The Progressive States Network (PSN) was a left-of-center organization, which included electoral groups, business associations, educational institutions, and advocacy organizations. It aimed “to transform the political landscape by supporting state legislators” and providing “strategic support in defeating rightwing movements.” PSN’s founders modeled it after the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), despite the criticism of many on the left of ALEC’s funding methods and political operations. PSN merged in 2015 with the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) and the Center for State Innovation (CSI) to form the State Innovation Exchange (SIX).
SIX sought to capitalize on its ties to the deep-pocketed, left-wing donor group Democracy Alliance and the support of then-President Barack Obama and other prominent Democratic politicians. Many of its founders and board members have ties to the Alliance, George Soros‘s Open Society Foundations (OSF), Moveon.org, True Majority, and other prominent left-of-center groups.
PSN, formerly The Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), grew out of frustration of many on the left toward Republican victories in the early 2000s. President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 exacerbated these frustrations, leading many left-of-center donors to reorient their donations away from the Democratic Party and toward left-of-center nonprofits. In 2005, Joel Barkin, veteran Democratic political operative David Sirota, and then-Montana State Senate Democratic Leader Steve Doherty created PLAN to be a progressive response to ALEC. Barkin previously served as Communications Director and Senior Adviser to self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
Sirota had served as a fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), itself an imitation of a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Sirota had also served as spokesman and press secretary for Sanders when Sanders served in the House of Representatives. Sirota expressed the need for liberals “to stop focusing exclusively on Congress and view state legislative arenas as a key battleground in building public support for a movement agenda.” Doherty gave the following as the motivation for his organizing PSN:
The realization that we were getting beat … and we didn’t have an effective tool to press our own agenda. We were just damn tired of getting kicked around.
PSN planned to “offer a war room of policy specialists” to left-of-center state legislators.
Left-Wing Allies and Projects
Several left-wing activist organizations and labor unions co-sponsored PLAN’s kickoff conference in August 2005. They included MoveOn.org, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Steelworkers, and liberal philanthropists Andy and Deborah Rappaport.
The Seattle conference featured then-Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer (D), who touted his state’s expanded smoking ban; the 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential Nominee, former U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.); CAP founder John Podesta, a close advisor of former President Bill Clinton who would later serve in the Obama White House and as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chair; and leftist law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Joel Rogers. Rogers founded the left-wing unifying group Apollo Alliance (now the BlueGreen Alliance), and, with controversial Obama White House aide Van Jones, co-founded Green for All (GFA).
In Montana, where Doherty served as Senate minority leader, groups who formed part of the PSN coalition helped defeat a referendum that would have allowed the government to return tax dollars to taxpayers if the state ran a surplus.
In 2007, PSN collaborated with MoveOn.org, True Majority, and the Women Legislators’ Lobby to ask citizens across the country to contact their representatives in Congress to express opposition to troop escalation in Iraq.
In 2009, PSN created State Legislators for Progressive Healthcare Reform. Over 1,000 state legislators signed a letter urging President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress to pass healthcare reform that would include a government-controlled “public option” and expand Medicaid.
In contrast to prominent left-of-center activists and organizations who focus almost exclusively on Washington, D.C., PSN focused on putting as many people as possible under left-wing government at the state level. PSN co-chair Garnet Coleman noted in a 2009 interview: “We all know if you want to run a national agenda—if you get it done in four states—you basically have a majority of the country.” Coleman emphasized that if Texas, California, Illinois, and New York pass the same policy, the majority of Americans would live under that policy.
PSN’s board members included John Podesta; David Brock, a liberal political consultant with close ties to the Clinton family who was serving as president and CEO of Media Matters for America; and Wes Boyd, president and co-founder of MoveOn.org.
PSN received early funding from the Rappaports’ New Progressive Coalition, a scheme for small, leftist donors, which Fred Lucas described as “a way to invest in ‘political mutual funds.’” In 2009, the Open Society Foundations issued a two-year grant to PSN of $300,000 “for its work to provide non-partisan support to state legislators” in public policy research and to link legislators and activists across state lines.”
PSN’s funding, however, failed to gain the momentum that its founders had hoped. In 2013, its best fundraising year, it received $1.3 million. After the 2010 midterm elections, Republican-controlled legislatures outnumbered Democratic-controlled legislatures by more than two to one.