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Have Democrats Found Their ALEC?

The party has long pined for a nationwide network for state-level legislation. One group is finally succeeding where so many others have failed.

A pro-choice rally in St. Louis in 2019 (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Jay Livingstone knew something had to be done about Massachusetts’s abortion law. The state, despite its liberal leanings, still had a ban on its books that predated—although it was superseded by—Roe v. Wade. If today’s Supreme Court overturned that 1973 decision, returning the issue to the states, abortion would become illegal immediately in Massachusetts.

Writing a bill codifying the protections of Roe was easy, but Livingstone, a state representative, wanted to go further. He turned to the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), an organization that assists progressive legislators around the country. It helped him with all the ancillary information required to sell a bill—policy materials, a press strategy, even a video to share on social media. It also connected him with legislators in other states who had crafted similar bills, so he could learn from their successes and failures. “It’s great that there’s an organization looking nationally at pushing progressive policies,” Livingstone said, “and figuring out how to share best practices and successes at the state level, where so much innovation happens.”

In the end, the Massachusetts legislature repealed the 173-year-old abortion ban—the first effort to protect abortion rights in the state in decades. Livingstone has also co-sponsored legislation that would not only enshrine Roe in Massachusetts law but expand youth access and guarantee that women could receive abortions past 24 weeks in pregnancies involving fatal fetal anomalies.

For decades, the left has dreamed of building an organization to rival the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group that has crafted and coordinated Republican legislation in the states since the early 1970s. Every few years, it seems, a new progressive group appears—only to quickly vanish because it was unable to establish a winning strategy or sustain enough donor interest. But SiX, five years after its founding, is showing signs of staying power.

When Donald Trump was elected president, Democrats weren’t just shut out of power in Washington: The party had lost roughly 900 legislative seats during the Obama presidency. In the wake of the 2016 election, a number of groups sprang up to help the party regain power at the state level: Sister District, Forward Majority, and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, among others. The effort has paid off—to a point. Despite Democratic gains in both 2018 and 2019, Republicans still have trifectas—control of the governorship and both legislative chambers—in 21 states, versus 15 for Democrats.

Winning office is a necessary step, but figuring out what to do once you’re in power—how to translate electoral wins into policy action—is an entirely different game. State legislators have to get up to speed on a multitude of issues. Most of them work part-time and have little or no staff. That means they have to do all their own homework, not just writing bills but figuring out how to promote them. “There are a lot of groups out there that help you get elected,” New York state Representative Nily Rozic told me. “There aren’t that many that take up the cause once you get elected.”

Not on the left, anyway. For nearly half a century, conservative legislators have been able to count on ALEC. The industry-sponsored group creates model legislation for Republican legislators across the country. The bills are often promoted not only by ALEC but by a consortium of conservative think tanks known as the State Policy Network, with political spending and grassroots lobbying provided by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.

ALEC has endured setbacks, notably when a number of large corporations dropped their memberships after George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, was acquitted thanks to a “stand your ground” law that was formulated by ALEC. The group has mostly shied away from controversial social issues since then but remains a major force in the states, with dozens—sometimes hundreds—of its model bills becoming law every year. In recent years, the group has helped promote a spate of preemption laws that block cities from enacting all manner of policies, from raising the local minimum wage to regulating cell towers.

While ALEC has learned to adapt, similar groups on the left have come and gone. Twenty years ago, a progressive group called the Center for Policy Alternatives threatened to rival ALEC in terms of membership size and influence, but during the Clinton presidency its donations dropped by two-thirds, leading the group to shut down. Its fate was not unique. Most state-level groups have been more like libraries than lobbies, acting as depositories for shared information—and even those more modest groups have gone under.

“There’s a stop-and-start nature to progressive organizations that is a real hindrance,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia University political scientist and author of State Capture, a 2019 book that examines the influence of ALEC and other conservative groups.

Hertel-Fernandez cites several reasons for the failure to build a liberal ALEC. Democrats’ interest in the states tends to evaporate once the party takes power in Washington, and big donors and foundations on the left prefer to exert their influence at the national level. Where ALEC takes advantage of the lack of resources available to state legislators—not only handing them prefab legislation, but wining and dining them—groups on the left are put off by the relative lack of sophistication in state policymaking, skeptical that real progress can be made at that level.

Come 2014, Nick Rathod had seen enough of this dynamic. Formerly President Obama’s liaison to states, he wanted to create a place that Democratic state legislators could turn to for help, so he built SiX out of the ashes of three prior progressive groups. “There’s a reason the right has been able to define policy,” he told me. “They’ve been doing it at the state level for so long.” (Jessie Ulibarri, a former Colorado state senator, took over the reins in 2018.)

As it has grown, SiX has honed its approach by embedding much of its staff in individual states and focusing on a limited number of issue areas, such as reproductive health and voting rights. Even where progressives can’t write the laws, SiX helps them gather data in an effort to shape policies in areas that don’t always capture headlines, such as maternal mortality rates. “Its mission really did fill a void,” said Ohio state Representative Stephanie Howse. “There is no basic school in how to be a legislator, in making policies, and even how to build a network.”

SiX’s materials now go out to more than 3,000 legislators or staffers, while its own staff has grown from 10 in 2017 to 27 today. The group has a $6.5 million budget, dwarfing the size of earlier groups that have fallen by the wayside—but still short of ALEC’s $10 million in annual revenue.

With most states dominated by one party or the other—and many more of them dominated by Republicans than Democrats—legislators are moving aggressively in opposite directions on issues ranging from abortion to gun control, labor rights to voting rights. Republicans are unlikely to lose their advantage in the 2020 elections, thanks to Supreme Court–approved gerrymandering and the concentration of liberal voters in major metropolitan areas. So even if Democrats win back the White House, they will have to make the most of whatever state-level power they have.

“One of my biggest fears is that if we do take the presidency, and hopefully we do, things go back to the status quo: ‘Let’s just forget about the states again,’” Rathod said. “If the left is serious about long-term power-building and having political power in the country, they better not do that.”