Democrats have watched with alarm as Republicans took over state legislatures and used them to dismantle federal policies like President Barack Obama's healthcare law in attacks coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.
"We've ceded the states, in terms of policy and politics, to Republicans for a full generation now," said Democratic strategist Nick Rathod, a former White House liaison to the states for Obama.
On Thursday, state-level Democrats will meet their party's answer to ALEC. The State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, is convening for the first time at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. It's part legislative mixer, part progressive pep rally. Rathod, the group's founder and director, wants to build for Democrats a library of "model policy" like Republicans have through ALEC.
Another goal is to give Democrats the confidence to be more progressive, said Adam Green, an adviser to SiX and co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Polling shows there's no tension between great progressive ideas and what voters want," he said. He'll give a presentation to that effect at the SiX conference, highlighting the popularity of making college more affordable and expanding Social Security and Medicaid.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive darling despite his independent affiliation, and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland are scheduled to welcome the group Thursday night in a joint reception with the Center for American Progress, a policy shop started by White House senior adviser John Podesta and where Strickland now works. Rathod said about 200 state lawmakers will attend SiX over three days. The agenda includes panels on the minimum wage, renewable energy and criminal sentencing reform. Jerry Abramson, the White House director of governmental affairs, will give a briefing, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez will speak to the group on Friday. Labor unions and environmental groups are participating in various panels.
The SiX confab comes a week after Republican state lawmakers were in D.C. for an ALEC summit. At that, corporate lobbyists and influence groups mixed and mingled with legislators; company dues of up to $25,000 help pay for ALEC conferences. At this point, SiX doesn't have corporate buy-in--although Rathod said he's not opposed to it. "I can see us working with businesses that are doing right by the environment and their workers," he said. For now, he's asking foundations and big Democratic donors to foot SiX's bill and hopes to raise $10 million (ALEC's 2013 revenue was $7.3 million).
Rathod won over David desJardins, an early Google employee and Democratic donor who declined to say exactly how much he gave SiX. "There's so much paralysis in D.C. Meanwhile, at the state level, there are 50 different opportunities to make some progress," he said. "Often, legislators are part-time and don't have enough resources. The goal is to empower them by helping them to collaborate."
Democrats have made half-hearted attempts at state policy networks in the past; SiX is actually a new name for three existing groups. But with Congress at a standstill and progressive ideas going nowhere fast under the incoming Republican-led Senate, it has only recently sunk in just how much action will be at the state level. "It's not a real natural fit for us," Rathod said, explaining why there's been no major Democratic answer to ALEC. "Conservatives believe in states' rights, so it makes sense that they would devote a lot of energy to that cause. Our funders and politicos are coming around to orienting themselves to the states. We have to."
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, a quote from Nick Rathod should have referred to “funders,” not “founders.”