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ALEC – America’s Secret Political Power

A participant in a protest against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) holds a sign in Cincinnati, Ohio, April 29, 2011. (Photo: Mentatmark)

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Scottsdale, AZ – There’s something rotten in the air. A muggy, oniony, chemical smell that wafts over the lines of uniformed riot police, paddy wagons and metal barriers that are holding back a straggle of protesters waving slapdash placards reading “Shut Down ALEC.”

“Get back ma’am, for your own safety,” a courteous voice warns me. “They’re gonna start pepper spraying.”

Pepper spray?

It’s a surreal touch at the lush, sprawling Westin Kierland Resort, where the air is scented with fragrant flowering bushes and the aromatic lotions of the spa.

But the protesters are at the gate, and inside, hundreds of state legislators from all over the U.S., their wives and entourages are meeting with corporate leaders for a three-day annual policy summit. Or, to their banner-bearing foes, a cradle of “corporate profiteering at the expense of our communities.”

“Today only,” blazons a sign hoisted by a silver-haired protester, “Buy One Senator Get One Free!”

The target of this anger is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC — a benign, user-friendly acronym that fits the friendly turf of Scottsdale, where the grass is always greener and everything is for your comfort and safety.

I’m here to learn more about this increasingly muscular organization, formally an educational non-profit — and one that shuns the “L” word, lobbyist. It puts state lawmakers together with representatives from some of the country’s most powerful corporations to advance their legislative agendas. And it’s the most influential organization the majority of Americans have never heard of.

As the coming federal election sucks all the oxygen out of America’s political room, it’s easy to ignore the power of the states, and the changes that are quietly taking place across the country independent of — and often hostile to — the federal government. But, for understanding grassroots America, ALEC, here in God’s golf country, is a good place to start.

In the words of its manifesto, “ALEC provides its public- and private-sector members with a unique opportunity to work together to develop policies and programs that effectively promote the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty.”

And the success of its efforts is in little doubt.

By its own record, it has created an arsenal of about 800 “model” bills, templates or blueprints for future laws. They are tabled about 1,000 times a year across the country; about one in five are passed.

Some 2,000 state legislators belong to the organization, the vast majority of them Republican, in spite of its avowed non-partisan membership. And with Republicans now controlling half of all state governments, they pack an added punch.

To the protesters, and the growing number of media and non-governmental organizations who study it closely, ALEC is a factory for legislative bills that replicate across the 50 states, with the aim of undercutting the public sector and the role of government and promoting free-market policy at state level, where it often counts the most.

ALEC-backed provisions have opposed climate change legislation and environmental regulation, stoked the effort to privatize prisons and schools, pushed for rollbacks of workers’ rights, for limited voting rights and tax breaks for the wealthy. The results, critics say, line the pockets of corporations — a charge ALEC and its defenders insist is misrepresenting its operating style.

“The benefits of ALEC are that you don’t have to walk through 50 different legislatures,” says Jeff Reed, an Indiana “school choice” advocate who campaigns for developing alternatives to the public school system. “You can share ideas with everyone in the same room. But the people in the room are not in lockstep.”

But ALEC’s very success in advancing its policies has sparked a backlash in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, where police and firefighters joined protests against anti-union legislation.

Recall campaigns have been launched to end the terms of conservative lawmakers in several states. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People petitioned the UN to protest restrictive voting laws in 14 states, inspired, they say, by ALEC’s model legislation.

“When a company needs a state bill passed,” writes the far-from-radical Bloomberg Businessweek, “the American Legislative Exchange Council can get it done.”

ALEC officials routinely deny it, insisting that in this “laboratory of democracy” lawmakers, not corporations, have the final word on the bills that emerge for approval: if companies have a hand on the legislative tiller, it is not the upper hand.

The group’s 300-strong corporate members include some of the most high-profile in America: among them AT&T, Wal-Mart, GlaxoSmithKline, UPS, Pfizer, Bayer, Verizon, and Koch Industries — headed by the Kansas-based billionaire brothers nicknamed “the Kochtopus” for their wide-ranging financial and ideological influence.

Outside the wire, the protesters are growing weary, and police have peeled off their sci-fi gas masks.

“We’ve arrested five,” mutters a close-cropped plainclothes man to his phone, as I’m warned again not to venture beyond the barrier. Earlier, an Arizona reporter narrowly escaped arrest for disobeying orders.

As the protesters begin to disperse, a stocky dark-skinned man stays behind to harangue the police: “You and me, bro, we’re all part of the 99 per cent. ALEC is the 1 per cent. D’you get it, bro? Who are you protecting here?” The front line cops glance at each other uneasily, not moving.

“I was taking pictures and I stepped into a line between the police and protesters,” Ezra Kaplan, a 23-year-old student activist, tells me later. “The police moved in and I was trapped.”

Seventeen hours after he was thrown to the ground and arrested, Kaplan says, he was released and his knapsack returned — “but not my camera, which was worth $1,000.”

Like many of the protesters, he was drawn to this site by a conviction that the political system is broken, and ALEC part of the wrecking crew.

“You know that painting The Scream?” asks 51-year-old Diane D’Angelo, another activist and protester. “That’s what it’s like for me most days.

“I work, but I’m here for my friends who don’t have proper jobs or health insurance. I know of some who have committed suicide in this recession, but there’s no interest in people like them. Members of ALEC seem to have forgotten what the Constitution means. They make their own legislation.”

Inside the hotel’s vast conference wing all is calm and bright, in spite of the numerous vigilant security guards. Here, in a parallel universe of bonhomie, the men and women in suits who are liaising over morning lattes are the 99 per cent, and the Occupiers, out of sight and mind, the 1 per cent. It’s not the percentages, but the placement that counts here.

Conference tables are strewn with soberly titled reports by right-wing think tanks allied with ALEC: the Heritage Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the Franklin Center, the Tax Foundation and more.

They explain how poor states can become richer by cutting taxes, how retiree health benefits can be reined in, how “school choice” can create private alternatives to education. The evils of “Obamacare” are laid out, along with articles inveighing against federal waste. An anti-abortion group, Americans United for Life, hands out a model legislation guide to “changing laws to protect human life, state by state.”

“I heard there was some kind of protest out there,” says a portly man with a jovial smile, who lines up alongside me to pick up ALEC credentials, handily strung on an Arizona Association of Realtors lanyard. “I guess those guys just don’t have anything better to do. They’d be further ahead if they’d go out and get a job.”

The conversation ends abruptly as I’m handed my badge with the radioactive label “Media.”

But in spite of reports of the group’s secrecy and antipathy to the media, my application has been rapidly processed, and response to my interview requests from its diligent young communications director, Kaitlyn Buss, prompt and polite. And although some critics were refused entry, a reporter from a Phoenix paper, who has written sharply unflattering stories on ALEC, was admitted without question.

“There’s a big disconnect between what (the protesters) think happens here and what’s outlined in our publications,” maintains Jonathan Williams, one of ALEC’s senior strategists. “They think we’re a secretive organization — but how do they know that? How do they know we’re here?

“We have it on our website, very clearly, where our meetings are, what our publications are. I write op-eds in the national press that are open to everybody.”

Williams, an affable, articulate tax wizard who calls himself a “centre-right kind of guy,” says ALEC’s agenda is much misunderstood.

Far from being a cheek-by-jowl elite of lawmakers and lobbyists — “crusaders” who aim to shrink government to the size where they can drown it in the bathtub — it creates “the best agenda for taxpayers at large to create jobs and increase the overall standard of living throughout the United States regardless of income group. At the end of the day the best form of welfare is giving everybody a job.”

At a price.

The price includes doing away with the “ever-increasing federal environmental and energy regulations” that are in ALEC’s crosshairs. So are obtrusive unions, workers’ rights, and public pensions and retiree benefits that are threatening states with “generational theft.”

Taxing the rich is no solution to the economic dilemma, Williams assures me. It’s a lose-lose to “demonize business.” Slap on the taxes and “they’ll only move somewhere else” and take the jobs with them. In a globalized world, nobody is safe. Competitiveness is the key. Keeping jobs in America is vital — but China is just around the corner.

Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan and the Constitution. As lunch is served in the cavernous ballroom, homage is paid to ALEC’s holy trinity by an enthusiastic audience that is predominantly white and over 40. Darker-skinned people carry the trays, an echo of 1787.

“Our patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, said that ‘my reading of history convinces me that most (bad) government results from too much government,’” intones a host, to resounding applause. “How true that is.”

The Founding Fathers are dear to ALEC because they speak of a simpler time when the federal government didn’t get in the way of the states, or taxation and regulation in the way of progress. A time when “these” United States took precedence over “this” U.S. of today.

“We’d like to see a shift of power,” William Howell, the gentlemanly, silver-haired speaker of the house in Virginia, explains to me later: “It would restore the states’ powers that (the federal government) has usurped.”

Howell is ALEC’s federalism expert and a prominent backer of a constitutional amendment to repeal federal laws to which two-thirds of states object. Federal health-care legislation, for instance, should be barred because “if the federal government can require you to buy a product (i.e. health insurance) it can do anything.”

Howell’s vision for America is “50 thriving states. A much more limited federal and state government.” A vision devoutly wished by many of the legislative and corporate members here.

That is the Constitutional way, says Howell, the sort of favourite uncle you would invite to a family dinner. “The Constitution was authored by Virginians and we take great pride in it. It’s flexible enough for 300 million people as it was for 13 million.”

Born in 1973, to a group of conservative state lawmakers and policy wonks, ALEC can’t claim the provenance of the Founding Fathers. But after a modest beginning during President Richard Nixon’s term, and a slow ascendancy, it became a resounding hit in recent years, backed by corporate heft.

Now thousands of the elect and the elected head for its conferences, the latter assisted by ALEC’s “scholarship” funds. Some join the nine task forces and legislative boards that create template bills, alongside similar bodies set up for their corporate counterparts. The final vote, ALEC says, has no input from the corporations. (Critics, unsurprisingly, say otherwise. “Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line,” says the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.)

For Howell, and other lawmakers here, belonging to ALEC is a shortcut to effective, winnable legislation.

“If I flew to Las Vegas I wouldn’t know anybody,” he explains. “We have 50 laboratories to find out what they’ve all been doing. ALEC provides a meeting point, and the distinguishing feature is they’re very interested in liberty and the free market.”

The air of Scottsdale is free too, of pepper spray. I stroll back to my room in the nearby Westin Kierland Villas complex, along the manicured golf course and the limpid pond on which float a family of ducks.

Overhead three helicopters hover. One breaks away and seems to shadow my path. After the years I have spent in conflict zones helicopters are not a good omen. I squint into the dazzling blue sky and wave. The chopper wheels back and lazily retreats. Later, that night I fall into a fitful sleep, pursued by a dark helicopter that always outflanks me.

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. . .

Back at the conference, a workshop on pension reform is winding up a lengthy discussion of a proposed Public Pension Accounting Responsibility Act. The act would force legislators to “tell the truth” about state pensions, which ALEC supporters claim are undermining (if not collapsing) state finances.

As the audience files out for a coffee break, I stay behind and wait for the Fiscal Policy Reform Working Group to begin. It will drill down on one the hottest issues in Washington, tax reform, and review a model bill on opposing state bailouts by the federal government.

A friendly voice greets me: Kaitlyn Buss.

“I hope you’re enjoying the conference,” she says. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the room.”

“But I’ve just sat through another working group. Why is this one different?”

“Some are open, others aren’t. It’s just the rules.”

Night falls, and the tiny sports bar in the hotel basement is crowded. A ruddy-faced man jumps to his feet, sweating, as touchdowns are scored on the big screen. He volleys the results at a huddle of young women who seem barely aware of the action.

Nor am I. I’m talking to a fellow hotel guest, Beau Hodai, a journalist from the left-wing magazine In These Times who has written probing articles on ALEC. Unlike me, he hasn’t enjoyed its co-operation and credentials. His calls have gone unanswered, and he has been turned back by the police and guards who firewall the meeting.

The noise level in the bar rises and so do I. As I say goodnight, Beau is summoned by hotel security and herded away toward the elevator by uniformed police. Why? In Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, I was evicted from my hotel by machine-gun-toting militias as the Kosovo war began. But in America. . . ?

As I stand staring, two cops flank me: Do I know this man? Who is he?

Beau has disappeared now. Will anything I say be used against him? I square my shoulders and think of my British mother: “How dare you ask me such a question? Is this a morality charge? Are hotel guests of the opposite sex forbidden to speak in a bar? Is this Iran or the land of the free?”

We face off, not blinking. The questions continue. At last the inquisitors give in. “Ma’am, you’re free to go.”

They are pointing me toward the lobby, and the front door. On cue, the helpful young man at the bell desk calls the hotel shuttle to convey me to the Villas.

At 11 p.m., some 45 minutes later, I call Beau’s number. He is now in another hotel, his stay at the Westin Kierland terminated abruptly.

“They said they were throwing me out and that they would escort me to the room to get my belongings,” he tells me. “I had to leave right then and there — or be arrested.” Off-duty police, it appears, were moonlighting as security for the conference, but no less determined to do their duty as they saw it.

(Back in Toronto I reach the hotel’s managing director, Bruce Lang, by phone and am told, “Mr. Hodai was considered to be a persona non grata from the conference.” But he adds, “not by the hotel, not by the police. . . He clearly presented a threat to the conference, based on his history.”) That would be the threat of investigative journalism?

In the Phoenix airport I move through the tanned, jostling holiday crowd toward the Air Canada gate.

What just happened here? I board the plane and settle back to watch the Arizona landscape disappear. The dry, dusty beige and the achingly lush green. The baronial resorts and the desert shacks. The conference too has dispersed, and the hotel resumed the even tenor of its ways. Business as usual. And I think of ALEC and the Constitution it reveres.

The First Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

The 99 per cent, and the 1 per cent. A nation divided under God.

Reproduced with permission – Torstar Syndication Services.

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