Democratic mid-term gains affecting policy
By Staff Writer, Stateline
Some of this had to do with the Democratic tide in the election, some with candidate recruitment and local issues, and some with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's efforts to boost state party organizations in all 50 states. It certainly contrasted sharply with how the Republicans did last year: The GOP gained ground in only seven chambers spread across five states.
Yet even these modest gains are translating into policy achievements. "At the state legislative level more than any other, progress counts, even if you don't flip the chamber," said Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
In Wyoming,- where the Democrats are distinctly a minority party even though Democrat Dave Freudenthal is governor, two new female legislators made a difference in the most recent session.
Liz Gentile won back a seat in 2006 that she had lost two years earlier, thanks to her opponent's vote in committee to block Democratic efforts to permanently remove the sales tax from groceries, said Kyle DeBeer, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party. Though the issue had been debated since the mid-1970s, the Democratic gains of 2006 finally helped the measure pass this year.
Another Democratic freshman - Cheyenne surgical technician Lori Millin, a working mother with children - helped craft a compromise on expanding child care as well as legislation on banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles. Both measures passed despite being stymied in previous sessions, DeBeer said.
Democratic gains in South Dakota also had an effect, coming on the heels of passage of a stringent anti-abortion law that energized Democrats and moderate Republicans across the state. (The voters overturned the abortion law in a ballot measure on Election Day.) "Abortion disappeared. Sex education disappeared. The right wing basically sat the session out," said Sioux Falls-based Democratic activist Todd Epp.
The coalition was able to block a proposed bar on benefits for same-sex partners of public employees and pass a modest increase in support for children's health care.
In the Texas House, a small cadre of Democrats held crucial leverage in keeping embattled state House Speaker Tom Craddick in office - and they reaped legislative dividends, such as loosened eligibility requirements for a children's health insurance program and an end to active consideration of school vouchers, political observers in Austin said.
And in North Dakota, legislators passed a modest minimum wage increase and approved a long-stalled repeal of a law that makes co-habitation illegal. They also drove reform of a troubled state workers compensation agency, limited state tuition increases and stymied a GOP-proposed property tax reform plan.
Of course, not every state with modest Democratic gains in 2006 saw a turn to the left.
In Idaho, the Democrats' legislative gains came at the expense of moderate Republicans, mostly around Boise. "With the loss of this balance, the more hardened right took greater control of the House, including leadership," said one Republican in the state. "So it had an impact, but just the reverse of what some would have thought."
Randy Stapilus, a publisher who writes frequently about politics in Idaho, agreed, saying that "Democratic numbers, at about a quarter of the chamber, still are too small to substantially affect policy unless the Republicans are deeply split, which they weren't often this session."
Despite such exceptions, legislature-watchers agree that even small gains for Democrats have had an influence in unfriendly territory.
"Even in red states, they're looking for opportunities to enact some 'blue' legislation, either because of the infusion of new Democrats or to protect themselves in the next election," said Bernie Horn, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Policy Alternatives, which encourages liberal policies at the state level. "It's unusual - definitely better than in past cycles."