debates or town halls

Most media outlets try to keep their election coverage, especially of the Presidential race, as issue-free as possible. This year, with no Democratic primary contest, is particularly dire. Yet there is an opportunity.

When I was organizing around media ownership consolidation regulations, the FCC didn't feel like holding their legally-required public hearings on the subject. We had great success organizing local "unofficial" hearings with a range of stakeholders, gaining local media coverage, etc. in seven key markets. These policy-oriented groups and other movement groups could similarly organize debates or town halls to inject important issues into the discussion and hold candidates at least somewhat accountable.

You never hear the p-word (poverty) or the h-word (housing) in the Presidential contest, among many others. You could get a Presidential surrogate, if not the candidate himself, to address an issue and/or key part of the base, like young people. Maybe even get it on TV.

Institutional partners

I’m sure WFP benefits greatly from their institutional partners, even though there can be conflict between individual and institutional priorities.  More institutional support would allow these groups to do more long-term thinking, planning and coordination.

Charging dues

I differ from SiX on the idea of not charging dues.  Green Parties in Europe take tithes from their elected legislators, as well as membership dues from their voters, and this is an important part of their financial base, from what I understand.  At least some legislators have state budgets for running their offices as well.  Dues could be on a sliding scale.  DSA has membership dues also.  Policy research and networking takes steady resources.  Even if you have some wealthy donors, other sources of income help you retain your political independence and give your people more skin in the game.


Corporate money?

It would take careful consideration to do it right, if it makes sense at all.  But there is a difference between small business, sustainable businesses like B Corps, and predatory global behemoths, who have done so much to stunt and destroy these smaller sectors of the business community.  There could be a way to take support from businesses or business sectors who would benefit from the policies we are proposing.  We should have relations with them anyway, as they could provide important data points for developing policy, as well as important political support.


Data sources

There are companies who make a living in the Democratic Party ecosystem providing data and analysis.  Do any of them do a particularly good job on policy or analyzing political dynamics on a state level?  Could it become more of a focus for them, especially from a progressive perspective, or could new companies help serve this need for several different organizations?   Could there be an opportunity for someone to do more aggregation of policy-related data and make it available affordably? This is really important for strategic targeting.

Coordination, especially on strategy and communications

These three groups, for example, are aligned in a lot of things they are trying to accomplish.  They should get together and do some mapping, both where they are active and/or strong now, and where they would like to expand.

Where they are all supporting certain policy solutions or candidates, they could work together to win them, especially where things are hotly contested.

They could discuss their respective research and positions on certain policy issues, like health care, and informed by what's happening on the ground, make choices that are stronger and likely to be more broadly popular.

Sharing what they see as working and not working in terms of messaging and communications strategy is also very important.

They could also share and expand their networks of electeds. More people pulling in the same direction on legislation can make a big difference.




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