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Yes, Prof. Cronon, Let’s Talk About ALEC

Getting over half a million hits on your very first post is every blogger’s dream. That’s what happened to Prof. William Cronon, a distinguished professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin, but his unexpected success as a blogger turned his life upside down.

Cronon made a splash with his inaugural post, entitled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here).”

Cronon’s efforts aroused the ire of the Wisconsin Republican Party. Just 36 hours after the post was published, the Wisconsin GOP submitted a request under the state’s Open Records Law (the local equivalent of FOIA) for all incoming and outgoing email from Cronon’s state email account containing the words: “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.”

When Dave Weigel of Slate asked why the Wisconsin GOP was trying to get ahold of Cronon’s emails, party executive director Mark Jefferson archly replied:

Like anyone else who makes an open records request in Wisconsin, the Republican Party of Wisconsin does not have to give a reason for doing so.

Strictly speaking, you don’t have to give a reason to the State of Wisconsin to file an open records request, but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from demanding answers.

Cronon concluded that the open records request was retaliation for his post about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That seems like a reasonable assumption. If the Wisconsin GOP doesn’t like people talking about ALEC, that’s all the more reason to talk about it.

Cronon’s original post begins with a question that has been on a lot of people’s minds lately:

After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challenges–ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so on–I’ve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from.

Cronon argues that the ALEC is a major force behind the recent surge of conservative state-level legislation. ALEC claims that approximately 1000 of its model bills are introduced in state legislatures around the country each year and that about 18% percent of those become law. There’s no easy way to independently verify these statistics, though some activists are doing their best to track ALEC bills.

ALEC’s sample legislation advances the interests of low wage employers, energy companies, prescription drug companies against drug importation, private insurers threatened by health reform, various and sundry polluters, the private prison industry, and anyone who doesn’t want too many Democrats voting. Its bills oppose unions and favor privatization of public assets. ALEC boasted on its website of its role in “cracking ACORN.”

ALEC is a legislative ghostwriting outfit that brings together corporate underwriters and conservative state legislators. ALEC claims nearly 2000 legislator members. If true, that works out to about 1/4 of the nation’s 7382 state legislators.

ALEC’s annual revenues hover around $6 million a year. The non-profit doesn’t have to disclose the precise sources of its funding, but it is safe to assume that ALEC’s 300-odd corporate and private foundation members underwrite a large share of its budget. A recent report by the American Association for Justice, a trade association for trial lawyers, estimates that 81.7% of ALEC’s revenue comes from corporate contributions.

As of Dec 1, 2010, members of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board included Mike Morgan of Koch Industries, Inc; Kevin Murphy of ExxonMobil Corp; Maggie Sans of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc; Toby Spangler of Altria Client Services, Inc. (the lobbying arm of the tobacco giant formerly known as Philip Morris); and Matt Echols of the Coca-Cola Company. Other firms with seats at the table included drug companies, energy giants, an insurer, Kraft Foods, and AT&T.

As a recent ALEC brochure delicately put it:

One of ALEC’s greatest strengths is the public-private partnership. ALEC provides the private sector with an unparalleled opportunity to have its voice heard, and its perspective appreciated, by the legislative members. [Emphasis added.]

ALEC charges between $2500 and $10,000 a year to belong to one of its nine task forces. For $25,000 a year, a sponsor can join the Jefferson Club, which includes membership in an unlimited number of task forces and other benefits. Companies can pay even more to sponsor ALEC meetings where state legislators rub elbows with corporate bigwigs. Officially, this is not lobbying, even though corporations help craft legislation in the hopes of swaying elected officials.

ALEC is set up to exploit a widespread weakness in the structure of state governments. Many state legislators work part time, and many have little legislative staff support. Writing bills is hard work and it’s expensive to hire people who are qualified to do it. When the taxpayers won’t hire legislative staff to work for them, ALEC fills the void by writing model legislation, based on the input of corporate sponsors.

ALEC has deep roots in Wisconsin. The organization was co-founded in 1973 by Racine native Paul Weyrich, Henry Hyde (yes, he of the Hyde Amendment), and Lou Barnett. The future governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson (R) was active during ALEC’s formative years, as was future U.S. Senator Rob Kasten. The current governor of Ohio, John Kasich (R), was another leading figure in the early days of ALEC. 

“I always found new ideas and then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that it’s mine,” Thompson later bragged about his days attending ALEC meetings in the 1970s.

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) currently serves as an ALEC state chair. Wisconsin State Rep. Leah Vukmir (R) is the “public chair” of the ALEC Health and Human Services Task Force, the “private chair” is Marianne Eterno of Guarantee Trust Life Insurance. Vukmir has a history of opposing mental health parity laws that would require insurance companies to cover psychiatric illnesses on par with other conditions.

These folks are mainstream compared to some members of ALEC’s board. Sen. Val Stevens (R) of Washington State has been an elected member of ALEC’s national board of directors since 2005. Stevens famously wrote in a letter opposing same sex unions in 2009:

“Are the homosexuals finally going to take control of our culture and push their depraved lifestyle on our children and families?”

To my knowledge, ALEC is not active on this issue, but the fact that Stevens is still welcome on its board speaks volumes.

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Another ALEC board member, Tennessee State Rep. Todd “Guns in Bars” Curry (R) famously said that extending prenatal care to undocumented mothers would encourage these women to “go out there like rats and multiply.”

ALEC reportedly played a major role in shaping Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law.

To learn more about ALEC’s agenda and tactics, see Nathan Newman‘s excellent 2006 report for the Progressive States Network.


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