A coalition on the left, including Color of Change, People for the American Way, Common Cause, the Center for Media and Democracy and others, have been targeting large corporations to drop their underwriting for ALEC, the right-wing model legislation factory. Because nobody had spotlighted the source of ALEC’s funding in this way before, they have been successful. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, McDonald’s, Intuit, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kraft Foods were among the first to drop their support, and now Mars Inc. (the maker of Skittles), Arizona Public Service, Wendy’s, Reed Elsevier, and American Traffic Solutions have joined them. Some companies, like Ticketmaster, got annoyed by the mere suggestion of their support of ALEC, which they deny. Even state legislators who were former members of ALEC have repudiated the organization as “too extreme.”
Clearly ALEC has been knocked for a loop by this coordinated effort. As Phoenix Woman pointed out, they described it as an intimidation campaign and an effort to chill free speech. A former national chairman of ALEC, now Speaker of the House in Virginia, berated an ALEC critic, including telling her “I guess I’m not speaking in little enough words for you to understand.” He has since apologized.
The campaign has garnered national attention, but I’ve been wondering where this game ends. The problem with ALEC is of corporate underwriting. Companies support the organization with funding, and Republican state legislators join up as members, sit down with these corporate interests, and share legislation that they model and bring back to their states. What’s getting these corporations into trouble is that they are having to answer for ALEC-modeled legislation well far afield of their core business, like anti-abortion laws or the pro-gun Stand Your Ground law. For consumer operations, this is just terrible branding; Democrats eat at Wendy’s and McDonald’s and drink Pepsi and Coke as well.
But the idea of a central clearinghouse for legislation, to support often part-time, underfunded and understaffed state legislators, is not an inherently evil one. In fact, progressives have been trying to create such a space for 40 years, pretty much since the creation of ALEC.
For example, the Progressive States Network is a group founded seven years ago whose mission is to “engage and build the capacity of state and national leaders to advance public policy solutions that uphold America’s promise to be a just and equitable democracy.” They are but one of several attempts in this space to help coordinate state legislative activities on the progressive side. “We see ourselves as connective tissue,” said Charles Monaco, director of communications and new media for PSN. The organization works closely with state-based groups as well as national policy shops, providing connections to policy research, campaign strategies and legislative initiatives to state legislators and their staffs. “If there’s a great immigration policy in one state, that’s the type of thing that should get traded across state lines,” Monaco said.
Unlike ALEC, state legislators are not formal members. In that sense, it differs from ALEC, which is strictly a pay-to-play operation. State lawmakers who join up with ALEC quite literally pay for access to corporate interests, who they know can support them in future campaigns if they carry their bills for them. That structure doesn’t exist on the progressive side.
“It’s a question we’ve been trying to answer for years in number of ways,” said Monaco of PSN. “We try to get state legislators to think of themselves as a national progressive movement.” But that doesn’t equal the lure of money to finance future elections.
And this is why it has been such a challenge to create a progressive version of ALEC. PSN is not the first and hasn’t been the last effort. Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote this week about a meeting among progressive municipal elected officials to create a “national network focused on local progressive action.” At the same time, Progressive Majority, Gloria Totten’s group based in Washington, is envisioning an “Elected Officials Alliance,” to coordinate lawmakers on the left. And vanden Heuvel speaks of a third effort, called ALICE (the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange), the brainchild of Joel Rogers from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, that would create model legislation for state and local lawmakers, as well as model ballot initiatives and model regulations for state executive branches.
But the ALICE proposal, which is quite literally patterned on ALEC, has been around since 2004. Joel Rogers is a contributor to The Nation, so there’s a story or two about it chronically since that time. But it’s never advanced past the proposal stage. And outside of PSN, the other ideas for a “progressive ALEC” are mainly in a discussion phase.
Monaco believes that the variety of different groups working in the same space isn’t an inherent problem. “For the progressive movement in general, we need as many people involved as possible,” he says. But one reason why these mirrors of ALEC sort of limp along is bound up with how progressive donors fund these kinds of projects. “We don’t fund them the way the right wing does,” Monaco says. “The lesson learned from looking at the conservative movement, aside from it being great to have billions of corporate dollars, is that it takes time. The right built up ALEC in the 1970s. And their organizations supported the work over time.” Teasing this out, you can see how ALEC will almost certainly survive this threat to their future. If the organization works to get conservative legislation traded across the country, someone will step up to fund it. That has not been the case on the progressive side.
So far, the coalition that has been causing ALEC so much trouble has not participated in building up its antecedent. Groups like PSN welcome the attention and scrutiny ALEC has been getting. But they want to see a two-tiered strategy, where ALEC gets exposed AND structures get built on the left for state and local lawmakers to share data and access resources that help advance liberal legislation.
The exposure of ALEC and its corporate underwriting does present a teachable moment for groups like PSN. Monaco told me that many Democratic legislators didn’t even know ALEC existed only a couple years ago. “Once they learn about it, they want to know who’s doing this on the progressive side,” he said. “We want to show them that a model providing corporate policies is not the only one available to them.”