Right-Wing ALEC in Damage Control, While Activists Launch Campaign to Expose 'ALEC Democrats'

The grassroots progressive campaigns calling on corporations to drop their support of the right-wing front group ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) have had impressive results so far. Taking advantage of the public's current interest in (and rage over) so-called "stand your ground" laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, groups including ColorOfChange.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have successfully urged about a dozen major groups to ditch ALEC. In response, ALEC has made some concessions and gone into full-on damage-control mode. But activists are keeping the pressure on, now expanding their focus beyond ALEC's corporate supporters to target the members of government who align themselves with ALEC as well.

Several months after the launch of the complementary anti-ALEC campaigns -- which target not only "stand your ground" laws but also voter ID, anti-union, anti-public education, and anti-immigration legislation -- Coca-Cola announced that it would drop its support for ALEC. Being such a high-profile company, Coke started something of a domino effect. Soon PepsiCo followed suit, then Kraft, McDonald's, Wendy's, Intuit, Mars, Arizona Public Service, Reed Elsevier, American Traffic Solutions, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) did the same.

In addition, the Gates Foundation, the largest foundation in the world by a significant margin, announced that it would not renew funding to the group.

And still other companies, including Geico, Ticketmaster, Cargill, and General Mills Restaurants, are scrambling to cover up their past relationships with ALEC.

In short, as corporations see ALEC's dirt dragged out into the open, they're quickly starting to see an affiliation with the group as a liability.

Activists are still targeting corporations that support ALEC; that part of the campaign hasn't ended. "Who's next???" asks a PCCC petition that lists all the major groups to drop ALEC and urges AT&T, State Farm and Johnson & Johnson to join their ranks. Meanwhile, Common Cause has targeted pharmaceutical companies and ALEC supporters GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.

The combined efforts of progressive groups like PCCC, Common Cause, ColorOfChange, People for the American Way, the Center for Media and Democracy, and CREDO Action have attracted 450,000 petition signers, and according to PCCC, its anti-ALEC ads have received some 7 million impressions online.

ALEC's response to all this negative attention has been two-pronged: first the group lashed out against the "coordinated and well-funded intimidation campaign" being carried out against its corporate members (without offering any evidence for the "well-funded" or "intimidation" accusations). Then, less than week later, ALEC announced a concession of sorts. Specifically, the group said, in a vaguely worded press release, that it would dismantle its Public Safety and Elections Task Force -- the entity behind much of ALEC's most controversial legislation.

Shortly after the announcement, the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch Web site published a report by Brendan Fischer on the history of the task force, which is tied to dubious "criminal justice" efforts backed by Wisconsin governor and former ALEC member Scott Walker and Arizona's infamous SB1070 immigration law, which is being contested in the Supreme Court, among other bills. Fischer writes:

For at least three decades, the corporations, special interest groups, and legislators on the ALEC Public Safety & Elections Task Force (known as the Criminal Justice Task Force until 2009) have approved model bills that promote for-profit prisons and lengthen prison sentences, criminalize immigrants, expand the "war on drugs," thwart evidence-based pre-trial release programs in favor of for-profit bail-bonding, and many other policies.

Some progressive activist groups celebrated the demise of the task force unconditionally. Common Cause said in a statement, "In folding its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, ALEC is abandoning under pressure the most controversial part of its agenda; that's an important victory for the American public."

But other groups were more circumspect. ColorOfChange executive director Rashad Robinson called ALEC's statement "nothing more than a PR stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda, which has done serious damage to our communities." He went on,

"To simply say they are stopping non-economic work does not provide justice to the millions of Americas whose lives are impacted by these dangerous and discriminatory laws courtesy of ALEC and its corporate backers. It's clear that major corporations were in bed with an institution that has worked against basic American values such as the right to vote. Now that these companies are aware of what they've supported, what will they do about it? If ALEC's corporate supporters will not hold the institution accountable for the damage it has caused nationwide, then the ColorOfChange community will hold them accountable."

Huffington Post correspondent Dan Froomkin also expressed skepticism over ALEC's announcement. In fact, he speculated that the move "could end up making little practical difference to [ALEC], while taking the wind out of the sails of the opposition."

What Froomkin didn't account for is the tenacity of the anti-ALEC campaign organizers. On Friday afternoon, PCCC held a press call to describe the next phase of its efforts: targeting "ALEC Democrats."

Over the coming days and weeks, the group and others will disseminate information about Democrats in government who align themselves with ALEC. The activists already have on board a coalition of progressive state legislators from Wisconsin, South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, many of whom spoke with reporters today about the importance of getting more Democrats to denounce ALEC.

"It's a sham to project that [ALEC] is bipartisan in nature. And no Democrat should give aid and comfort to this organization by participating in it, to promote its alleged 'bipartisanship,'" said New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. "It is very important that members of the Democratic Party, who traditionally have stood for enfranchising voters and have stood for promoting the rights to organize and for sensible gun laws, should withdraw from an organization that pushes an agenda that is exactly the opposite."

South Dakota State Sen. Angie Buhl added, "At the end of the day, the Democratic Party is big and diverse, but we've always been about standing up for middle- and working-class families, not for corporations. ALEC is the antithesis of what we stand for as Democrats. Dozens of companies like Kraft and Coca-Cola have already dumped ALEC, and it's time for Democrats to do the same."

Many progressives would quibble with the assertion that Democrats have "always been about standing up for middle- and working-class families, not for corporations." But still, few could argue with the merits of shining a light on Dems who stand with ALEC. Indeed, doing so could get the party's members a step closer to being true advocates of middle- and working-class Americans.

The PCCC's James Ploeser noted that several Democrats have preemptively dropped their affiliations with ALEC in recent weeks, given the intense public scrutiny brought on by the grassroots campaigns. (According to Ploeser, "There are 26 states with Democratic state legislators in ALEC. There were 76 ALEC Dems last week, and today it's down to 69.")

Ploeser said his group plans to use the same tactics it used to help incite ALEC's corporate exodus to target Democrats. It's plausible, he said, that some ALEC Dems might not realize how damaging ALEC's policies are. But after the group's dirty laundry is aired in front of them, they'll be forced to make a decision, knowing that their constituents are increasingly aware of how ALEC operates.

"If these Democrats still choose to support ALEC model legislation after this campaign, they need to be held accountable," agreed New Mexico state senate candidate and former Rep. Benjamin Rodefer.

There seemed to be agreement among the campaign's supporters that model legislation isn't the problem. The problem is the way ALEC operates, pushing an extreme corporate-backed agenda through closed-door meetings with virtually no transparency. The state lawmakers and activists noted that ALEC should be held to the same standards as other advocacy groups, and that both the public and ALEC Dems should be made aware of ALEC's unique structure -- its members come from both government and the corporate world, while 98 percent of its funding comes from corporations.

Many ALEC Dems likely will not disavow ALEC, just as many corporations -- most notably Koch Industries and Wal-Mart -- will never spurn the group that has done so much good for their bottom line. (Wal-Mart, which is the leading seller of guns in the United States, was the co-chair of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections Task Force in 2005 when the NRA brought the idea for "stand your ground" laws to ALEC.)

But, as the saying goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant. Letting Americans know exactly where their elected representatives stand on the ALEC issue can only be a good thing, for individual voters and for our democracy. 

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