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Attacks on ALEC undermine efforts to reach common ground

Peter NelsonPeter Nelson

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is under siege these days from a well-funded and coordinated smear campaign driven by a variety of left-wing organizations and politicians. ALEC, according to its website, “provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues. The potential solutions discussed at ALEC focus on free markets, limited government and constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments.”

Minnesota is a hot zone for lefty attacks on ALEC.  Most recently, Common Cause Minnesota filed complaints with both the Minnesota Attorney General and the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. These complaints charge that ALEC is violating state law by not registering as a lobbyist. Also, since February, MinnPost — which I consider a left-of-center  news source — published, by my count, 22 stories with at least one snarky reference to ALEC. And throughout the legislative session, a number of bills were labeled ALEC bills by opponents as a way to discredit the bill. 

All of this began last year after the left-wing Center for Media and Democracy manufactured an ALEC conspiracy in which “global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights.” ALEC’s crime: It develops model state legislation that any legislator can pick up and use, modify, or not use. 

ALEC’s true crime

Plenty of organizations do this. The Council of State Governments (CSG) and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators are but two examples. ALEC’s true crime is that it is a conservative organization.

Those smearing ALEC will tell you ALEC’s crime has everything to do with corporate funding and corporate involvement in the model legislation development and adoption process. But corporations and unions also engage in the model legislation process for the two nonprofits just listed. In fact, some of the same corporations contribute to all three.  

The only real differences between ALEC and these other nonprofits are that ALEC is conservative and ALEC is entirely open and transparent about their conservative position. 

Oddly, ALEC gets criticized for being secretive. But it is  entirely open about what it does, how it does it, and what it stands for. Any legislator — whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican — is free to join for a nominal $50 annual fee and gain access to ALEC’s resources, including meetings and model bills. 

In contrast, though every other nonprofit mentioned so far — with the exception of the CSG — is left-of-center, you will barely catch a whiff of their liberal positions by reading their mission statements.

‘Stand your ground’ law

The heat on ALEC (and ALEC’s funders) rose when an ALEC-endorsed “stand your ground” law was associated with the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. Never mind the fact that President Barack Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security signed the law when she was governor of Arizona, as did other Democratic governors. 

After all these attacks, some corporate funders have dropped away, including Coca-Cola, Mars, Wendy’s and Kraft.

Nonetheless, I’m hopeful ALEC will maintain its  funding because it is a phenomenal resource for policymakers. Funders know this, and funders know that ALEC isn’t the extremist organization the left has tried to portray. ALEC offers practical, common-sense solutions that promote economic growth, excellence in education, balanced state budgets and a just society.

Thus, I’m not overly concerned about ALEC’s future. 

But I am very concerned over how the left has used ALEC to stifle and coarsen policy debates in Minnesota.  This is Minnesota after all. We’re different. We’re supposed to be above that. We’re civil. We’re nice. I actually like and enjoy spending time with my ideological rivals, whether it’s Growth & Justice, Service Employees International Union or Legal Aid. And they at least feign enjoying time with me. 

Too willing to dismiss ideas

During the legislative session, certain people in the media, policy organizations and the Legislature seemed all too willing to dismiss policy ideas just because they had some tie to ALEC. In some cases, a tie to ALEC was manufactured or exaggerated simply to torpedo the idea. Gov. Mark Dayton highlighted ALEC in a news conference where he announced the veto of lawsuit reform bills when the bills had no direct tie to ALEC.  I’m told that these bills were a homegrown product of Minnesotans for Lawsuit Reform — a coalition of Minnesota businesses and trade associations.

We shouldn’t be dismissing ideas out of hand based on who espouses the idea.

Recently, I was randomly approached by someone who was fretting over whether she should enter the debate over judicial retention elections at the Minnesota Republican convention. There’s a rather lively debate in conservative circles over this issue. She specifically mentioned Common Cause’s support for judicial retention elections and expressed her reticence in supporting a policy that so many left-leaning organizations support. To her credit, she got past the fact that she might agree with Common Cause on one issue and decided to publicly support judicial retention elections. 

Unfortunately, Common Cause doesn’t show the same courtesy or thoughtfulness. If it’s an ALEC bill, it’s a bad bill.

Fuel to the fire

The fact is, these baseless attacks on ALEC make it much more difficult for Minnesotans to reach common ground. Common Cause and their allies have attacked ALEC for the sole purpose of tearing down a conservative organization based on its ideology. This just adds fuel to the fire within any organization or person on both the left and the right interested in doing whatever it takes to tear down organizations with opposing ideological views.

Common Cause Minnesota and anyone else attacking ALEC have plainly placed themselves in a category of groups that don’t play fair and cannot collaborate across ideologies and political parties.  

For myself, how a person or entity treats ALEC has become a sort of litmus test for whether they’re fair-minded and someone I can work with.   

Right now, Gov. Dayton passes my test. Yes, he referenced ALEC in his veto of those lawsuit reform bills.  But in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Dayton said that he would sign a bill if he thought it was good for Minnesota despite his worries over ALEC.   Dayton explained, “The source of it is something to be aware of — is part of a bigger picture — but it’s not something that determines whether I sign a bill.”  Sounds reasonable to me. 

Peter J. Nelson is the director of public policy for the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/05/2012 - 07:14 am.

    ALEC goes astray

    A line on its web site illustrates the fundamental weakness in the ALEC message. It says “”to succeed we need to get government out of the way”.
    The fact is without substantial government support we would wouldn’t have many our major growth industries. It was government supported research that fostered computers, most communications technology, the internet(from DARPA not Al Gore), many medical advances, nuclear energy, the aircraft industry, etc. The key research takes place in government labs, in our universities funded by govt research grants, and in industry under govt contracts.
    This is a highly competitive world and government is a partner to industry as the US tries to keep its edge.
    Reagan’s “government is the problem” statement merely displayed his ignorance.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2012 - 08:05 am.

    ALEC is no engine of compromise

    Compromise has never been ALEC’s mission. Conservatives in this country spend 60 years exploiting wedge issues and then complain a lack of compromise. Please, who do you think your kidding? If ALEC is such a potential asset to MN politics why do they deny and obscure their involvement in the drafting of MN laws? You call that transparency?

    It’s funny when the so-called champions of free market competition complain about having to compete in the light of day on a level playing field. ALEC has simply been dragged out of the shadows and exposed for what it really is- a lobbying organization for moneyed interests pretending to be a non-profit.

    If groups like ALEC wilt under the light of sunshine, it’s because they conservative, it’s because they’re unpopular.

  3. Submitted by william laney on 06/05/2012 - 08:23 am.

    What you fail to mention is the money that ALEC commands compared to other groups. Wealth in this country has become concentrated in a very few hands {in 2007 93% of financial wealth is owned by 20%; 43% owned by 1% (http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html)}, and most would agree that wealth buys power. The Koch Brothers recently announced plans to spend $400 million of their own money in the upcoming Presidential election. Their agenda, and ALEC’s agenda seems aimed at creating political and economic institutions that permit increased extraction of wealth by a very few at the expense of the vast majority. Is this good?

  4. Submitted by Ross Willits on 06/05/2012 - 08:43 am.

    This is satire, right?

    Peter Nelson must be an alter ego of Stephen Colbert. Well done, sir!

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/05/2012 - 10:04 am.

      No kidding

      My first reaction was “seriously?!” This article reminds me of a t-shirt I saw this weekend that stated, a la “Oliver Twist,” “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the billionaires?” Except the t-shirt was meant to be politically funny.

      If there was common ground to reach, if anything, the mere existence of ALEC pretty much guarantees that it won’t be reached. After all, ALEC’s purpose is to pump corporate money into the legislative process in order to get ONLY conservative talking points into bills to be passed in state legislatures. We can’t meet in the middle if ALEC’s position is that the far right IS the middle. If we fight back and insist that the middle is closer to the middle, is it your claim that we should feel sorry for ALEC for not getting its way?

      Of course, it does seem that you, Mr. Nelson, are encouraging ALL legislators to join for a measly $50. Ok, I might actually encourage my Democratic representatives to join. (Does ALEC fly all members out to posh resorts for free, or just Republicans? Because I expect all legislators to be treated equally.) I will also expect them to report back everything that they’ve heard and seen to their constituents. Of course, there may be legislators with some scruples that refuse because paying $50 to be flown to posh resorts to be bought by corporations smells faintly unethical (like, you can smell it across the entire country).

      Mr. Nelson, you also seem to think that we all (including those of us who read “left-of-center” MinnPost) should blindly accept what ALEC says about itself:

      “ALEC, according to its website, ‘provides a constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues. The potential solutions discussed at ALEC focus on free markets, limited government and constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments.'”

      Sir, the other day, a man came to our house dressed in shorts and a randomly branded hat and t-shirt. He claimed that he was there to sell windows. He had no literature. Were we wrong to not take him at his word? Should we have let him in to case the joint? Because, for sure, if he SAID he was legitimate and honest, he must have been.

      My advice to you, Mr. Nelson, is to avoid used car dealerships at all costs. They’re not nearly as trustworthy as ALEC.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/05/2012 - 02:58 pm.

      Colbert tries to be funny

      Mr. Nelson has just secured a place for himself on the long list of reasons not to take the Center for the American Experiment seriously.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/05/2012 - 04:53 pm.

      I now see where

      Kersten gets her logic and reasoning.

  5. Submitted by John Cricky on 06/05/2012 - 08:53 am.

    Wow.

    ALEC is an unregulated lobbyist group sponsored by corporations to help those corporations and wealthy individuals that already have the means to help themselves.

    The blind hypocrisy in this author’s opinion piece is amazing.

  6. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/05/2012 - 08:59 am.

    Corporate interests, the very wealthy

    And extreme conservatives are the only interest of ALEC. It has zero interest in the “common good”.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2012 - 09:31 am.

    Ooop, meat to say…

    If ALEC wilt under the light of sunshine it WON”T be because they’re conservative…

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/05/2012 - 10:02 am.

    If you want to reach common ground

    you can start by affording the opposition a bit more respect: lefty, snarky, left wing, manufactured, smearing, etc. All terms designed to widen, not bridge, the gulf between right and left (and those of us who reject either label).

  9. Submitted by mark wallek on 06/05/2012 - 10:31 am.

    How can they?

    Nelson and his ilk are clearly lying thru well capped teeth. This sort of “spin” is what causes one to abandon the idea that anything political provides anything valuable to the national circumstance. Lying and spinning and getting away with it seems to be the apex of political achievement in this nation.

  10. Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/05/2012 - 11:09 am.

    How is ALEC NOT a lobbying organization?

    Of course it is, and it’s criminal that they’ve been flying under the radar on this for so long.

    Although, I have to say I kinda’ like Rachel’s idea of getting our DFL reps to join up and attend the junkets so that they can come back and report to us!

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/05/2012 - 02:30 pm.

    What common ground?

    Rachel is right on, as is often the case. I’d love to see a tree-hugging, gay-marriage advocate, quite a bit left-of-center state representative – or even a businessman who hasn’t bought into the corporate mind set – join up and see not only how they’re treated, but also begin to get a handle on how the organization works for folks who aren’t reactionary to the tips of their toes.

    Even without that window into the organization, however, what’s quite obviously on display is the sophistry of Mr. Nelson.

    The whole point of ALEC and its legislative proposals is that there is no “common ground.” The term and concept of “Compromise” is anathema to the organization and its members, unless the “compromise” involves movement to the political right.

    I’ve also seen no evidence that ALEC is genuinely conservative in any of the dictionary senses. What ALEC legislative proposals typically do is suggest that we drop back 50 or 100 years to an earlier, less-inclusive, less-equal, less healthy time, and then enshrine those prejudices and forms of discrimination, once again, in the form of legislation. Wanting to go back to an earlier time is NOT “conservative.” It’s radical. It’s reactionary. It seeks to undo much, if not all, of the social progress made since the abandonment of Prohibition.

    In the process, and not surprisingly, ALEC apparently seeks to protect the interests of the wealthy and connected from incursions by the great unwashed masses of people who have neither money nor influence. ALEC represents oligarchy and plutocracy – rule by the few, and rule by the wealthy – carefully (and very cleverly and skillfully) cloaked in the rhetoric of “freedom,” a concept they’d like to deny to quite a few of their fellow citizens in areas like voting, sexual conduct, human reproduction, religion, and so on.

    I see nothing in Mr. Nelson’s piece that suggests where this “common ground” might be, and what ALEC is prepared to give up in order to reach it. Instead, my impression of the organization and its proposals and supporters is that both lean rather heavily toward the “my way or the highway” style of “negotiation,” and that impression is reinforced by Mr. Nelson’s choice of words, as James Hamilton pointed out.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/05/2012 - 03:47 pm.

    what is does

    Let’s not forget what brought ALEC out of it’s gatted community. It sure wasn’t a drive to gain some sort of compromise. It was the organization being outed for what they are. Being behind closed doors wasn’t happening anymore because of some startling positions advocated that were not in tune with freedom and justice.

  13. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 06/06/2012 - 09:46 pm.

    ALEC versus others

    The difference between ALEC and, say the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, is that the Caucus appears to put forward some examples of state legislation as potential models, while ALEC provides cookie-cutter bills to state legislators who sometimes fail to remove the boilerplate language before they introduce them.

    And let’s not even talk about the difference in money, scale or breadth of the effort.

    ALEC is an attempt to impose conservative/libertarian governance on all states, all the while dismissing federal-style efforts to accomplish anything nationwide.

  14. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 06/08/2012 - 10:29 am.

    What ALEC is more than even really conservative is aristocratic. Its sole purpose, which can be directly and clearly traced by its actions, is to increase the power and wealth of those already wealthy by the application of huge amounts of political moneys. The blather of its public statements is simply a smear job to cover for its real purpose.

    Actions speak louder than words and the actions of ALEC are crystal clear even if not meant to be.

    I am very tired of the increasingly aristocratic wealthy of the US defiling the term conservative.

  15. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 06/08/2012 - 10:55 am.

    Tolerance for diversity

    Amazing to read the comments to Mr. Nelson’s article – is it no longer possible to accept the fact there is a diversity of opinion on how best to approach the issues of the day – and that this diversity should be appreciated?

    Whether intentional or not, the comments responding to Mr. Nelson’s article scream – it’s our way, or the highway! (And naive to think other groups across the political spectrum don’t provide “model” legislation!)

    Frankly, I thought the quote from Gov. Dayton was a good one: the source of an idea is good to know, but the source doesn’t – in and of itself – make it a “good” or “bad” idea.

    • Submitted by Pete Barrett on 06/09/2012 - 09:10 am.

      Call It For What It Is

      Mr. Nelson is being called out for his disingenuous.Or if not that, his gullibility. They hide in the shadows for years, then when they’re outed Mr. Nelson says they’re just some concerned citizens.

      And just who funds the Center For The American Experiment?

  16. Submitted by Katherine Moore on 06/10/2012 - 02:09 pm.

    ALEC and the right wing

    Hooray for France! They “pulled the plug”on the ultra- conservative ideologists in their country in the recent election. Sarkozy was a right-wing puppet who favored the rich, courted the extreme right, and, was, no doubt, involved in the scandal that ended the political career of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was rumored to oppose Sarkozy in the recent election.

    We must follow the French! We must stop organizations like ALEC if America is to survive. Right wing organizations are systematically destroying America following the theory of the world’s most well-known evil right-winger, Adolph Hitler, who built an army of people based on a his famous quote, “How fortunate for rulers that men do not think.” With that in mind, he gathered thousands of mindless soldiers who were willing to murder millions of Jews.

    The battle for control in the US is more subtle than Hitler’s rhetoric, but the results are the same. Organizations like ALEC with rich, well-educated and powerful leaders seduce millions of mindless uneducated, bigoted individuals who embrace their message of fear, prejudice, and false patriotism. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are unwittingly involved in supporting political polices that will destroy America as we know it.

    The destruction of the middle class precedes the downfall of any nation. America’s middle class is drowning in a sea of contrived economic crises, joblessness, homelessness, and spiraling gas prices; all, of which, began over a decade ago under the Bush administration. I support Capitalism, but it must work for the masses. Two wars have been financed on the backs of the middle class with the only beneficiaries of those wars being defense contractors such as Halliburton. Most US citizens don’t realize that there are more civilian contractors on the ground now in the war zones than military personnel at a cost of billions of dollars to the American taxpayers.

    Many waited, watched, and hoped that the OCCUPY movement would spread and spur a national crusade that would counteract the right wing, but it was alarming to watch how quickly law enforcement was able to suppress the effort. Even the violent aggressive protests over the Vietnam War were allowed to function and, thus, an escalation of the end of the war. Obviously, freedom of speech has become a benign Constitutional right. We must follow in Frances’ footsteps as we “pull the plug” on the right wing in America.

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