The Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies emerged in the 1970s when a few, then dozens and hundreds of activists who had come from the student, anti-war, civil rights and neighborhood movements began to seek office in state and local governments in the 1970s. The actual beginning came when Lee Webb, who had been national secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society, began working on legislation in Vermont and found others with similar interests in other parts of the nation. Webb found grant moneys, connected with Derek Shearer and others, worked within the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and by 1975 Webb and Shearer committed to traveling the nation to collect examples of legislation, policy papers and ideas, which they eventually published in "Readers," for national conferences, while IPS volunteer staffer Barbara Bick produced a quarterly newsletter. In 1975 Paul Soglin, recently re-elected Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, hosted the first national conference of 150 activists. The following year's conference in Austin, Texas drew over 300. In 1977 the Conference moved out of IPS, published a newly named newsletter, Ways and Means, which appeared into the 1980s.

The Conference sponsored national meetings in Denver (1977), St. Paul (1978), Bryn Mawr (1979 and Pittsburgh (1980). There were a number of meetings on special topics: Tax Reform, Food, Plant Closings, Women in the Economy; and publications on these and other topics. Regional conferences convened in Madison (1975), Amherst (1975), San Antonio (1975), Hartford (1976), Sacramento (1976), Santa Barbara (1977), and Lincoln (1977).

Prominent organizers in addition to Webb and Shearer included Barbara Bick, Ann Beaudry; Conference hosts and organizers were Paul Soglin and Jim Rowen (Madison), Jeff Friedman (Austin), and Sam Brown (Denver). Prominent speakers and members of the organization who went on to public roles include Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan (N. Dakota) and Congressmen Barney Frank (MA) and Bennie Thompson (MS). Many others took on important offices at state and local levels, or made other contributions as staff members, writers and academics.

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