WASHINGTON — Montana state Rep. Dave McAlpin, a Missoula Democrat, spoke on a panel of progressive state legislators here Tuesday as part of an election-year "Take Back America" conference hosted by the liberal group Campaign for America's Future.
"We're here to assure you that you can win on the local level," McAlpin said. "But it takes a good grass-roots network, we have to work from the bottom up, we have to have help from these national groups."
McAlpin told an audience of about 50 that many states such as Montana that appear to be conservative actually have a progressive core that can be brought out through grass-roots organizing.
"How did we do these things?" he asked. "I think again it's local organizing, it's grants from groups, it's networking and infrastructure from (national) groups. … These things are how we do the ground-up organizing that's needed."
Two other Montana Democrats, state Sen. Frank Smith of Poplar and state Rep. John Parker of Great Falls, also attended the panel.
McAlpin spoke alongside state legislators from Arkansas and Kentucky and a county executive from Washington state.
Marquee speakers at the conference included Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
McAlpin touted the state Legislature's progressive accomplishments, including a walk-in voting bill, wind energy portfolio, small-business health insurance programs and a smoke-free policy.
He spoke about how anti-tobacco activists started at the local level, passing smoke-free ordinances in Helena and Missoula, then moved on to the initiative level to use tobacco settlement money for health care.
"In general, it seems they work best from the ground up, a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down," he said.
Serving his first term in the Montana House, McAlpin came to speak at the conference through his association in two other groups. He is a founding member of the Progressive States Network, a New York-based group whose co-founders have Montana ties, that works to pass legislation in all 50 states by strategizing and coordinating state legislators.
McAlpin is also a Flemming Fellow with the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonprofit group that works with state legislators for progressive causes. The Flemming Fellowship brings together up to 35 bipartisan elected state officials with less than six years of seniority for a series of weekend retreats over the course of a year. McAlpin said he is participating in his next retreat this week in Detroit.
McAlpin said four Montana legislators this year are Flemming Fellows: McAlpin, state Reps. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, and Bob Bergren, D-Havre, and state Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings.
McAlpin said state Senate President Jon Tester, who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns, and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger have both been Flemming Fellows.