Democratic Party Backs ALEC Alumnus Congressman Against Progressive Challenger

Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona’s First Congressional District is affiliated with an organization that promotes conservative legislation across the country, yet top House Democrats and Democratic Party groups are backing him against a primary challenge from his left.

O’Halleran is listed as an alumnus of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings corporations, lobbyists and lawmakers together to co-write bills, on the group’s website. “ALEC alumni advance limited government, free market and federalism priorities at every level of elected office,” the website states. O’Halleran was a Republican state legislator in Arizona from 2001 to 2009.

ALEC has had a profound impact on Republican policies since its founding in 1973. The group, which has deep ties to the Koch network, has been behind dozens of rightwing proposals that have passed at the state and federal levels, including “stand your ground” gun laws, restrictive voter ID requirements, and limits on the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. The group has also worked directly with congressional Republicans through a partnership it formed in 2012 with the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservative House members.

O’Halleran’s office told Sludge that the representative does not pay dues to ALEC and that he should not be listed on the website. “Our team is reaching out to ALEC to get Rep. O’Halleran removed from their website today, the representative’s spokesperson said in an email to Sludge. “ALEC may try to claim Tom O’Halleran, but Tom O’Halleran opposes the radical policies ALEC stands for.”

During his time in Congress, O’Halleran has joined the GOP on numerous votes. In 2017, he voted for two anti-regulation bills put forward by Republicans, Rep. Jason Smith’s (R-Mo.) SCRUB Act, which would establish a commission to identify regulations that should be repealed because they impose a burden on industry, and Rep. Bob Gibbs’ (R-Ohio) “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act,” which would eliminate federal and state regulations of pesticide disposal in navigable waterways. In 2018, he voted in favor of a resolution from Rep. Steve Sclaise (R-La.) expressing that “a carbon tax would be detrimental to the United States economy.” He voted in favor of a resolution from Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) praising U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and denounced calls for it to be abolished.

O’Halleran’s ideology score, as calculated by the nonpartisan website GovTrack, was the seventh most conservative among all House Democrats during the 2017-18 session of Congress.

O’Halleran is facing a primary challenge from Democrat Eva Putzova, a former member of the Flagstaff City Council who has been endorsed by progressive groups Brand New Congress and Progressive Democrats of America. Putzova supports the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and tuition-free college, according to the issue page on her website.

Putzova condemned O’Halleran’s affiliation with ALEC in an email to Sludge.

“ALEC has produced model bills for conservative and right wing legislators for combating immigration, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, weakening labor unions and opposing gun control, Putzova said. “All these proposals harm the interests of people in my district. Representative O’Halleran should be ashamed of himself for being an alumnus of ALEC.”

Putzova, who said on Twitter that her campaign has 1,500 unique donors, has pledged not to take money from corporate PACs. By contrast, O’Halleran took $271,784 from business PACs, as categorized by the Center for Responsive Politics, during the first three quarters of 2019. As of the end of the third quarter last year, his campaign had $574,079 cash on hand, while Putzova’s campaign reported $11,347 in cash on hand. There are two more candidates who have declared for the AZ-1 Democratic primary, but neither has reported any fundraising or campaign spending to the Federal Election Commission.

So far in the 2019-20 election cycle, O’Halleran has received at least $20,000 from PACs of companies and trade groups that are members or funders of ALEC as of last year, including from the PACs of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association ($1,000), The American Bankers Association ($5,000), T-Mobile ($1,000), Entergy ($2,000), Pfizer ($2,000), and Century Link ($2,000).

O’Halleran has also received $5,900 since 2017 from Russel Smoldon, a former member of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council and a former ALEC private sector state chairman. The private sector state chairmen help ALEC raise money for its scholarship fund, which it uses to finance travel and gifts for lawmakers.

O’Halleran, who is in his second term, recently gained a new position in the House from which to do the work of an ALEC alumnus. In 2019, he was named co-chair of policy for the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of centrist House Democrats who work to push the Democratic caucus to the right and often vote with Republicans. The Blue Dog Coalition currently has 25 members, making up a subset of 103 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the federal legislature’s lower chamber.

Establishment Support

Despite O’Halleran’s affiliation with ALEC and his conservative voting record, the Democratic Party is sticking by him in his race against Putzova.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has added O’Halleran to its Frontline Program, which provides 44 Democratic incumbents it views as vulnerable with “access to strategic analysis, campaign guidance and fundraising prioritization to ensure they have both the resources and cutting edge information they need to execute effective reelection campaigns.”

The DCCC gave O’Halleran $718 in the first three quarters of 2019. The leadership PACs of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) both gave O’Halleran $10,000 in 2019.

Last year, the DCCC established a policy of not hiring any political vendors that work with Democratic primary challengers.

“Early on, we had one company refusing to engage with us and specifically mentioned that they signed the DCCC ‘pledge,’ Putzova said. “Maybe because we work with smaller, progressive companies, the real effect of the DCCC blacklisting on our campaign was marginal. We still think it’s utterly undemocratic and unethical.”

Not Just O’Halleran

In total, four Democratic members of Congress are alumni of ALEC. Besides O’Halleran, they include Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Several of the Demoratic ALEC alumni have been given coveted committee assignments and party positions by Democratic Party leadership.

Manchin, who has one of the worst environmental records of all Democrats in Congress, was named chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2019 by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Wasserman Schultz was selected by former President Barack Obama to serve as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2011 (she resigned in 2016 after leaked emails showed DNC officials conspiring to help Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primary). O’Halleran was given a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most prized committee assignments in the House.

UPDATE: This article previously stated that Rep. Ed Perlmutter is an alumnus of ALEC. Perlmutter’s name is listed as an alumni on ALEC’s website as of Jan. 7, 2019, but his congressional office told Sludge in an email that he has never been a member of ALEC.

“Ed is not, and never has been, a member of ALEC,” Perlmutter’s communications director wrote. “Due to your story, we realize ALEC has once again listed Perlmutter as a member of their alumni on their website which is inaccurate. ALEC used Ed Perlmutter’s name without his knowledge or permission, and Ed in no way supports their platform.”