So Washington’s Stuck. Here’s How We’re Moving Ahead

The latest move by Los Angeles to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 has national significance far beyond the powerful impact it will have on the incomes and lives of an estimated 400,000 workers in L.A.

Not only does it put pressure on the rest of California, plus New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta and other large U.S. cities to lift their low-wage workers, but it signals that the policy initiative is shifting away from Washington on some important issues. States and cities are no longer willing to wait for a national government paralyzed by partisan politics.

With Washington still stuck in gridlock since President Obama in early 2013 called for raising the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour, 28 states have moved ahead of the feds.

On other issues, too, from fostering worker-friendly capitalism and addressing student debt to constitutional reform, public funding of political campaigns, and forcing dark money Mega Donors out into the open, states from Colorado to Maine, Tennessee to California, Washington to Connecticut, Arizona to Minnesota, the states have bypassed D.C. and acted on their own..

With a 73 percent popular vote, Colorado passed a referendum to roll back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and restore the power of Congress and the states to regulate campaign funding and spending. In all, 16 states and more than 500 cities have taken similar action.

Just five years ago, Maryland became the first state to enact a law authorizing Public Benefit Corporations, companies chartered to pursue social, environmental and worker friendly goals and not just squeeze out maximum profit for shareholders. Today, 27 states have such laws and more than 1,000 “B corps,” as they’re called, have been certified by an independent B Lab.

In all, 25 states have some form of public financing for state elections. Some have taken the pivotal process of drawing legislative district boundaries out of the hands of political parties and turned it over to citizen commissions. A handful have put a halt to tuition rises at public state universities and Tennessee is pioneering free community college for all comers. The list goes on.

To some analysts, those initiatives raise the question of whether we are beginning to see the slow, early, inchoate, piece-by-piece emergence of a new progressive period in parts of the country – an echo of the early 20th century progressive push for trust busting, women’s suffrage, and constitutional amendments for the direct election of senators and the income tax.

The progressive vision of the states as “laboratories for policy” should be enormously inviting to local movements and grassroots citizen activists because they can capitalize on evidence that populist action is already having discernible impact.

In a website called, we have pulled together striking examples of this change-in-motion, with maps for you to see where your state stands, and inspiring models of successful reforms and inside stories of how they were achieved. For example:

● How California smoked out a Koch dark-money network and then enacted the nation’s toughest campaign funding disclosure law.

● How the little town of SeaTac forged a diverse coalition of churches, mosques, unions and community groups to pass the nation’s first $15 minimum wage.

● How public funding of state campaigns for governor, legislature and other high offices has altered the political culture in Maine and Connecticut.

● How a green-friendly, worker-friendly, community-friendly B corp named Etsy surprised Wall Street with a daring initial public offering of its stock on the Nasdaq market, nearly doubling its price in one day, suggesting that even on Wall Street investors like the idea of a company with a heart.

● How Republican Governor Bill Haslan of Tennessee, seeking to make his state more globally competitive, got his conservative legislature to fund tuition-free community college for any Tennessee high school graduate.

In short, change is popping up all over – more widely than most Americans realize. But even though reforms are being won out there in the grassroots, they often slide under the radar of the national media or they become a one-day story and then are forgotten.

What we’ve done on is to connect the dots, give you inspiring stories and calls for action, put in some ideas on how to get started, and list good organizations to link up with. Please come explore our stories.

Hedrick Smith, the former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, is the author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and the creator of

Get updates in your inbox