“ALEC is where our struggles merge,” proclaimed the ALEC Welcoming Committee, a broad coalition of environmental, student, labor, women’s and radical groups organizing a week’s worth of protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as it gathered for its annual summit at the Grand American Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, recently.
More than a hundred activists welcomed ALEC for the opening of its five-day meeting with a “Parade of Empty Plates.” They surrounded the hotel, banging pots and pans, to highlight the devastating consequences ALEC’s corporatist lobbying has for the poor and middle class. The action and subsequent temporary occupation of Washington Square Park, across the street from the ALEC meetings, received good local media coverage and highlighted some Utahns’ concerns that Governor Gary Herbert is in ALEC’s pocket.
Organizer and spokesperson Raphael Cordray said that the ALEC Welcoming Committees’ goals are to continue exposing what they see as ALEC’s corporate cronyism and the arrogance of state legislators who have used it to become overly cozy with corporate interests.
“Corporations are so entrenched in government that many legislators think that this is the way it’s done,” explained Cordray when we spoke by phone. “They have no shame. If people knew this was happening in our democracy, they wouldn’t be happy.”
Just a few years ago, ALEC was one of the most powerful lobby groups that no one had ever heard of. Today, it finds itself the target of a number of campaigns, protests and legal efforts that intend to expose the ways ALEC undermines democracy through its promotion of corporatism and conservatism. For example, an exhaustive new report from the Iowa Policy Project found that states that follow ALEC recommendations have higher rates of poverty and lower wages.
ALEC was co-founded in 1973 by the late Paul Weyrich — who, incidentally, also founded the Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority — and wields undeniable influence in state legislatures and governors’ mansions around the country. For almost 40 years, ALEC has cultivated relationships among state lawmakers by sending “model legislation” — bills that ALEC drafts which represent the interests of its corporate members — directly to its legislative members.
ALEC’s first venture into public notoriety came when investigative journalist Beau Hodai, in 2010, published an account of the interconnectedness of corporate money, conservative politics, private interests and the revolving door of lobbyists in and out of Arizona lawmakers’ offices that led to the controversial SB 1070. ALEC, it turns out, quite literally wrote the letter of the law. Hodai’s efforts earned him the title of persona non grata at all future ALEC events, leading to his expulsion from a Scottsdale, Ariz., hotel at an ALEC annual summit in December 2011. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Police Department, decked out in riot gear and keeping a secure perimeter around the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, pepper-sprayed and arrested members from the then-nascent Occupy movement who came to protest the corporate control of democracy.
In between Hodai’s 2010 article and the revived anti-corporate activism inspired by Occupy was Wisconsin. As tens of thousands occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol in response to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union budget proposals to strip collective bargaining rights and increase private pension contributions, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor William Cronon dug a little deeper; he found that all roads led to ALEC. Like Hodai’s findings connecting SB 1070 and ALEC, Cronon’s research revealed that Walker’s legislation was, in fact, model ALEC legislation.
Following the Madison occupation, activists in Cleveland stumbled across Professor Cronon’s blog and were inspired to protest an upcoming ALEC meeting in their hometown. Center for Media and Democracy reporter Sara Jerving offers details of that April 2011 protest and others as she contextualizes the mounting pressure directed against ALEC. Two months later, thanks to a whistleblower, CMD launched the ALEC Exposed project, and it became a turning point. Since then, ALEC has no longer been able to promote its model bills without scrutiny.
ALEC has nevertheless had a string of recent legislative victories — such as Arizona’s SB 1070; Stand Your Ground laws, such as the one invoked in Florida in defense of Trayvon Martin’s alleged killer George Zimmerman, and which ALEC has since distanced itself from; discriminatory Voter ID laws; the overturned Pennsylvania Act 13 that would have limited communities ability to exert local control; and Wisconsin’s anti-unionism, just to name a few. But the tide seems to be turning as ALEC’s activities are brought into the light.
Color of Change was one of the organizations that benefited from the treasure trove of data published by ALEC Exposed, which showed that the voter ID laws the group had been opposing derived from model legislation drafted by ALEC. With more than 800,000 black Americans in its membership, Color of Change saw that the discriminatory laws were achieving partisan results and disenfranchising communities of color. As Color of Change learned more about ALEC, it recognized the need to educate its members and the broader public about ALEC’s agenda. It also learned, according to Executive Director Rashad Robinson, that 98 percent of ALEC’s funding came from its corporate members.
“We represent a constituency that exists in the real world,” said Robinson when I spoke with him by phone, referring to the members of Color of Change:
These corporations come to black folks for their services, to buy their products. They are spending a lot of money to hone their relationship with black consumers. We made it clear to companies that this type of investment could be for naught.
So a two-track strategy was developed to educate the public and ALEC’s corporate members, and to demand that they quit their membership.
Online, Color of Change circulated information about ALEC and its impacts and asked its supporters to sign a petition to withdraw corporate money from the organization. Meanwhile, Color of Change staffers were communicating in private with corporations to educate them about ALEC’s sweeping agenda before going public with a campaign aimed at particular corporate members of ALEC.
The strategy has been working. Since the Color of Change campaign began — assisted by other partners and allies such as CREDO Action and People for the American Way — 30 corporations have dropped their ALEC membership, including Best Buy, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s and MillerCoors. Well over 100,000 people have signed online petitions, with thousands of citizens also calling corporate offices asking them to withdraw from ALEC. In April, ALEC hired the public relations firm Edelman to address the dwindling corporate membership, complaining that it was the victim of “a well-funded, expertly coordinated intimidation campaign.”
Furthermore, in April 2012, the progressive organization Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS Tax Whistleblower Office alleging that ALEC has violated the terms of its 501(c)3 status.
In a Common Cause press release announcing the complaint, President Bob Edgar called ALEC “a corporate lobby front group masquerading as a public charity.” Edgar continued:
ALEC and its members prefer to stay in the shadows however. They write legislation tailored to serve their interests and peddle it to our elected officials in private meetings at resort hotels; they keep out of sight while lobbying for that legislation in our statehouses and celebrate among themselves and take credit when it’s passed. And then they lie about what they’ve done to exploit the tax code and get the rest of us to subsidize their work.
If federal authorities revoke ALEC’s tax-exempt status, it could prove to be a significant blow. But it is already becoming harder and harder for ALEC to work in the shadows. When ALEC members meet now, they draw a crowd demanding transparency and the removal of corporate money from American democracy. While many meetings remain private, the growing scrutiny ALEC attracts is making it more difficult for it to exert influence in public.
In conjunction with the ALEC summit, for instance, Alliance for a Better Utah simultaneously hosted an ALEC Exposed conference. Teach-ins, community-building events and protests also occurred around the city as part of the ALEC Welcoming Committee, including a public moment of silence, organized by Peaceful Uprising, to recognize the one-year anniversary of Tim DeChristopher’s imprisonment.
Why it’s working
One way of understanding the success of the campaign against ALEC is through Bill Moyers's theory of nonviolent social change. The over-arching framework Moyer employs is that social change happens when citizens are alerted, educated and mobilized for action. Organizations like CMD are crucial in the first two parts — alerting and educating — by supporting research and journalism that is accessible to citizens, organizers and activists.
Translating information into action — particularly the kind of action that wields real influence on power-holders — is a challenging task for progressive organizations.
The success of the strategies used by Color of Change and Common Cause depend on an educated populace that will exert pressure on decision-makers. The Color of Change campaign, in particular, has been successful because it found a way to communicate its people-power potential to the corporate funders of ALEC in very clear terms: The model legislation that the organization you belong to is not valued by our constituency; if you value our purchasing power, then you have to decide whether it’s worth continuing your membership with ALEC.
The struggle against corporate influence in the political system will necessarily take many twists and turns; ALEC is just one of many lobby groups serving such interests. But, at this juncture, the fight against ALEC shows that when people organize and mobilize strategically, they can win.