On Abortion, State Democrats Take the Fight to the GOP – Rolling Stone

There are 7,386 state legislators in the United States of America. Together, they are responsible for more discretionary spending each year than the entire federal government. They are also, for the most part, complete novices: inexperienced part-time elected officials, grossly underpaid and understaffed, vastly outnumbered by armies of lobbyists whose sole purpose is to influence them.

Jessie Ulibarri represented Colorado Senate district 21 from 2012 to 2016. “I’m one of 100 state legislators: there are 35 senators, 65 house reps, and there are 600 registered lobbyists,” she said. 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 with no benefits. At the time, he represented 150,000 constituents in a high-poverty district. “I have people asking for support to get Medicaid, or housing assistance, or SNAP – with a part time staff.”

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 into this broken system, designed to take advantage of legislators’ lack of time, resources and experience. Such organizations have existed for decades, but only in 2022 did American women feel the full force of their power. In June, when the Supreme Court was withdrawn Roe v. Wade22 million women of reproductive age – roughly one-third of American women – have lost access to abortion in their home states thanks in large part to model bills passed by legislatures that dominated by the Republic in the last decade.

“The key to American politics is really at the state and local level, and Republicans have known this for a generation, and they’ve been investing at that level ever since,” Nick Rathod said. In 2014, Rathod, who was Barack Obama’s liaison to the states at the time, helped lead the merger of two Democratic organizations to form the State Innovation Exchange or SiX, the Democratic answer to the most popular of conservatives. bill mill, the ALEC.

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At the time, Rathod said, “there was no real infrastructure or investment in infrastructure, at the state and local level by Democrats and progressives.” With the support 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 an increase of $7.7 million in contributions; SiX reported $8.6 million. But Rathod, who left the organization in 2017, understood the challenge of competing with the vast Republican machine at work at the state level — a complex network of think tanks and advocacy groups and bill mills and laws. firm, each with its own complimentary functions. “They have a really well-aligned set of organizations that all provide complementary work to each other that we just don’t have on the left,” Rathod said. “You’re probably going to need hundreds of millions of dollars to really be competitive.”

The fixation of democratic megadonors on national politics has left state politically oriented organizations underfunded compared to their counterparts. But fundamental philosophical differences also keep Democrats from mounting a monolithic, bill-fueled response to the Republican onslaught. SiX, for example, founded as a liberal law factory, got 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 like McDonald’s: it’s really unhealthy, you get it on demand, you get the cheeseburger. You don’t do anything in the cooking. When people wanted to have SiX, they said: ‘just be a Burger King’.” .. But that is not healthy for our democracy.

Instead, says Ulibarri, “We’re more like HelloFresh. Ingredients and process matter.”

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SiX has done away with the model law library that Democratic lawmakers used to be able to consult. “It’s not a good strategy because we want people to take legislation – take this shortcut – and then they introduce legislation that’s two years behind where their state is. Or they introduce something [with a] provision for access that is not considered a whole community does not have it.”

It is an approach based on the idea of ​​building consensus and creating buy-in from as many constituencies as possible and ensuring that no one group is harmed by any particular policy. And it certainly is no the raw-power warpath Republicans began to dominate at the state level.

Ulibarri and her co-executive director, Neha Patel, understand that some may wonder if this puts Democrats at a disadvantage, especially now, when the stakes are so high for women across the country. But they stand firmly behind the approach. “There is no silver bullet, you have to do the hard work of democracy,” Ulibarri said.

In November, Democrats fell short of the majority they would need to codify Roe at the federal level, but for the first time in years there was good news for the party at the state level. It was the first election cycle since 1934 that a sitting president did not lose a legislative chamber. But that’s not 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 made new trifectas in Massachusetts and Maryland.

Last week, Democratic lawmakers from around the country gathered in a warren of windowless conference rooms four stories below a gleaming DC hotel-conference center complex at SiX’s first annual conference in four years. to compare notes on the work ahead of them in the next legislature. sessions. And it’s clear that, in the absence of federal protections, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for Democrats.

In states like Illinois, where Democrats have large majorities and reproductive rights are protected, lawmakers are looking for ways to support abortion providers who move into the state and expand access to 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 law 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 within 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 women. people.

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It’s just that: The SiX strategy — which can be dismissed as idealistic or even naïve in the abstract — is really the only strategy Democrats can take in this fractured environment. That’s not much comfort for women who live in states with bad abortion laws.

“Even though nothing is politically possible in terms of passing a bill, there are champions in all 50 states,” Patel said. If those people are resourceful 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 years old when Colorado became a hate state, one of the most anti-LGBT places in the country by passing a legal right to discriminate,” he said. “As a strange child, growing up in that environment, for me, it seemed impossible for me to have the life I have now… [I] marriage equality was never known to happen. But I ended up in the Senate chamber when we passed civil unions and then became the first queer couple in Colorado to get married.”

“I’m a little 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 an absolutely impossible life.”


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