The State of the States and Localities

Due to the ghastly 2014 elections, more state legislators are Republican and the GOP controls more state legislative bodies than at any time since the 1920s.

Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Statehouse Republicans won’t want to appear too extreme in 2016, both for the presidential election and for their own reelections. Therefore, we must expect a deluge of ultra-conservative legislation in 2015; we’ll start to see it within weeks.

The business wing of the conservative movement will push for long-term structural changes—measures that make it easier for right wingers to win future elections, or policies that tilt the system to benefit the rich even more. And these changes are hard for progressives to undo. They include: bills to weaken the political influence of key progressive allies like labor unions, trial lawyers, and public school teachers; measures making it harder for people to vote, like voter ID and rolling back early voting; and bills to cut taxes on rich individuals and corporations, starving governments for revenue so that, in Grover Norquist’s words, right wingers can shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Simultaneously, social conservatives in the Tea Party wing will push to ban abortion, restrict access to contraceptives, punish immigrants, attack Americans on public assistance (e.g. require drug testing) and deny rights to LGBT people, like the ability to adopt.

As we saw over the past several years in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Kansas, progressives will face quite a challenge. In addition to playing defense in a conventional way, our side needs to get proactive. Progressive lawmakers need to sponsor and publicize their own wedge issues—policies that shine a light on conservatives’ political weaknesses and put them on the defensive.

Such legislation is laid out in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities, published by the Public Leadership Institute (PLI). The Progressive Agenda hyperlinks to more than 150 model bills, about half of them written by PLI staff.

Naturally, progressives should be proactive in blue states as well. In the 2014 election, Democrats lost some of their lawmaking power in several key states where progressives had been making real progress, including: Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington. Today, there are only seven states where Democrats control both the governor’s seat and the legislature: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

If progressives are to recover their mojo in legislatures, those are the jurisdictions to watch. There is another place, however, where the left can get things done: in city and county councils.

The fact is, large cities and urban counties are overwhelmingly controlled by progressives. In recent years, it’s been localities that have enacted the most far-reaching legislation. Cities and counties led the way in raising the minimum wage to its highest levels. More than a dozen localities enacted ordinances mandating paid sick leave. Cities have worked to stop pollution, fracking, police violence, discrimination against immigrants, and unfair employment practices. (See e.g., PLI’s Progress in the States & Localities, 2015.)

2015 will be a difficult year at both the federal and state levels. That means progressives will just have to fight harder.


Five Progressive Wedge Issues for 2015

For years, conservatives used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like criminalizing flag burning, cutting “welfare,” and (until recently) banning same-sex marriage. They still do that, of course, but the Tea Party has forced conservatives to put greater emphasis on policies with little popular appeal.

It’s time for progressives to promote some wedge issues of our own. In 2015, progressive wedge issues tend to fall into three categories: (1) addressing the way our economic system has been rigged to benefit the rich; (2) supporting important groups that conservatives target; and (3) promoting issues that drive conservative extremists to say crazy things.

The minimum wage remains a powerful wedge issue but it’s not listed among the five because it already has been or is being pushed just about everywhere. These policies—which hyperlink to model bills featured in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities—should be introduced in both red and blue states. If you can’t enact the legislation, use these battles to organize the grassroots and show voters the differences between conservatives and progressives. Let them see that we are the ones on their side.

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Top Ten Legislative Victories of 2014


To be a progressive is to seek new laws that advance economic and social justice for all. That endeavor was thoroughly frustrated by the last Congress, and the next one will be worse. On the federal level, progressives had to settle for President Obama’s executive orders, which are praiseworthy but subject to reversal by a future president.

Yet there were true legislative victories last year—in states and localities across America. Progressive state legislators, city council members and county commissioners enacted a wide range of protections and reforms. These lawmakers are now squarely at the vanguard of the progressive movement and we ought to recognize some of their accomplishments:

  1. Minimum Wage—While Congress ignored this crucial issue, ten state legislatures (CT, DE, HI, MD, MA, MI, MN, RI, VT, WV) and many cities (including Chicago, District of Columbia, San Diego, Santa Fe, and Seattle) raised their minimum wages in 2014. In addition, the minimum wage was raised in four states (AL, AK, NE, SD) through November ballot initiatives. Today more than 60 percent of Americans are protected by a state or local minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum.
  2. Paid Sick Days—The effort to provide employees with paid sick days achieved a breakout year in 2014 with legislative victories in two states (CA, CT), a ballot initiative victory in Massachusetts, and laws in at least 16 localities (including New York City, Washington DC, Seattle, Portland OR, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Newark and Trenton).
  3. More Employee Protections—“Ban the Box” legislation, which prohibits a question about criminal history on job applications, was enacted in four states (DE, IL, NE, NJ) and several cities (including Baltimore, Columbia MO, Louisville, Mobile, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Syracuse). Today 13 states and more than 70 cities and counties Ban the Box. In addition, six states (LA, NH, OK, RI, TN, WI) enacted social media privacy laws that prevent employers from asking workers or job applicants for their social media passwords or asking them to “friend” the employer. San Francisco enacted a first-in-the-nation Retail Workers Bill of Rights.
  4. Protecting Immigrants—While the U.S. House ignored a Senate-passed effort to reform immigration law, states and cities have decisively sided with immigrants. Both Florida and Washington enacted DREAM Acts, so now a total of 18 states provide in-state college tuition to unauthorized immigrants. Spokane, Washington was the latest city to enact a “Don’t Ask Immigration Status Act,” and New York City passed legislation to create a city ID card available to all residents whether authorized or not.
  5. Electronic Surveillance— Ten states (CO, IL, IN, IA, MD, MN, TN, UT VA, WI) enacted laws requiring police to get a warrant before accessing data tracking an individual’s movements through their cell phones. Three other states (IN, IA, WI) passed legislation requiring a warrant before police use drones for individual surveillance. (However, Governor Brown vetoed similar drone legislation in California.)
  6. Universal Pre-K—A number of states and cities significantly expanded pre-Kindergarten programs, including Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Chicago, Nashville and New York City.
  7. Voter Registration—Illinois enacted a pilot same-day registration program and a bill that will make the process permanent has passed both the state house and senate. Utah also enacted legislation to test same-day registration, while in November Montana voters rejected a right-wing ballot initiative that attempted to repeal same-day registration. Ten states (not including Utah) and the District of Columbia now offer registration on Election Day. In addition, three states (MA, MN, NE) enacted laws to permit online registration, making such registration now legal in 24 states.
  8. Pregnant Workers Fairness—Four states (DE, IL, PA, WV) and three cities (Philadelphia, Providence RI, Washington DC) enacted a “Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act” that ensures pregnant employees receive reasonable accommodations to help them stay on the job. So far, a total of 12 states and five cities have enacted this important legislation.
  9. Cell Phone Kill Switch—Both California and Minnesota enacted laws mandating that smart phones come with a “kill switch” that renders them useless if lost or stolen.
  10. Gun Violence Prevention—The big news was Washington State’s approval by ballot initiative of background checks for all gun purchases. Less well-known are eight other state legislative victories in the past year, especially a groundbreaking Gun Violence Restraining Order law in California and a comprehensive strengthening of gun law in Massachusetts.

The fact is, right-wing organizations have long understood the importance of state and local policy and they have responded by providing strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers, most publicly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In 2014, ALEC created a new organization, the American City County Exchange (ACCE), to spread their “free market” model laws across the nation at the local level. Progressives need to aggressively fight back.

The Public Leadership Institute just published its 2015 Progressive Agenda for States and Localities. Our Progressive Agenda includes hyperlinks so that left-of-center legislators, council members and commissioners have direct access to more than 150 progressive model bills, almost half of which are authored by our staff at the Public Leadership Institute. Working with allies across the nation, we will promote our proactive Agenda to a nationwide network of more than 13,000 progressive state and local lawmakers.

If you want to get involved at the state or local level, please feel free to join the effort here.

(This column is cross-posted on the Campaign for America’s Future blog.)


When progressives cry “freedom,” what does it mean?

Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—“falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it’s a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. I include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.

I very intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called “negative freedom.” Why? Because a limited definition keeps the word from becoming meaningless.

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How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

In the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.


Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

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Police cameras to protect public safety

Technology is changing the business of law enforcement. Because of DNA evidence, we know that far too many innocent people have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Because of cellphone cameras, we know there is far too much unnecessary violence by police officers.

Part of the problem is old-fashioned police procedures—an overconfidence in unreliable eyewitnesses and an emphasis on profiling and random-but-targeted stops. These problems can and must be solved; our states and localities need to adopt fairer and more accurate law enforcement procedures.

At the same time that technology has cast a spotlight on police procedures that require reform, technology can also provide some solutions—specifically small video cameras.


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It's the media, stupid

The 2014 election has been a shameful, ignorant affair. Americans are choosing candidates based on obsolete stereotypes, phony memes, and absurdly untruthful campaign ads. Why does the mainstream media tend to repeat all the lies?

In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. An excerpt recently published in the Post sheds light on our current problem.

Bradlee explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”

[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….

That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.

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What We Stand For in Twelve Words

What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.

By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.

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Understand the anti-teacher narratives

If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. These stories are a powerful means of persuasion, even though they are false. The discussion below is not our normal "use these words in debate," which you can find here. Instead it is for you to understand that the other side's arguments are a pile of myths.

First, they insist there is a crisis in education.

The sky is falling! Our schools are failing, they assert, based on the "evidence" of average scores on standardized tests, both domestic and international. This "crisis" in education is used to justify their extreme tactics: closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curriculum, greatly expanding the use of standardized tests, teaching to the test, opening charters willy-nilly, handing “failing” schools to for-profit “turnaround” specialists, and on and on. There is absolutely no evidence that any of these tactics improve children's lives.

The truth is, there is no education crisis. As Diane Ravitch has fully documented, on domestic standardized tests, and by other measures, student achievement has been rising steadily for decades. And when we look at international standardized tests, if you control for poverty—comparing on an apples-to-apples basis—our students rank as the best in the world. The only reason U.S. test scores look mediocre compared to other countries is that low-income students everywhere score very poorly and we have the highest rate of child poverty among the leading western nations. In short, we don’t have a crisis in education; we have a crisis in child poverty. It's poverty we need to address.

Second, they claim that market-based tactics are the solution.

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Is Obamacare now helping progressives?

Right-wingers and the media have spent the past few years confidently asserting that Obamacare is a political albatross. This was backed up by polls that mindlessly combined conservatives who opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it “goes too far” with  liberals who opposed the ACA because it “doesn’t go far enough.”

Now most pundits have switched direction, pointing out that Americans do not want to repeal the ACA, even in red states. Those writers now say that Obamacare is no longer a powerful political issue. But what if they’re wrong again?

2014 is a turnout election. Predictions of Democratic disaster are based on the assumption that the conservative base will show up to vote this November while the progressive base will not.

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