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New Organization to Push Liberal Measures In State Legislatures

“In 2005 and 2006, it will be essential for progressives to build at the state level,” Horn said. “Just about anything people dream about doing on Capitol Hill is being done in some form in the states. Some day, when progressives get power back on the Hill, they’re going to look for policy that works.”

An Incursion Into Red States

Skeptics, of course, suggest that liberal ideas are unlikely to find much support these days in red states. But that argument ignores some recent policies that won significant crossover support in theoretically unfriendly territory, often by playing off populist sentiments.

In 2004, voters in Florida and Nevada easily approved a hike in the statewide minimum wage even while pulling the lever for President Bush. Measures to combat high prices for prescription drugs have taken off in a number of states, including red ones. And on the local level, Sirota said, many communities have voted to condemn all or part of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Even when the statewide odds look grim, state-based efforts can help a party gain seats incrementally in the Legislature, noted Jeff Wice, a longtime counsel to New York legislative Democrats.

So can PLAN make a difference? Some veterans of the state legislative scene warn against irrational exuberance.

For starters, the world of state legislatures is no longer an undiscovered backwater. Each party now funds its own campaign arm for legislative races, and state lawmakers are wooed by independent groups ranging from ALEC on the right to the National Conference of State Legislatures in the center to CPA on the left, plus a variety of single-issue groups.

“Both parties are putting a lot more into it than they were 10 years ago, and both are better at it,” said William Pound, NCSL’s executive director.

What worries some left-of-center observers is that PLAN may be somewhat redundant. The Center for Policy Alternatives, with a $2 million budget and a staff of 11, already counts 2,000 legislators in its network and offers 100 model bills on its Web site, a variety of which have passed statewide. It also provided training that helped boost the state legislative careers of Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

While PLAN’s co-founders say their group is setting up a 501(c)(4) arm that will enable it to do political work — something the more think-tanky CPA doesn’t do — some liberal activists suggest privately that the time, effort and money spent on establishing PLAN might have been better spent tilling different soil.

“It troubles me that they may be reinventing the wheel,” said one liberal activist who isn’t connected to either PLAN or CPA. (For the record, Horn has accepted an invitation to moderate a panel discussion at PLAN’s Aug. 16 launch event in Seattle, and both Sirota and Doherty, who has worked extensively with CPA over the years, praise CPA.)

Another obstacle for PLAN could come from Democratic legislators themselves.

While Doherty jokes that “progressives don’t take orders quite as well as conservatives do,” the potential misfit goes beyond that, said Michael Davies, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s executive director.

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