President Obama’s State of the Union address pushed for a minimum wage hike, public investment in infrastructure, and expanded pre-school education, but he has “talked little about” such goals since announcing them. His attempt to highlight them in Texas last week was drowned out by media coverage of Benghazi, and likely by the media's belief that House Republicans will prevent any such measures. In light of this political reality, activists must build support for state government action on critically needed economic revitalization strategies. New York activists have recently won minimum wage hikes, and a similar effort is underway in Minnesota. California activists have a great opportunity to mobilize for economic revitalization measures as the state's fiscally conservative Democratic Governor Jerry Brown soon unveils his new budget, and grassroots budget activism should occur in all “blue” states. And while activism in "red" states may not bring success this year, it will help build the grassroots base necessary to defeat pro-austerity Republicans in 2014.


While progressives debate whether President Obama could have used his “bully pulpit” to overcome GOP opposition to reviving the nation’s economy, let’s accept that in 2013-14 activists can more effectively address economic justice measures at the state level. Because as much as progressives rail in frustration at GOP obstructionism in Congress, there is work to be done in California, Illinois, New York and other “blue” states that can do much to fulfill progressive economic goals.

Marriage equality advocates are not waiting for Congress to act; they are winning battles state by state. Similarly, instead of waiting for Congress to raise the minimum wage, we have seen state minimum wage campaigns succeed in New York and on the verge of progress in Minnesota (Democrats are split between a meager raise to $7.75 and a fairer $9.50). But as Minnesota shows, activists need to be mobilizing people to pressure Democrats, a reality obscured if not ignored by the starker blue/red division in Congress.

Austerity in California?

California should be a hotspot for progressive economic stimulus measures. The state has no Republicans holding statewide office and Democrats have a 2/3 veto-proof majority in the State Legislature. Given the political power of labor and Latinos in the state, this should mean that a progressive economic agenda is quickly moving through the Legislature to help revitalize California’s economy.

Well, not so fast. Because while California progressives are busy railing against House Republicans, they are overlooking that their own Democratic Governor is not on board with an economic revitalization agenda.

Long a fiscal conservative --his refusal to spend a huge state budget surplus contributed to the passage of Prop 13 in his first term as Governor—Brown is already opposing Democratic legislative efforts to inject new money into the state’s faltering health care system. Brown is consistently preaching “budget restraint” despite the state’s stronger than expected revenue growth.

In February, I described Brown’s refusal to acknowledge the need for state government to build more affordable housing. Such housing construction creates jobs and is one of the best economic development strategies, yet Brown is reluctant if not fully opposed to investing money in this vital human need.

Brown introduces his “May revise” budget on Tuesday. Expectations are that he will not inject the money necessary to meaningfully revive the state’s employment numbers.

Brown figures he can take a more conservative approach and then wait to see if activists force him to expand it. We saw from the process that led to last November’s Prop 30 (the income tax hike) that when progressives mobilize behind their own agenda, Brown is forced to move left.

Had not the California Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, ACCE and other groups not promoted a “Millionaire’s Tax” as an alternative to Brown’s measure, Prop 30 would have been far less progressive and raised too little revenue for too short a period. The compromise on Prop 30 was a huge progressive victory, and provides a model for how activists in California and other states must deal with their Democratic Party political “allies.”

Flexible Activism


The current political environment shows that activists must be flexible in choosing which political arenas are most open to their goals. Opportunities for state government to enact progressive economic measures are there for the taking, but are not being seized due to a lack of grassroots pressure that is connected to the exclusive focus on federal action.

While federal battles to save Social Security and prevent Obama from making new bad budget deals must be fought, activists in the current economic crisis cannot stay on the defensive. Progressives are doing well nationally on the immigration reform policy fight, but economic justice laws will not be passed by Congress this year or next.

Progressives who remain disappointed at the lack of economic populist measures when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House in 2009-10 should not repeat past mistakes. Activists must mobilize for economic revitalization at the state level, and with many states starting the budget process, the time is now.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century