Inside ALEC's Powerful, Right-Wing Indoctrination Machine
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Whether the exit of major companies like GM, Walgreens, and Coca-Cola is threatening ALEC's bottom line is unclear. "Some small consultancy pays the same rate to join as a major corporation, so I don't think it's had much impact," says Dennis Bartlett, a 20-year ALEC veteran and chairman emeritus of the corporate board. (ALEC communications staff did not respond to requests for interviews.) But even if its budget has not taken the hit the departure of so many corporate sponsors would seem to indicate, the negative publicity of the last year has forced ALEC into a defensive posture. During the breakfast and lunch award ceremonies and keynotes, screens flashed with "ALEC in the news" clips taken from the conservative press. Many were reactive; some were desperate in tone.
Not even Utah offered haven from ALEC's new post-Trayvon Martin reality. Governor Gary Herbert personally welcomed the conference to the Beehive State, which is the closest thing to a poster child for ALEC's economic policies. Later two Utah Congressmen addressed the group, which included 34 Utah state reps. The welcome committee outside the hotel's valet-guarded door was a different story. Sign-wielding protestors circled and chanted on the sidewalk outside. Two blocks away, a community theater hosted a shadow conference co-produced by the Alliance for a Better Utah, the Center for Media and Democracy, and others in the national coalition to "Expose ALEC."
The organizers of the well-attended event received a surprising amount of sympathetic local press. The local Fox affiliate ran multiple segments during the conference giving equal time to critical voices. Salt Lake's alternative weekly devoted a cover story to providing an ALEC 101. A crushing comic appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, which assigned a reporter inside the Grand, one of very few granted a press credential. Local radio stations covered the counter-conference; one sponsored a debate that fizzled at the last minute when the ALEC-affiliated Sutherland Institute backed out. Then there was the guerrilla media. On telephone poles across the city, posters skewered ALEC as "merging capital and state since 1973."
Despite its claims of fidelity to bottom-up Jeffersonian federalism and local control, ALEC works off of a national game plan that involves all levels of government. It knows state legislators often grow up to become powerful United States Congressmen and Senators. The group stays in touch with its legislative members who have moved on to Washington, a roll call that includes John Boehner and Eric Cantor among dozens of House members and Marco Rubio among nine Senators. ALEC's resolutions, meanwhile, are often designed with national policy in mind, to be sent to Congressional delegations and federal departments. "The resolutions create the illusion in Washington of a groundswell of grassroots support for issues where none exists," says Jennifer Seelig, a Utah Democratic state rep and former ALEC member. "A lot of them also end up being nuisances that eat up valuable time in session when we could be dealing with real problems."
This year ALEC's International Relations Task Force passed two such resolutions opposing cuts to the Pentagon budget and urging the relaxation of regulations around the export of "dual-use" technology. The IR Task Force, co-chaired by Rep. Harold Brubaker (R-NC) and Brandie Davis of Philip Morris International (a 2012 ALEC private sector "Member of the Year") also adopted resolutions opposing a "global UN tax" and UN control of the Internet. Among the model bills to emerge from the IR Task Force is a "Sound Money Act" that would eliminate taxation on gold and silver coins and allow their use as legal tender alongside currency issued by the U.S. Treasury.