This is the first in a series of reports by Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, author of Becoming a Citizen Activist, coming out this January by Sasquatch Books.
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A Progressive Democrat Joins the Right-Wing ALEC
It’s true. I plopped down my $50 and became a member of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), dedicated to the three principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. This is the basis of a right-wing movement in America to repeal existing government legislation that promotes social justice and economic equity, and stop any future such legislation.
However, while these three words are blazoned across their brochures, the literature inside says, “The goal of ALEC is to foster efficient, effective, accountable and transparent government that respects hardworking people.” Heck, I’ve always campaigned supporting these goals and I don’t know anyone right or left who wouldn’t. So I was intrigued by how such commonly shared goals could lead to such divergent paths toward a more democratic America.
I know the shorthand explanation. Nick, don’t be gullible, the corporations run ALEC and their members are ignorant ideologues or, at best, are being honestly mislead by corporate propaganda. I had to meet these people. I’ve met ignorant ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. Did the right wing have more of them because corporations spend gobs of money on deception?
There was one problem in finding out – ALEC is open only to state legislators or private-interest parties, i.e. corporations or business associations. Being neither, I wouldn’t be able to get into their conference. A break came last year when ALEC formed ACCE (the American City County Exchange) for city and county public officials. It was to take ALEC’s organizational approach of helping these elected representatives pass laws that could cut taxes, limit government and promote free markets (i.e. turn over government services and functions to businesses).
I had assumed that this was a closed association, and that I would be required to take an oath or be screened and approved for admission. There have been democratic state legislators who experienced difficulty in getting admitted into ALEC meetings. But in the end, they were admitted. Why? Because ALEC is a 501 (c) (3) organization, which means that it cannot discriminate based on political beliefs if it wants to retain its advantageous tax status. The door was open, all I had to do was step through it and pay the admission charge. There I found that things were not as open as it might have appeared, but I’ll deal with the mechanics of how ALEC/ACCE operate in a later posting.
When I started tweeting (@nickjlicata) and posting on Facebook during my three days attending the joint ALEC/ACCE conference, the initial responses I received were of shock and bewilderment. What was I doing there? It was said that I had crashed this event. But as I point out it’s not about crashing it, since they legally can’t stop an elected from attending. Nevertheless, it does take some nerve to enter into a conference where everyone there has an adamantly different worldview and most likely will see you as the enemy.
The challenge for me, and in a way it is for all of us, is to get around seeing individuals as enemies. Yes, we have different strategies for protecting our democracy but we must listen closely to the other side to understand just how they hope to accomplish that, even when it turns our stomach because we can see how it will most likely cripple our democracy. You cannot sharpen a blade without grinding it against a tough stone. We have to do the same with our minds. If they are not challenged they become mere echo chambers for slogans.
In the following posts, I will introduce the people and leaders I met. I will let you know what they said during the meetings and afterwards. I will describe how ALEC and ACCE operate and how they have begun to reshape this nation to conform to their vision. I will reveal the divisions that exist within them and how those conflicts present an internal challenge to achieving their own goals. And I will talk about how the corporate interests shape these organizations and also how the most conservative elected officials complain about how those same corporations are corrupt.
Meet the Folks Who Want to Tear Down Government
If yesterday’s far left wanted to overthrow the government, today’s far right would just as soon get rid of most of it. The term “far right” implies a small fringe group, wanting to shove most of the federal apparatus into the dustbin of history, as Marx would say. However ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), is not a small fringe group, they claim to have a quarter of all state legislators as members.
Who are these people? They are not like the Occupy Movement’s youth who pitched tents in parks. They are more like their parents, who stayed at home and watched TV. But make no mistake, they are organized and well funded to carry their ideas forward.
About a 1,000 ALEC delegates and lobbyists attended their largest meeting at the San Diego Hyatt last week. I eyeballed three separate clusters at different times at the conference and the highest percentage of people of color I could count was 8 percent. Women delegates faired better at 20 percent. A handful of youthful interns from the Heritage Foundation kept order, although there was no rowdiness.
ALEC created ACCE (the American City County Exchange) in 2014 as a separate organization for municipal officials. I assumed ALEC’s corporate members initiated ACCE. That may be too simplistic a view, at least from what ACCE’s founder and Director Jon Russell told me.
Russell is a councilmember from the township of Culpeper, Virginia, with a population just under 20,000, which is 52% white, and 32% black. It would seem to be a city in need of federal assistance. The last census showed males had a median income of $28,658 and 27% of the population was below the poverty line. Russell, a father of four children, is white, as are all nine councilmembers there.
Despite the differences in our politics I found that we had a similar past in organizing. Both of us started national networks of municipal officials to promote our political views. Jon had connections with about 20 other local politicians from his conservative advocacy work, and I had a similar number from my progressive national work.
I helped launch Local Progress in 2013 by calling together about 30 politicians, community organizers, and non-profits. The following year Russell walked into ALEC and told them he wanted to start a conservative national network of municipal officials to carry out ALEC’s mission. They hired him as director and devoted their ample resources to building it. Since his elected job is part time, he retained his seat. Meanwhile, the non-profit Center for Popular Democracy agreed to host Local Progress. The members raised money to pay for a CPD staff person to act as a part-time director and I served as chair.
Today Local Progress has 370 elected officials as members, and ACCE has 312, but they also have over 200 private interest partners. If those businesses pay separately to join ACCE, that would give Russell’s group well over $200,000 in annual income just through corporate membership fees. Although we are currently limiting our membership to cities, ACCE includes counties. We have no membership fees and do not charge for attending our annual conferences, while their fee is $50 per elected official and they charge anywhere from $200 to $700 to attend their meetings, depending on when one registers.
Russell told me that they give out limited grants since many of their members are from smaller towns that do not have budgets to support attending such conferences. I suspect there are a large number of such grants or corporate scholarships provided to those that they would like to see attend.
Russell intends to double his membership every year and sees the potential to eventually exceed ALEC’s since there are thousands more local officials than state legislators. Given the funds being poured into ALEC by corporations and foundations like the Koch Institute, not to mention access to ALEC’s 40 plus staff, ACCE could become a major player in shaping municipal policies. Their presence may not grow in the larger democratic cities, but there are thousands of smaller cities that could feel their impact.
Throughout ACCE’s second annual gathering, I sat in a small room with two-dozen members, all white like myself and mostly men, discussing how to limit government’s influence. Russell told the group, “We are looking at our work as pioneers of the future, not prison guards of the past.” Their first publication outlining that future comes out later this year, to be followed by white papers on federalism and local control best practices.
In my next installment I’ll share what I saw of corporate participation in the Conference.