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National

Democrats Take Opposition Fight To The States

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

With Republicans solidly in control in Washington and in more than 30 state legislatures, what's the opposition to do? Democrats are looking for new fronts from which to fight, and one is at the state level. The State Innovation Exchange is pursuing a liberal agenda in statehouses across the country. Their approach mirrors efforts by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council called ALEC, which has been active and successful for years. Nick Rathod is executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX. He joins us now in our studios. Welcome to our program.

NICK RATHOD: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in American politics, I think we tend to think of conservatives as pushing for reforms in state legislatures, trying to, you know, act locally and liberals working in Washington on federal regulations because that's a bigger picture. You're hoping to back that federal effort up and start over. Is that what you're doing?

RATHOD: Yeah. Our theory of change is to flip that on its head for progressives. So conservatives have traditionally had this view that they want to build and invest and focus at the state level where progressives and Democrats have really centralized and tried try to build their power in Washington, D.C. And I think that that theory has had negative implications for and negative consequences for Democrats and progressives across the country.

WERTHEIMER: So if you're going to go to work in the states, what states?

RATHOD: We actually have a 50-state view on this. Our group does not think that you can just write off whole swaths of the country. You look now after the election, Kentucky, the House there lost Democratic control. And after that, we no longer, as progressives, have one state legislative chamber in the entire South. You can probably count on one hand the number of state-level elected officials in the entire South. And that's because of neglect, and it's not that progressive ideas can't flourish there. It's not that there's progressive-minded people there. It's just that we've ignored it and that I think that it's time to refocus and rebuild in every state across the country.

WERTHEIMER: So I guess you really have no choice but to go to work with red state legislatures in the southern states. What would you do in that sort of setting?

RATHOD: Let's have some debates about policies and see where things shake out. I think one of the things that progressives have done back to the theory is that we try to pass big pieces of legislation here in D.C. and then educate everyone on the back end where conservatives have developed policies that are tailored to local communities and then have the conversation and build narratives around what that means for people. I mean, I grew up in Nebraska, and when I talk with my conservative friends there, we're pretty close on a lot of the issues. But the thing is that we just haven't ever really sat down and talked to people about what it - what equal pay actually means. You know, do you care whether your daughter gets paid the same as your son? I think most people would say yeah. Do you care that people have a living wage, that people who are playing by the rules, working hard, I think people would say yes to that. Let's have those conversations locally, and let's shake out who is actually fighting for those things.

WERTHEIMER: This sounds very long term to me.

RATHOD: (Laughter) You know, it is a long-term play. If you look at - conservatives have been investing in this strategy really for about 40 years. And they now bear the fruits of that. And, you know, I think we can win on some things in the short term, but if you want to actually build power, sustain power, I think it is a long-term view that you have to take.

WERTHEIMER: Nick Rathod is executive director of the State Innovation Exchange. Thank you very much.

RATHOD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.