Former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis remains a titan to many in the legal community some 70 years after serving on the nation's highest court. His passionate defenses of privacy and free speech and his dedication to public causes led one magazine of his era to label him the "Robin Hood of the law."
But to state lawmakers, Brandeis's true value lies in his understanding and, more importantly, his recognition of what they do. He challenged the majority of the court in a 1932 case when he argued that government could control business activity for the public welfare.
The quote from his dissent remains tacked on the wall of many a state legislator's office: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."
The thought that state lawmakers could serve as so-called "laboratories" for the federal government was the guiding principle behind the progressive groups that won control of Colorado's General Assembly and who now have set their eyes and goals on chambers around the country.
The states were where policy victories were won and lost. On issues like education, health care, economic development, transportation, welfare, and numerous others, state lawmakers have long asserted they are not mad scientists to be dismissed but rather political pioneers blazing a trail for their counterparts in Congress.
Tim Gill, a software entrepreneur and one of the primary funders of the Democratic takeover in Colorado, began to understand that in the spring in 2004. He had given to national political groups and national politicians in the past, but his transformation began when he attended his first State Capitol hearing on a Republican representative's measure to ban a "school district from providing instruction relating to sexual lifestyles that are alternative to heterosexual relationships, except in the context of instruction concerning the risk and prevention of sexually transmitted disease."
When the openly gay multi-millionaire walked out of the committee late that afternoon, he told a Democratic representative, "Somebody's gotta go."
Millions of dollars and a comprehensive strategy later, many Republican state lawmakers have gone.
Lawmakers like Rep. J. A. "Doc" Hines. A veteran of World War II, the father of five was the oldest member of the Wisconsin Legislature. He was a veterinarian, a farmer, and a bed-and-breakfast owner in central Wisconsin. His district had been held by a Republican for more than four decades, two of those belonging to former governor and U. S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. It had been as reliably red as the outfit of Bucky Badger, the mascot at the state's central university.
But Hines was quoted in his local paper as saying he was against gay marriage, so he had to go. The following election, his Democratic opponent received the maximum allowable donation from places like Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; San Francisco, California; and dozens of other locations around the country. The contributions were coordinated by Tim Gill and his advisers.
Hines would be routed in November.
One of Gill's advisers, Ted Trimpa, dismissed the past tendency of big donors to focus on high-profile races. He described it to the Atlantic magazine as "glamour giving" and argued that, "the temptation is always to swoon for the popular candidate, but a fraction of that money, directed at the right state and local races, could have flipped a few [state legislative] chambers."
As Gill himself told a crowd at the Democratic National Convention held in Denver in 2008, "Every single advancement in gay rights has been made at the state level. There is no example of something that was done at the federal level and then the states went, 'Gosh! We should've done that!'
"So the most important thing I'm going to tell you that you can do is not what you're doing here [at the DNC] this week. This week is fun, it's important, but what is the very most important thing you can do is go back and support those pro-gay state legislators. Eliminate the anti-gay state legislators."
To those who would criticize Gill for ignoring the power of Congress, he cited Marilyn Musgrave, a then-sitting U. S. Representative from Colorado who sponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have codified a ban on gay marriage in the U. S. Constitution. By shaping state legislatures, he argued, he could change the composition of future Congresses — at a fraction of the cost.
"Marilyn Musgrave started on the school board," Gill told Robert Frank, author of Richistan. "She would have been much cheaper to nuke when she was on the school board or even when she was in the legislature. We need to be vigilant and find politicians who are bad and stop them when it's cheap rather than allowing them to get into an expensive position."
Tim Gill's donor network directly aided in the election of more than 50 Democratic state legislators nationwide. Even more importantly, they were key factors in Democratic takeovers in the house and senate in Iowa as well as the state houses in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Oregon.
The political paths of those states have been altered. Those so-called laboratories will now create different policies on a wide array of economic and social issues than they would have under Republican control.
And this fall, 44 states with more than one Congressional seat will re-draw their boundaries after getting population estimates from the U. S. Census. It's called redistricting and is arguably the single most political activity to take place every decade in state capitols around the country. Republican-controlled legislatures tend to create districts favorable to Republicans. Democratic-controlled legislatures do likewise.
Karl Rove pointed out in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal that Republicans gained anywhere from 25-30 seats after the 1990 Census. He asserted that without that, the Contract with America does not lead to a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
"These days it doesn't take 25 years for a political transformation — it can take just a cycle or two to change a state dramatically," said Julaine Appling, who is the head of the conservative Wisconsin Family Action organization. "What happened in Colorado should put people on alert that a state's political leadership can be radically changed in a very short time."
Coming up tomorrow: what it all means to you.