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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012, 11:49 am

ALEC Disbands Controversial Task Force–But Continues Attack on Labor and Environment

By Lindsey Kratochwill

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The American Legislative Exchange Council, the now-infamous organization that advances "model legislation" through a network of conservative legislators, announced on Tuesday that it would be disbanding the "Public Safety and Elections" taskforce responsible for pushing "Stand Your Grand" and Voter ID laws.

In a press release on its website, the organization said that it was dismantling the task force in order to sharpen its focus on the economy:

We are eliminating the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues, and reinvesting these resources in the task forces that focus on the economy. The remaining budgetary and economic issues will be reassigned.

But ALEC's decision is clearly an attempt to stem the tide of public scrutiny that has resulted in a mass departure of its corporate sponsors over the past week and a half. As public anger grew over the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin and the failure to arrest his killer, national attention turned to the role of ALEC and the NRA in pushing the law that had protected Zimmerman. Due in part to their interventions, 25 other states now have similar laws. Eleven corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft, have now decided to pull out of ALEC. In an interview with Democracy Now, Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy said of the move by ALEC:

It shows the potency of the tremendous grassroots outpouring of objection to ALEC’s agenda and ALEC’s procedures, where corporate lobbyists and politicians actually vote behind closed doors on these proposed model legislation without the press or public present on this extreme agenda.

ALEC is comprised of 10 task forces that produce "model legislation," which is then introduced and sponsored by ALEC member lawmakers in their home states—despite the fact that federal tax law forbids 501(c)(3) organizations such as ALEC from participating in the formation of legislation.

Following a report by Beau Hodai for In These Times detailing how ALEC, on behalf of the private prison industry, helped shape Arizona's anti-immigrant law, the "ALEC Exposed" project cast light on more than 800 pieces of "model legislation" advanced by ALEC. (For all of Hodai's ALEC coverage, go here.)

Buoyed by the national attention to Martin's death, public outcry about the organization has taken to social media through the Twitter hashtags  #ALECexposed and #dumpALEC. There's even a Pinterest board devoted to anti-ALEC comments that have been deleted from ALEC's Facebook page. The negative response around the web has gotten so heated that ALEC is trying to rally their own troops through a Heritage Foundation Blogger's Briefing, where yesterday, Caitlyn Korb, ALEC director of external relations appealed to bloggers to get the word out about what ALEC "really does." As PR Watch reports, Korb said:

We're getting absolutely killed in social media venues—Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (I didn't even know Pinterest was a forum for a lot of political opposition, but now it is)—so any and all new media support you guys can provide would be so helpful, not just to us but to average people who don't know much about this fight but are seeing us get really heavily attacked with very little opposition.

Graves and other anti-ALEC campaigners are skeptical that the closure of one task force will significantly change the organization's shadowy practices.

ColorOfChange executive director Rashad Robinson, whose group has been fighting against the racially discriminatory voter ID legislation pushed by ALEC, told the New Republic:

ALEC's latest statement is nothing more than a PR stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda, which has done serious damage to our communities. 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.

As Nancy Scola writes in The Atlantic, the announcement is "both a big deal—and not." The task forces that still make up ALEC continue to push legislation like a law in Tennessee that encourages the teaching of alternate hypotheses to climate change and evolution, and the ALEC model bill known as the "Public Employee Freedom Act," which has been used to attack collective bargaining rights in Ohio, Arizona and Wisconsin. 

Blue Cross Blue Shield's Tuesday announcement that it too will sever ties with ALEC brings the total number of disbanded corporate sponsors up to 11. Grassroots organizations aren't stopping there, and are continuing to talk to companies, whose dues provide about 98 percent of ALEC's $7 million annual budget.

Update: The conservative National Center for Public Policy Research announced on Wednesday that it will take the reins of ALEC's "voter integrity" programs, demonstrating beyond doubt that the forces behind the voter suppression agenda are still at work.

In a press release, Amy Ridenour, chairman of NCPPR, criticized efforts to erode support for ALEC--Yum Brands has now become the twelfth sponsor to sever ties. The NCPPR has even set up an email address, wearenotyellow@nationalcenter.org, for any corporations that withdrew sponsorship "to disavow the claims ... that they helped pressure a conservative/free-market group to stop working for ballot integrity." Ridenour also put out a warning and call to action: 

Conservatives will kick up our support for voter integrity programs. We're putting the left on notice: you take out a conservative program operating in one area, we'll kick it up a notch somewhere else. You will not win. We outnumber you and we outthink you, and when you kick up a fuss you inspire us to victory.

Though little known to the public, the group has had a few legal blunders in the past. More than 10 years ago, NCPPR came under fire for sending senior citizens "fright mail" to help raise money for right-wing politicians and groups. The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted one such story of 86-year old Faye Shelby, who recieved 700 mailings in a four-month period warning of the impending collapse of Social Security and Medicare, marked with messages like "Urgent" or "Personal." Such mailings have drained the bank accounts of senior citizens, syphoning the funds into right-wing groups like NCPPR. Ridenour was unapologetic, saying that it was a necessary tactic to keep up with other organizations requesting donations.  More recently, NCPPR was entangled financially with Jack Abramoff, the former superlobbyist and now-convicted felon.

The NCPPR press release ended on an increasingly strange and unsettling note, threatening those who are fighting against the efforts of ALEC and now NCPPR:

We are, however, inspired by a particular passage in the 1987 movie The Untouchables: "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way." Indeed.

Lindsey Kratochwill, an In These Times editorial intern, is student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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