by Amanda Terkel, Huffington Post , November 10, 2011
WASHINGTON -- Two days after voters soundly rejected many high-profile right-wing ballot initiatives, a group of progressive state legislators are meeting in Baltimore, Md., to share success stories and figure out how to move forward in 2012.
More than 60 state legislators are gathering for the invite-only leadership retreat hosted by the Progressive States Network, a group providing research, networking, policy and messaging support to progressive lawmakers at the state level.
On the conference agenda are sessions on labor, immigration, health care, infrastructure, the economy and "turning the tide in 2012."
"It's an opportunity for left-of-center progressive legislators at the state level to get together, share stories and share legislation they've been working on," said Ohio state Rep. Mike Foley (D), who will be speaking at the conference about "leading effectively from the minority and bolstering progressive infrastructure," according to the conference agenda.
"We've got a good progressive caucus in Ohio, but it's hard to have any context for what we're doing, especially in a conservative legislature," he added. "It's good to get reports from other states about what's happening in Wisconsin, what's happening in Indiana, what's happening in Nebraska, Minnesota, wherever folks are coming from."
There are certainly quite a few progressive legislators in the minority. After the 2010 elections, the Republican Party gained control of 53 percent of the state legislative seats in the country, the most it has had since 1928.
PSN formed in 2005 as an effort to counter the infrastructure that had built up on the right. In particular, there is the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which started in 1973 and has since been heavily criticized by the left for pushing policies that benefit the interests of its corporate donors. ALEC did not return a request for comment.
Ann Pratt, executive director of PSN, told The Huffington Post that neither PSN nor its affiliated advocacy group take money from corporations. Most of their funding comes from private, nonprofit foundations.
"The organization was created to provide an alternative resource -- in terms of policy development, messaging, polling and support for state legislators -- that would allow state legislators to understand that there were many different options available for them. That was very different than what was being proposed by ALEC," said Pratt.
Pratt, who has been with the organization since March, said she believes PSN has been very successful in countering right-wing legislation, pointing to successes in stopping anti-immigrant laws from being implemented in other states after Arizona. (Alabama, however, recently passed a law even stricter than Arizona's.)
But the organization is also not designed to exactly mirror ALEC, argued Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser (D), secretary of PSN's board.
"I don't think we're into a marching-order kind of approach," she said, adding, "There's commonality of interests, but I don't think we have the kind of boiler plate talking point approach that you might see at ALEC."
Pratt acknowledged that progressives still have far to go to counter ALEC, but argued that the ballot victories on Tuesday show the tide could be turning.
"I also believe that given what has just happened in Ohio, given the ... opposition to the enormous inequities that are around the country, we are at a historic moment in which the legislators have the capacity to capture that movement that is now growing in our country so strongly. We ... see state legislators as the laboratory for innovation, for change, and for actually turning the Occupy Wall Street anger into some solutions that we can actually govern with, and again, at the state level is where there is that capacity."
The Occupy protests -- in addition to the successful election wins in Ohio, Maine and Mississippi -- were on the front of state legislators' minds as they geared up for the conference, which launched today and ends Saturday.
"I think that our convening just days after this Ohio victory will really enrich our discussion, because there will be a lot of lessons to draw from this most recent development," said Georgia State Sen. Nan Orrock (D), who is on PSN's board.
"The Occupy Wall Street movement is helping focus attention on the wealth gap. ... I think that we're seeing a real shift in consciousness and awareness, where people are feeling emboldened to stand up," she added.
Iowa state Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D), the chair of PSN's board of directors, argued that the outcome of the 2012 elections will depend in large part on how progressives are able to harness the energy and frustrations embodied by many of the protests going on around the country.
"I think there is a movement that is emerging that really draws attention to this economic injustice that's happened across this economy," he said. "People are just as angry that are showing up for these demonstrations around the Occupy movement about how this economy is performing, but I think they are willing to assign some of the blame to the wealthy and the big corporations that have essentially fixed this system through the political process to have it all their way."
"The question about what 2012 will look like," Bolkcom added, "depends to some degree on how this movement solidifies working families and middle-class Americans to become engaged in it."