There are 7,386 state lawmakers in the United States of America. Together, they’re responsible for more discretionary spending each year than the entire federal government. They are also, for the most part, total amateurs: inexperienced part-time elected officials, woefully underpaid and understaffed, vastly outnumbered by armies of lobbyists whose only objective is to influence them.
Jessie Ulibarri represented Colorado Senate district 21 from 2012 to 2016. “I was one of 100 state legislators: there were 35 senators, 65 house reps, and there were 600 registered lobbyists,” he says. Ulibarri’s office consisted of himself (paid a salary of $20,000 a year), and a single part-time staffer, who worked 20 hours a week for $11 an hour without benefits. At the time, he represented 150,000 constituents in a high-poverty district. “I had folks asking for support to get Medicaid, or housing assistance, or SNAP — with one part time staffer.”
Predictably, an entire industry of “bill mills” — organizations that draft and distribute ready-made bills that lawmakers can introduce with as little effort as possible — has matured around this broken system, designed to exploit lawmakers’ of lack of time, resources and experience. Such organizations have existed for decades, but it wasn’t until 2022 that American women felt the full force of their power. In June, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 22 million women of reproductive age — roughly one third of female Americans — lost the ability to access abortion in their home states thanks in large part to model bills passed by Republican-dominated legislatures in the last decade.
“The key to American politics is actually at the state and local level, and Republicans have known this for a generation, and they have been investing at that level since,” Nick Rathod says. In 2014, Rathod, who was Barack Obama’s liaison to the states at the time, helped lead the consolidation of two Democratic organizations to form the State Innovation Exchange or SiX, the Democratic answer to the most famous of the conservative bill mills, ALEC.
At the time, Rathod says, “there just was no real infrastructure or an investment in infrastructure, at the state and local level by Democrats and progressives.” With the backing of the Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal donors that includes billionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer, SiX began playing catch up.
Eight years later SiX has grown to rival ALEC — at least in terms of contributions. In 2020, according to tax filings, ALEC reported raising $7.7 million in contributions; SiX reported $8.6 million. But Rathod, who left the organization in 2017, has come to understand just how vast the challenge of competing with the sprawling Republican machine working at the state level — an intricate network of think tanks and advocacy groups and bill mills and law firms, each with its own complimentary functions. “They have this really well-aligned set of organizations that all provide complimentary work to one another that we just don’t have on the left,” Rathod says. “It’s probably hundreds of millions of dollars that you would need to really, really be to really be competitive.”
Democratic megadonors’ fixation on national politics has left organizations that are focused on state politics underfunded relative to their counterparts. But fundamental philosophical differences have also kept Democrats from mounting a monolithic, bill mill-fueled response to the Republican onslaught. SiX, for example, founded as the liberal legislation factory, has gotten out of the bill mill business. The organization no longer offers model legislation to lawmakers.
Jessie Ulibarri, now the co-executive director of SiX, defends the decision to stop trying to be ‘the liberal answer to ALEC.’ “They have a system that’s like McDonald’s: really unhealthy, you get it on demand, you get the cheeseburger. You don’t do any of the cooking. When folks wanted SiX to come about, they said: ‘just be Burger King’ … But that is fundamentally unhealthy for our democracy.”
Instead, Ulibarri says, “We’re more like HelloFresh. The ingredients and the process matter.”
SiX has done away with the model legislation library that Democratic lawmakers used to be able to consult. “It was not a good approach because we would have folks take legislation — take this shortcut — and then they would introduce legislation that was two years behind where their state is. Or they would introduce something [with a] provision for access that didn’t consider an entire community didn’t have it.”
It’s a approach predicated on the idea of building consensus and creating buy-in from as many constituencies as possible and ensuring no one group is harmed by any particular policy. And it is decidedly not the raw-power warpath Republicans took on their way to dominating at the state level.
Ulibarri and his co-executive director, Neha Patel, understand that some may wonder if that puts Democrats at a disadvantage, especially today, with the stakes so high for women around the country. But they stand firmly behind the approach. “There is no silver bullet, you have to do the hard work of democracy,” Ulibarri says.
In November, Democrats fell short of majorities they would have needed to codify Roe at the federal level, but for the first time in many years there was good news for the party at the state level. It was the first election cycle since 1934 that a sitting president didn’t lose a single legislative chamber. But that wasn’t all: Democrats flipped the Minnesota state senate and Pennsylvania state house, won control of both houses in Michigan for the first time since 1984, and minted new trifectas in Massachusetts and Maryland.
Last week, Democratic lawmakers from around the country gathered in a warren of windowless conference rooms four stories beneath a gleaming D.C. hotel-conference center complex at SiX’s first annual conference in four years to compare notes on the work they have ahead of them this next legislative session. And it’s clear that, in the absence of federal protections, there is not a one-size fits all approach for Democrats to take.
In states like Illinois, where Democrats have a wide majority and reproductive rights have been protected, lawmakers are looking for ways to support abortion providers who are relocating to the state and expand access by placing Plan B vending machines on college campuses. In Minnesota, where Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate, lawmakers are looking to change the language of an existing abortion statute that has been ruled unconstitutional, but remains on the books. And, in Florida, a state with a 15-week ban surrounded by states that ban abortion at 6 weeks, where Democratic lawmakers are in the minority, they are still looking to use their votes to expand access to Medicaid and Medicare for women and pregnant people.
All that is to say: SiX’s approach — which could be dismissed as idealistic or even naive in the abstract — is actually the only approach Democrats can take in this fractured environment. That is not much comfort to women who live in states with hostile abortion laws.
“Even when there isn’t something politically possible in terms of a bill passing, there are champions in all 50 states,” Patel says. If those people are resourced and organized, Patel says, they can start a conversation that at least introduces the idea that change is possible.
Ulibarri understands that on a fundamental level.
“I was nine when Colorado became a hate state, one of the most anti-LGBT places in the country by passing a legal right to discriminate,” he says. “As a queer kid, growing up in that environment, it was, for me, it felt impossible that I would have the life I have today… [I] did not know that marriage equality would happen. But I got to be in the Senate chamber when we passed civil unions and then became the first queer couple in Colorado to be married.”
“I’m a bit of living proof that when people step up, and they show up, and they run for office, and they fight like hell, you can live a completely impossible life.”
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