Clash in the States

Many people think of Oregon as a liberal bastion: an "ecotopia" where environmental protection is a priority, the law permits the terminally ill to choose death over protracted suffering, and citizens once voted by initiative for the highest state minimum wage in the country.


But in fact, conservatives have quite a foothold in Oregon. Republicans took over the state legislature in 1994, and it has belonged to them since, thanks to heavy campaign spending. Additionally, term limits have deprived Oregon of many longtime lawmakers who were expert advocates for particular government programs, including moderate Republicans like Bob Repine and Eldon Johnson and Democratic legislators like Kitty Piercy. New conservative legislators have found powerful allies to help them shape their antigovernment agenda, including local right-wing groups such as the Cascade Policy Institute, as well as two major national organizations with a strong presence in Oregon: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). Both ALEC and CSE are funded in large part by corporations intent on rolling back taxes and government regulation.


The state's conservatives also have flexed their muscles through ballot initiatives. In the 2000 election, Oregon had 26 direct-democracy initiatives on the ballot; conservative activists generated the vast majority of these--triggering massive defensive efforts by Oregonian progressives. While 17 of the initiatives failed, nine of them passed, including an antitax measure that would automatically return state- government surpluses to taxpayers.


Nationally, Oregon has one of the highest income polarities of any state and in 1999 ranked number one in hunger. The specter of Oregon's low-income population steadily losing ground is all the more disturbing in light of the state's tremendous prosperity in recent years. Nike, one of the most successful U.S. companies in the 1990s, is based in Portland, as are many high-tech firms. The state's move to the right over the past decade clearly reflects an imbalance in resources generated by both local and national groups. It's true that progressives in Oregon have been stronger than those in many other states--a result, in large part, of outside funding from major foundations like Ford and the Open Society Institute. But as political strategist Tom Novick points out, Oregonian progressives have "by and large been on the defensive."


For conservative philanthropists and political operatives, success in Oregon vindicates farsighted efforts begun in the 1980s to develop an infrastructure focused on moving a right-wing agenda at the state level. Over the past 15 years, total investments in this infrastructure by conservative foundations like the John H. Olin and Bradley Foundations, as well as major donors like energy tycoon David Koch, have exceeded several hundred million dollars. The conservative State Policy Network, founded in 1992 and based in California, now includes more than 40 state-policy institutes. Two of its largest members, the Pacific Research Institute in California and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, operate on a scale comparable to national organizations, with budgets in 1999 of $2.6 million and $2.2 million, respectively. The Heartland Institute in Chicago now has a staff of 10 and a budget of $1.2 million--much of it coming from its lineup of more than 125 corporate donors. In Oregon, the Cascade Institute has a budget of a half-million dollars, twice that of its liberal counterpart, the Oregon Center for Public Policy.


Meanwhile, spending by national conservative organizations to influence public policy in state capitals has risen sharply in the past decade. ALEC's budget is now $6 million a year; this funds a staff of 30 and a host of task forces that provide policy assistance to some 2,400 state legislators who are members of the organization. CSE's budget grew to more than $15 million a year by the late 1990s, with a good chunk of this money going to build and support a network of 19 state chapters. Other national conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, and the Family Research Council, also work in the states. The Hudson Institute has field offices in three states. The Heritage Foundation--with a budget of $30 million a year--has a special "state relations office" at its national headquarters in Washington.


These conservative investments mean that state-level progressives often find themselves up against powerful coalitions that include local business associations, grass-roots religious activists, and well-financed Republican politicians--as well as skilled policy experts backed by national foundations and major corporations. Antigovernment efforts in the states have been pursued in tandem with the conservative crusade to shift federal programs to state and local entities. This "devolve and destroy" pincer strategy is likely to be employed to great effect under President George W. Bush.


At times progressive forces have scored important gains in the states, even as these arenas have historically been dominated by business interests and hospitable to reactionary agendas. But lately the tide in the states has shifted decisively to the right. Republicans now hold 29 governorships--a major reversal from the 1980s and early 1990s. Republican control of state legislatures has also grown steadily and is now almost three times what it was in 1992.


New investments in state work by left-of-center philanthropists are laudable but inadequate, with progressives often finding themselves outgunned by right-wing organizations with deep pockets and an ever growing number of allies in state government. "The disconnect between what is spent now and what it would cost [progressives] to become a long-term opposition force is considerable," says Jeff Malachowsky of the State Strategies Fund, a group co-chaired by Mark Schmitt of the Open Society Institute and Geraldine P. Mannion of the Carnegie Corporation that was formed to channel greater philanthropic resources into state-level work. The social and economic stakes are high. Veterans of state-policy battles say it's time for progressives to think more strategically and link their state work to national policy debates.


Network Support


National networks to support state-level policy work are nothing new. Common Cause, the Public Interest Research Groups, and Citizen Action all built state chapters during the 1970s. Much of this infrastructure is still in place today, albeit in downsized form owing to funding shortages and other problems. A variety of liberal issue groups working on causes such as reproductive rights and gun control have also built state networks over the years.


These older networks have recently been supplemented by a fresh generation of networks. Two of the most intriguing are the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative (SFAI) and the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN)--both of which have been made possible by foundation funding and are focused on economic policy. The brainchild of Ford Foundation senior program officer Michael Lipsky, SFAI was founded in 1993. Its goal is to boost the capacity of institutes that analyze fiscal and social policy at the state level. SFAI began operation with grantees in 12 states and technical assistance provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Three foundations--Ford, Annie E. Casey, and Charles Stewart Mott--channeled more than $12 million to these groups during the first four years. Today, SFAI has grown to 22 members and is now also supported by the Open Society Institute. Once-fledgling members of the group, such as the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, have become important players in state capitals.


EARN is a more recent arrival to the state-policy scene. Sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), it is a loose constellation of state-based groups working to close the prosperity gap through a diverse set of policies that range from living-wage ordinances to new support for low-income workers. EARN provides these crusaders for economic justice with both technical and moral support. Last fall it helped coordinate the simultaneous release of reports on the status of working people in 20 states. Many of these reports were based on economic data developed by EPI for its signature publication, The State of Working America 2000–2001. This data-sharing venture showcased the role that a national research organization can play in adding capacity to local groups. On November 16 and 17, 2000, EARN held its second annual conference in Chicago. In 1998 the first meeting of EARN had attracted 40 to 50 people from some 10 states; last fall it was a major event, with 120 people from 26 states.


Although SFAI and EARN are hailed as success stories, neither network delivers enough support to reformers in the states. Take the example of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, founded in 1995. Run by Chuck Sheketoff, a smart and entrepreneurial executive director, the center puts out research materials worthy of any national think tank. Before it was founded, there was little serious analysis of how state-level fiscal and social policies affected low-income Oregonians. Today, the center is a ubiquitous presence in the state's policy-and-budgetary battles, with several important victories to its credit. Still, despite being one of the lucky 22 state groups to be invited into SFAI and also to participate in EARN, the center is barely scraping by. It has a paltry budget of $250,000 a year, which covers rent on its three-room office and salaries for several people. Nearly half of this money comes from its SFAI membership. The rest is pieced together from smaller donors, few of whom have deep enough pockets to write bigger checks.


Unfortunately, this story is typical nationwide. SFAI, by far the biggest funding pipeline to state-policy groups, has been expanded substantially in recent years, yet many of its 22 grantees remain a step away from insolvency. Annual spending on SFAI by its four major foundation backers remains under $3 million a year--comparable to the annual budget of a single conservative state-policy group, the Pacific Research Institute. EARN has no financial resources at all to channel to such efforts.


Regional organizations offer another case study in unfulfilled potential. Here, too, entrepreneurial reformers have built new and effective institutions for moving agendas in the states only to find themselves hamstrung by a lack of cash.


Northeast Action is the oldest regional organization in the progressive universe. Founded in 1984 by Connecticut activist Miles Rapoport, it has pioneered new strategies for building up state groups under a regional umbrella. Across New England, it has given technical assistance and strategic advice to local groups and state coalitions. A key goal of this assistance has been to help progressive groups penetrate into the policy world. It's about "breaking down the barrier between legislators and advocates, and us versus them," says Janice Fine, the organizing director of Northeast Action. Rapoport himself embodied this ethos by serving as a member of the Connecticut legislature during the entire nine years that he directed the organization and by subsequently getting himself elected secretary of the state. (Rapoport became the president of Demos, where I work, after this article was set to go to press.)


Northeast Action has had striking success in a number of New England states. It helped engineer the clean-money initiatives that voters endorsed in Maine in 1996 and in Massachusetts in 1998, and it brought corporate-accountability laws to the table in several states. (Such measures dictate that state-tax breaks to corporations show concrete benefits to state residents.) Meanwhile, key legislative positions in New England are increasingly filled by Northeast Action alumni. And the group's influence extends beyond New England. Similar regional organizations are operating in the Midwest (the Midwest States Center), the South (Democracy South), and the Northwest (the Western States Center and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations). Each of these centers provides technical assistance to local organizations, links up reform leaders across states, and attempts to get more progressives elected to statewide office.


But Northeast Action's annual budget--including both core expenses and money channeled to groups in six states--is still less than $1.2 million, after 15 years. The Western States Center has only five senior staffers to support reform work in eight states, so it's strictly limited in the aid it can provide to beleaguered activists working in some of the most politically conservative terrain in the country. "We are constantly having to pass up opportunities," says Tarso Ramos, who works on race and environmental issues for the center.


"It wouldn't take much to stabilize the regional organizations," notes Malachowsky of the State Strategies Fund. "The money is out there." But getting the money is another matter. One obstacle to higher funding of the regional organizations is that they are multi-issue groups that defy the narrow program guidelines of foundations. Another problem is that funders are often focused on near-term results, while the regional organizations are geared toward building the capacity and power of state-based groups over the long term. "Funders understand the need for capacity," says Cynthia Ward, executive director of Northeast Action. "But another trend is toward greater accountability and measurable outcomes." Also, organizations like Northeast Action and the Western States Center unnerve some foundations with their drive to elect more progressives and their aggressive efforts to influence legislative developments.


Bridging the Gaps


One key function of the regional organizations is to support statewide coalitions, which bring together diverse groups to work on issues such as economic security and campaign finance reform. These coalitions, many of them only a few years old, represent a new ability of progressive groups in the states to put aside old turf battles, collaborate across issue areas, and work strategically to build political power. "The best coalitions combine public-education activity with lobbying activity with electoral work," says Meg Gage, a longtime funder of state-based advocacy and activism. The Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), the first statewide coalition, was founded in Connecticut in 1980. LEAP has helped elect more than 150 candidates to public office. The coalition's biggest victory came in 1991 when it helped enact a state income tax in Connecticut [see Miles S. Rapoport, "Winning with Tax Reform," TAP, Winter 1993]. The LEAP model quickly spread. During the 1990s, there was an explosion of statewide coalitions across the country. Today, more than 20 states have them.


Building and sustaining statewide coalitions is not easy work. In Oregon, for example, the Ford Foundation has tried to nurture a collaboration among four groups: the Rural Organizing Project, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, the Oregon Fair Share Research and Education Fund, and Causa (an immigrant rights coalition). This has opened lines of communication that didn't previously exist and has yielded concrete partnering on a statewide campaign centered on food stamps. But it has also been frustrating for the organizations involved because bridging the worlds of policy and organizing is a daunting challenge. "It's really hard," says Marcy Westerling, executive director of the Rural Organizing Project. "Researchers are just different animals." This sort of lament is common among many state-level reformers who are engaged in linking disparate strategies for social change and bringing together people from diverse racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds.


Despite the proven track record of statewide coalitions in promoting reform policies, many foundations remain skittish about these groups; and the coalitions have yet to become adept at raising significant money from other sources. Unsurprisingly, the strength of statewide coalitions varies widely. United Vision for Idaho is among the strongest in the West, with nine staffers. But in Wyoming, where many urgent state-level battles are being fought, the Equality State Policy Center gets by with only one and a half staff positions.


Large, mainstream foundations like Ford and Carnegie have come to understand the need for new investments in policy organizations geared toward doing battle in the states (an insight, alas, that came at least a decade after conservative funders began pouring big money into this arena). Less clear is whether such foundations are willing to pony up the kind of serious money that is needed to make a real difference. Also, greater foundation funding alone is not the solution. State-level groups and regional centers need to do a better job of attracting individual donors who are comfortable with an agenda that often can be quite partisan. They also need to cultivate allies in the business community in order to build a broader funding base. For example, by establishing connections with the local high-tech community, Dianne Stewart, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, secured new donors for the center and enlisted their help in policy advocacy. Finally, state-level progressives need stronger membership-based organizations that can be financially self-sustaining and mobilize large numbers of citizens for political action.


Bigger philanthropic investments in the states and cultivation of unlikely allies and new citizen advocates must go hand in hand with fresh strategic thinking. In particular, new strategies are needed to inject state voices into national policy debates--especially around devolution issues. Too often, federalism debates play out in an atmosphere dominated by national elites in Washington, D.C. Right-wing think tanks thrive in this arena, while state groups are often mere bystanders to debates that critically affect their communities. The welfare-reform debate in the mid-1990s was the most visible example of this.


A louder voice for state groups is badly needed to underscore the real (and often disastrous) human consequences of devolution. State organizations can bring large constituencies to the ongoing debate and help check the influence of conservative policy organizations in Washington. With a Bush presidency holding the promise of new devolution crusades, finding ways to plug state groups into national politics becomes all the more urgent.

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