Inside PSN: The 2008 Progressive States Network Annual Gala

Without the progressive movement in the states, for all intents and purposes the whole possibility of meaningful health care reform would be dead....  We will someday soon pass meaningful legislation providing health care for every single American, and it will have happened in the states, because of the Progressive States Network.     

- Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle

Last Wednesday, the Progressive States Network played host to national luminaries and state leaders from all over the country to celebrate the many victories achieved by the organization and its allies in the most recent  legislative session, and to build momentum for new victories in the coming year.

Hundreds of legislators, advocates, grassroots organizers, and members of the progressive media gathered at the National Arts Club in New York City to hear keynote speeches from former US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and New York Times Best Selling Author David Sirota.  The event also offered an in-depth look at PSN’s recently formed State Immigration Project, with Maryland State Delegate Ana Sol Guitierrez and Minnesota SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea receiving honors for their pivotal leadership in the campaign.

Additional honorees included Leo Hindery, Jr., former Chief Economic Policy Advisor to Senator John Edwards and a leading progressive businessman, who was recognized for his work on poverty and economic justice, and Hakeem Jefferies, a rising star in the New York State Assembly, who was recognized for his outstanding contributions to issues such as affordable housing.

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"Change Starts in the States"

In his opening remarks, PSN Executive Director Joel Barkin placed the current progressive moment in the states within a national and historical context:

Change seems to be the operative word in this election cycle.  But the history of change in this country has always started in the states.  Whether that’s been through the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or the labor movement, we know that states have always blazed a path for progressive reform in this country.

In the past year, PSN and our allies have worked hard to live up to this lofty legacy: adapting progressive strategy in the states to counter the recent explosion of organization inside the conservative movement and expanding the ability of legislators in different states to join forces in integrated nationwide action. 

Amidst a national media narrative of progressive change just over the horizon, a quick look at the states reveals a lot to be proud of in the here and now.  As Barkin put it, progressive change “is not just a dream, it’s happening.  And it’s happening because of the people in this room.”?

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Turning the Tide on Immigration

Out of all of the progressive victories in the states in the past year, perhaps the most resounding and timely ones have come within the pitched battle over immigration reform.  With comprehensive immigration reform stalled out in Congress, the battle over immigration, for both better and worse, has shifted to the states.  Last year, PSN and its allies got out ahead of the debate and helped turn the tide toward a new political atmosphere in which the issue no longer works as a silver bullet wedge issue for the right. 

Echoing the hope that this drive is creating in states across the country, Javier-Morillo Alisea, who has been leading SEIU Local 26’s drive to organize immigrant janitors in the Twin Cities and who played a central role in shooting down Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's slew of draconian anti-immigrant enforcement measures earlier this year, proudly proclaimed:

What many of us working in different states have been able to show is that immigration and anti-immigrant feeling as a wedge issue is only a win-win for the right wing if we let it be.  In fact, immigration has the exact same potential for dividing the right wing base, perhaps even more, when we do our job in talking about immigration as an issue about work.

Fellow honoree Ana Sol Guitierrez, a Maryland Delegate who has helped keep any anti-immigrant bill from passing committee during the 7 years of her legislative tenure, extended this hopeful sentiment, noting that progressive legislators and advocates are making ground in reclaiming the pro-immigrant side of the immigration debate as the true home of American values:

It’s very important for us to get out there and educate the American public, one, about how broken the immigration system is, and then how important it is to us as Americans to fix it.  Because what’s happening in immigration right now is really undermining and undercutting our basic American values”¦ It’s bigger than what’s happening with a raid, it’s what’s happening to our entire system of justice.

With bad legislation defeated, good bills proliferating, and efforts underway to emphasize the truly American values of upholding a fair justice system, respecting hard work, and building inclusive communities, PSN and its allies are well on their way to transforming immigration from a panic-button issue to a progressive rallying cry in the 2009 legislative session.

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Health Care Happens in the States

Another other hot-button progressive battle that has been being waged for years in the states is health care reform.  As Tom Daschle noted in his keynote address, efforts to provide health care for all have been blocked for more than a generation in Washington D.C., with the current climate ”“ in which even efforts to expand care for children are vetoed ”“ more hostile than ever to progressive reform.  In such an atmosphere it has fallen to the states to provide national leadership on health care.  As Daschle noted, "Without the progressive movement in the states, for all intents and purposes the whole possibility of meaningful health care reform would be dead."

Among the state victories cited by Sen. Daschle were policies to fund outreach clinics, expand preventative care, and increase transparency among health care providers and insurance companies.  Building on this agenda, PSN has been working to consolidate victories on affordability, transparency and consumer protections, while sewing the seeds for more ambitious comprehensive reform.

On all fronts, whether it be from expanding affordability, to placing checks on spiraling insurance rates, to solidifying kids coverage and popularizing affordability provisions, PSN is helping to diversify the options legislators pursue for incremental reform and bolstering the case for more sweeping comprehensive changes.  As Sen. Daschle reminded attendees at the gala, the gloomy picture on national health care reform looks quite a bit rosier when viewed through the lenses of state politics:

For those of you who may despair about whether it’s possible, I urge you to look at what’s happened in states all across this country with greater and greater frequency. We will someday soon pass meaningful legislation providing health care for every single American, and it will have happened in the states, because of the Progressive States Network.

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Conclusion: Winning Victories that "Can't be Won"

From immigration to healthcare, from workers rights to the environment, PSN and its allies have pushed a robust progressive reform agenda of precisely the type that D.C.’s usual suspects have long since given up for dead.  As renowned commentator Laura Flanders said on a nationally televised panel discussion with PSN board members and honorees timed to coincide with the Gala, progressive state leaders are coalescing into a united front and “winning victories of just the sort that the best paid pundits in the land tell us can’t be won.”? 

The Gala formed a unique opportunity for the progressive leaders responsible for those victories to gather and celebrate those hard-fought victories.  It also provided an important moment for the national progressive movement to pull together and assess its priorities.  As we move forward to an election cycle that has many progressives filled with hopes for “change we can believe in,”? the Annual Gala served as a healthy reminder that we look for such change not just from the Whitehouse, but also from the Statehouses, which have been delivering progressive change throughout history as they have continued to do this year and promise to do in years to come.

NOTE: Video and photos of the Gala are available on our Flickr and YouTube sites.  PSN’s segment on Laura Flanders’ GRITtv is available here.

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