The 1960s occasioned massive involvement of student, civil rights, anti-war and other activists, mobilized in demonstrations and marches, protest.  Less remarked is the movement of many of these activists to more institutionalized situations, more characteristic of the 1970s. [1] One result was the emergence of radical or at least innovative approaches to government at state and local levels,  and a window on to their detailed histories is afforded by the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies (CASLP), established in 1975. [ See several ITEMS described in this post at http://hdl.handle.net/1813/40499 ]

Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies

This is notable today, given current assaults on the role of government in society. The Conference was the initiative of Lee Webb, a former student activist from a lower middle class background in suburban Boston. Webb went to Boston University in the early 1960s, soon joined a support group for the North Carolina civil rights sit-ins.  Later, after an appearance by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer Tom Hayden, he became a part of an informal SDS group in the area: he found it a ‘profoundly intellectual and academic experience, . . .just an exciting intellectual community to be involved with.” [2]

After graduation in “movement” jobs and journalism in Washington and Chicago, by 1970 he moved to Vermont where he began working with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG),  on projects like a capital gains tax  on land transfers, and a utilities lifeline bill.

What launched Webb into national networks again, was a measure to provide dental care to low income children, a big problem, it turned out, beyond Vermont as well.  It was very common, he learned, for children to have all their teeth removed and replaced with false teeth “as a way of really helping a kid get a start in the world.”  Webb talked with persons he had met around the legislature, and they came up with a bill that would give dental care to children below six years old, paid for by the state, where the reimbursement was on a sliding scale so that for families at the bottom of the scale the state would pay the full cost; with diminishing portions paid up to incomes of $30,000. “So we were able to argue that this was going to help 85 percent of the people, and it was paid for by a tax on candy and vending machines. They got support from low income and other groups, and from the dentists. The governor attacked them as do-gooders, and said “Who do you think you are, the tooth fairy?” They called it the tooth fairy bill, it passed, and soon was reported  nationwide. Webb began to get requests for copies of the bill, and repeated the experience with other issues and legislation. Soon he began asking people in other states whether they had any bills they could use in Vermont.

For Webb, this was a transforming experience.  As he discovered other activists’ similar involvements around the nation he thought of bringing them together; this was the germ from which emerged the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies.  He had connected with allies through his earlier Washington and SDS contacts, and through the Institute for Policy Studies in DC.  One of the first people he spoke with was Derek Shearer, at the time a Boston based journalist recently associated with that city’s alternative newspaper, the Boston Phoenix .  Eventually Webb sought foundation support for the activity:  “I don’t know the actual progression here. But I remember sitting in my office in Vermont, sitting down and writing a proposal to a foundation—and sending it to Arch Gillies and David Hunter, and two our three other foundations, . . . [3]

This was the start of the Conference, which developed in a series of steps in 1974 and 1975:

First, the foundations responded with a series of smallish grants:

And Arch Gillies called me back a week or two later and said “I think it’s a great idea. I’m going to give you ten thousand dollars.”  And then David Hunter called and said, “Will you come down and speak to the Stern Family Board in New Orleans, and then a couple of weeks later I got a call from him saying I got $35,000 from them; and then I got a call two weeks later saying I had gotten $20 or 30 or 40 thousand from Mary Ann Mott-Benet; and then five or ten thousand dollars from the Ottinger Foundation. So there I was sitting on $110 or 120 thousand dollars, or some number like that, which was an enormous amount of money at that time. [4]

Webb remembered interest in his ideas at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS),  where he had retained an association since his student days in the 1960s, and he had the grants lodged there. IPS assigned a volunteer staff person, Barbara Bick, to the projects. Webb began to commute from Vermont. Early discussions included IPS director Marcus Raskin, Robb Burlage, Bick, and Shearer who, as a free lance journalist had similar contacts around the country. Bick said:

We began looking at some of our networks from the sixties and where people were at. We found that those people who were in elected office were feeling very isolated. But, we were interested in finding out how many people who were products of the 60’s movement were going into electoral politics and if this was more than just a handful of isolated individuals.

So we sent out questionaires to our lists; to Nader groups and others. . . Lee and Robb went traveling asking around for who were populist, progressive, socialist, innovative, open-minded, locally-elected officials. Because it became clear, early on, that something was happening out there that wasn’t reflected in Washington. And there was this pouring in of mail – “. . . there’s this terrific guy, or this wonderful young woman has just been elected.”  [5]

By the end of 1974 the group had fixed on the idea of creating publications and having conferences: Webb and Shearer were travelling around and writing for ideas: “memos, bills, ordinances, proposals, studies and articles.“ [6]

They found a rich variety of activists, ideas, documents. Key sources were mayors like Paul Soglin (Madison, WI), Jeff Friedman (Austin); state legislators like Perry Bullard (Michigan); and officials like Sam Brown, newly elected Colorado Treasurer; city council members like Loni Hancock (Berkeley); and city or state legislative staff people like David Smith (Massachusetts), Jim Rowen (Madison).

In the process of collecting these items, Shearer and Webb found strong interest in meeting: Madison Mayor Paul Soglin offered to host the first general meeting in the summer of 1975, occasioning the first Conference Reader edited by Webb and Shearer.

Conferences

By early 1975 they had fixed on Madison, Wisconsin as a site for a first national conference. Paul Soglin, who had won re-election to a second term as mayor there, agreed to host the conference, getting space from the University of Wisconsin.  Through IPS Webb and Bick put out a call for a June date, for which he and Shearer collected their documents in a “Reader on Public Policy” to be distributed to those registering. A post-conference Report indicated over 150 registrants. [7]

Several hundred persons attended, coming from places as far as Maine, Alaska, Mississippi and Texas.  That this was not to be a one shot affair was clear when attendees resolved to put on regional conferences and a national meeting the next year in  Austin, Texas. The regional conferences took place in 1975 and 1976 in Madison, San Antonio, Hartford, and Amherst, and in Sacramento and Santa Barbara, California. Subsequent national conferences were in Denver, Minneappolis/St Paul, Brynn Mawr and Pittsburgh. Attendance may have peaked in Austin at 300 or so, but over the several regional and national events from 1975 through 1980 CASLP could claim a membership aggregated in the thousands, with a core group of one or two hundred who appeared on programs and took on special projects under the auspices of the Conference.

Webb and several assistant directors kept up with the membership by organizing conferences and  undertaking research projects when funded, while IPS staffer Barbara  Bick began collecting and distributing a newsletter soon after the Madison meeting reporting what was developing in state and municipal governments.  At some point after the 1978 Austin conference Webb moved from Vermont and moved offices to new quarters.  Ann Beaudry became assistant director, the Newsletter was reconstituted as Ways and Means, and the organization began to get funding for more specialized projects and reports. There were conferences on special topics: Women and the Economy; Food. Land and Agriculture; Tax Reform  and there was less formal and smaller scale activity as well.

CASLP Content

The 1975 Madison conference program and listed speakers presented a picture of topics and an internal logic that gives the essence of the organization and the emerging municipal and state practice it reflected. Topics ranged from what seem like minor improvements to fundamental structural changes; from simple moves to the probably impossible, and workshop reports following the Madison conference were full of cautions as ideas were aired out. Topics included job development and public employment, alternative transportation policies; public ownership of utilities; state and local support for women’s needs; public control of land use and housing; state and local tax reform; state and local health programs; community enterprise; bank lending issues; state and local control of natural resources; state and local food policy, humanizing justice and public safety; and democratic control of the public sector.

 

The Larger Attack on Government Per Se

Webb and his associates ushered in the Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies just as public opinion and academic comment was beginning to question the role of government in society.  In 1980 the Reagan election was to occur with the statement: “Government is not the answer to our problems, government is the problem.” Twelve years later, the Clinton presidency was to announce a “third way” in response, and the period after 2000 was marked by stalemate and apparent decline in many public institutions.

CASLP was notable for its ability to find and publicize a number of innovations in which at the city and state levels, committed “progressives” were able to make government work for a public that had been battered by economic decline – plant shutdowns and government fiscal crisis – and frustrated by government that seemed unresponsive to the multiplicity of demands placed upon it.

CASLP Shifts Focus.

The Conference’s public imprint and most extensive municipal level work and representation were in its first years – roughly the later 1970s, when it held a series of six national conferences: in Madison, Austin, St Paul, Denver, Bryn Mawr and Pittsburgh.  Webb continued on into the 1980s, but the funding support and constituency changed, and in 1985 he left for other work, leaving the organization in other hands until it finally ceased operations in 2007-8.

There were notable “second acts” and new arrivals among progressive cities after 1980: Santa Monica, after a massive citizen majority for rent control in 1979, put together an organization, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, which survived the state legislature’s  efforts and eventual success in largely annulling the original legislation and continued in the majority for three decades or more. In Burlington, VT, after a ten vote win that put socialist Bernie Sanders in the national spotlight in 1981, progressives dominated the mayoralty there almost continuously until at least 2012. There were also some notable big city victories – San Francisco, Boston and Chicago in the 1980s, and one could count Los Angeles in the new millenium.  Other cities adopted the “progressive” label, continuing some of the innovative practices used in the earlier efforts. [8]

But in none of these cases was CASLP a prominent feature or ally. Webb attributed this to several factors:

·      National conferences were becoming talk fests for the “left,” and the organization was moving away from the service functions he and at least some others intended for it.

·      General purpose funding was drying up, though many special topics remained of interest to the organizations and got funding: taxes, agriculture and food were major interests.

With the Reagan administration taking office in 1981, there was more interest in state action, which had been Webb’s main interest in any case.     Webb recalled: “We saw the mechanism of change as the people who actually draft the legislation. A staff member in an advocacy organization, a legislator or legislative staff person. [9]

Current and Historical Importance

It would be banal to simply conclude that CASLP was the creature of its particular time – the coincidence of a large cohort of activists searching for more permanent functions, and an unsettled situation in national and local institutions when the “New Deal Order” had become outmoded in some respects and the new national approach embodied in the Reagan election and the particularly defensive posture taken by liberal activists had not yet taken hold.

A better question is how intense efforts of this sort, accepting their historical specificity,  can be a resource during later periods, perhaps the present.  Despite intense polarization in politics and mobilized and well funded conservative forces,  there are some parallels: state associations like the Progressive States Network merged with ALICE (the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange) in 2014 to form support services like the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) , and a number of localities have adopted the “progressive” label.  Thus in 2016 it could be worthwhile to take another look at the 1970s experience and its aftermath. The conservative upsurge unleashed in the 1980s is in – sees itself in – a crisis; and liberalism could soon follow.  Activists are again looking to the state and local level, and support systems for that, now nearly hidden, will be looking for ways to operate, perhaps expand.

 

 

[1] Health activists established community health centers, lawyers worked in voluntary and sometimes government supported legal clinics, feminists established rape crisis centers. Many worked in poverty programs set up in cities and rural areas, and spinoffs like community economic development corporations. Some of this was simply the aging of a young generation: to continue, most would need jobs, health plans. This meant either attaching to an existing institution or the creation of a new one with some degree of  stable financial support. Much of this came from federally funded programs that had been set up in the latter half of the 1960s and continued – if often embattled – under the Nixon administration after 1968.
[2]  An Interview with Lee Webb, 2005.  http://hdl.handle.net/1813/41473
[3]  Webb interview, p. 5.
[4]  Webb interview,
[5]  ( Bick Interview) “Building Decentralized Politics. A Conversation with National Conference Coordinator, Barbara Bick with Paul Freundlich,” for Communities Magazine, Issue 24 (1977), pp. 36-43.
[6]  Bick Interview
[7]  Alternative State and Local Public Policies, Conference Report, July 1975.
[8]  See “New Interest in the Local Level,”  this website.
[9]  Webb Seminar, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library,  2003, Notes in possession of the author.