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“As Goes California”: Learnings About State Advocacy From the Golden State

Jiggy Athilingam - 10/18/2018


There is a common phrase that’s tossed around in California state politics — “As goes California, so goes the nation” — the idea that landmark policy change is first enacted in the most populous state, then it spreads to other states, and eventually Congress.

Over the last two years, Indivisible groups in the Golden State pioneered a statewide coordination structure to facilitate collaboration between groups across the state. They used and flexed that collaborative power to make monumental policy change at the statehouse.

As we look ahead to 2019 and expanding Indivisible’s state and local work, we want to share key lessons from this work:

  • Building a statewide structure;
  • Using collective power to advocate for state policy; and
  • Takeaways, pluses and deltas for doing applying this model to other states.

Building a statewide Indivisible coalition

After November 2016, thousands of Californians — and millions of Americans — were driven to action. In the early months of 2017, hundreds of Indivisible groups formed across California. In a state with two Democratic Senators and a majority Democratic Representatives in Congress, many Californians turned to their big blue state to Resist Trump.

So we formed Indivisible CA: StateStrong, a  state legislative advocacy working group within our broader statewide coalition. The goals of StateStrong were to reduce the work of any individual group, broadly spread information on state legislation across our Indivisible network, and multiply our power by working collectively on the same bills.

Modeled after Indivisible Illinois, we set up a robust system for easy and regular statewide communication: a statewide Slack team, an email listserv, and statewide bi-weekly calls. We asked each Indivisible group to dedicate point people to join the StateStrong working group, and spent the latter half of 2017 doing extensive outreach to Indivisible groups to bring them into the coalition. In 2018, we set out to flex our new collective power.

Flexing our collective power: Collaborating to win

Building Consensus

First and foremost, we hoped to eliminate duplication of efforts across the Indivisible groups and build more political power at the Capitol. To be effective, we had to reach a consensus about the state legislation that we wanted to pursue. Building consensus across hundreds of Indivisible groups can be hard, but we implemented a process that worked well for us.

  1. Collecting suggestions: We asked all Indivisible groups to suggest specific bills for the coalition to work on. Nearly 60 different bills were submitted.
  2. Voting on priorities: We then sent a ballot with all 60 suggested bills to the StateStrong working group liaisons of each Indivisible group, and asked them  prioritize their 15 top bills.
  3. Building consensus: The 15 bills that received the most votes were our top priorities. (Any group could work on any other piece of legislation that they wanted, but that coalition’s efforts would center on those top 15 bills.)

After building consensus, we focused on political education, to demystify the legislative sausage-making for groups across the state. We wrote a legislative guide and held monthly webinars to teach groups how to research their legislators, write support letters, hold lobby visits, track legislation, and more.

Strategic Prioritization

Though we’d narrowed our priorities, we could not meaningfully engage in advocacy around 15 different bills. We talked with advocacy organizations and partners across the state about which of those 15 bills could most use the extra support of Indivisible groups. We prioritized our advocacy around three specific bills:

  1. Passing AB 3131 to reduce police militarization by requiring law enforcement to undergo a public hearing process before acquiring any military-grade weaponry. Indivisible CA: StateStrong teamed up with the ACLU of California, American Friends Service Committee, Anti-Police Terror Project, and Friends Committee on Legislation to co-sponsor the bill. AB 3131 is the second piece of state legislation that has been directly sponsored by an Indivisible group (Indivisible Chicago’s incredible efforts to #EndCrosscheck was the first).
  2. Passing SB 822 to enact net neutrality in California. As the Trump Administration was ending net neutrality, states were fighting back. SB822 was the strongest state-level net neutrality bill in the country. We pushed this bill all the way through the legislative process and it is now law! Its passage paves the way for other states to follow suit.
  3. Defeating AB 84, a sneaky bill by legislative leadership to consolidate power and bring more money into our state’s politics. This bill  was a fundamental attack on our democracy, and would have reduced the power of voters. Thought it was  pushed by legislative leadership, we were able to kill this bill through rapid mobilization and constituent pressure.

Strategic Activism

Once we focused our energy, we were unstoppable! We wanted to be strategic in our activism to ensure that our work would have the highest impact. Our key strategies were:

  • Targeting key decision makers: Groups whose members were on committees or key swing votes put in extra work to pressure their members! They’d pay those members a personal visit in their district office and mobilize their members to call.
  • Strategic activism in key moments timepoints: Groups made sure their representatives received a flurry of calls right before a vote to let them know we were watching.
  • Immediate accountability: When their members didn’t vote the right way, groups followed up with immediate accountability. Constituents also flooded swing members with calls in real time as bills were heard on the floor.

Using Tactics That Work

They also knew that they had to make sure their actions were high impact. Here are some of the key advocacy tactics they engaged in for these bills:

  • District office visits
  • Submitting written testimony to committees
  • Participating in oral testimony at committee hearings
  • Capitol lobby days
  • Phone call campaigns

Takeaways: What we learned and what you can do in your state

  1. A little work goes a long way. There is nothing special about our efforts in California. Each state’s government has its quirks, but a small, dedicated group of people (i.e. Indivisible groups!) can move mountains especially when it comes to state legislative advocacy.
  2. Work with partner organizations. Quite often, other organizations have been doing this long before Indivisible groups. Their leadership, expertise, and knowledge are invaluable. Working in collaboration with partners builds the power of the progressive movement and Indivisible groups.
  3. Building consensus is critical. In California, we had a process for getting input from groups about where they wanted to focus their efforts. Our collective decision-making process built trust and moved us toward our common goal.
  4. Statewide communication is necessary. It is vital that everyone has solid communication structures and that no one feels like they can’t voice their thoughts, or is left out of the loop.
  5. Be targeted and strategic with your activism. Not everyone can be active all the time. We can’t work on everything. And our organizing will need to adapt throughout a campaign.
  6. Use real-time accountability. Watch the floor vote to be able to mobilize constituents of swing members while bills were “on call.” Legislators are much more likely to vote the way we want when they know that we are literally watching them and holding them accountable in real time.
  7. Be ready to learn. You will learn a ton and it will be fun! Be curious and don’t expect to know everything. Ask questions of staff, partners, and each other. Make sure you debrief and think about how to learn and grow from your experiences.