By Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata
From Democracy and Media’s PR Watch 7/30/15
You’re Not In Kansas Anymore
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 501c3 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 meetings 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 eight of 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 2012 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. When he won his seat on Culpeper’s town council he was able to continue working for ALEC since his elected position was only part time. 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 & local control best practices.
ALEC where corporations are people too
Unlike other political organizations of locally elected public officials, corporations, business associations, and think tanks are full voting ALEC members, referred to as the private-interest partners.
From talking to one private-interest member, the cost of joining ALEC is just over $1,000 but to vote in one of ALEC’s task forces that make policies, the cost goes above $3,000. I suspect that a higher contribution allows for greater participation: sort of a pay-to-play model. However, no fee schedule was available. I believe that a dozen corporations paid $50,000 a piece to just sponsor ALEC’s conference, and that another 42 paid at least $10,000 for that privilege.
While I could not attend ALEC’s task force meetings where corporations vote, I saw how corporations participated in ACCE’s meeting. There were five private-sector representatives at the initial orientation meeting of 15 attendees: two represented tobacco interests, including one from RJ Reynolds Tobacco, two bail bond interests, and one from the Americans for Progressive Bag Alliance, the folks who fight plastic bag bans. Some weren’t actually from corporations but lawyers servicing those businesses. At no time did I count more than 7 private sector members at a meeting, and they were always out numbered two to one by the public sector members.
All ALEC task forces, and ACCE in this case, have two co-chairs, one from the private sector and one from the public sector. At our meeting, they were Nicholas Wachinski, an attorney and former director of the American Bail Coalition, and a self-declared Democrat. The other was Mayor John Harkins of Stratford, Connecticut, and former Connecticut House Republican Caucus Chairman.
Over the two days of ACCE meetings, there were never more than 30 people in attendance. Forty-two had registered for the ACCE conference, which was held simultaneously with the ALEC meeting, sharing breakfasts and lunch to hear national speakers.
The ACCE panels covered the following topics: streamlining the permitting process as proposed by one councilmember; increasing the use of PVC piping to replace metal piping pitched by a company selling that product; exploring the use of body cameras by the head of the police union, who made an even-handed presentation; the role of federalism as a defense of state preemption laws and stopping unfunded mandates by law professor Rob Natelson; and lobbyists presenting local free-market alternatives to payday loan companies being put out of business by federal consumer protection laws.
Some panels were just business reps pitching their products within the context of promoting more local control to get around federal regulations. However, in the case of preemption, it was a strategy for passing local right to work laws in states that didn’t have those restricting laws. This clearly promoted ALEC’s goal of overturning existing federal or state laws that provided worker or environmental protections in favor of letting the free market control local decision-making. One piece of advice that came from the attorney promoting his services for this approach: don’t mess with public employees right now, they’re too powerful. There are so many other pickings to go after, wait until you have enough political momentum to focus on them.
At the end of the two-day session the ACCE members broke into 4 small task forces to discuss and propose any resolutions for consideration. Two were brought forward and passed. One called for fair competition for city water projects, which was a way of allowing PVC pipes to be included in all bids. It was probably written with the help of the lobbyist promoting his client’s products.
The other motion encouraged ACCE members to push their state legislators to adopt Arizona’s legislation denying cities from passing any plastic bag bans. I pointed out to a member that this didn’t seem to be in alignment with federalism. He said that it was too confusing to have so many different local laws and this was a more pragmatic approach. Federalism went only so far.
Ironically, in the panel discussion on cities passing their own right to work laws, arguments were made that cities should be able to be exempt from state laws that allowed workers to organize for collective bargaining. In this instance, it didn’t matter if many cities had different rules within the same state. That proposal did not come up for a vote.
It takes a majority vote within both the private and public sectors to pass any legislation in ALEC or ACCE. If one sector disagrees with the proposal it does not pass. The public sector moves the motion and the votes are taken.
In this particular instance, the public officials spoke passionately in promoting the plastic bag bans. The corporate representatives were passive. They didn’t need to beat the drum. One public official emphatically said that she did not want local government to pay for inspectors to check on the thickness of bags. The resolution was packaged as protecting retailers and consumer choice and one amendment was added by another public official, “We believe that the free market is the best arbiter for container choice.” He could have added, “and for all other decisions.” (CMD has previously documented how public officials have been scripted by the ALEC private sector to take the lead in the debate over the bills sought by the private sector, as part of ALEC’s PR claims that the public sector is driving the legislation.)
ALEC’s Targets: Unions, the Supreme Court, Political Parties, & Bureaucrats
Unions are ALEC’s favorite whipping boy. When ALEC opened up their conference with Governor Scott Walker, he snapped that whip within his first few moments boasting “we took on the unions and won.” The crowd cheered. Even though union membership has been slashed by two-thirds from their peak in the mid-fifties, there are still enough left to be kicked around to show one’s allegiance to a free-market unfettered by over-paid complaining workers.
During one of ACCE panels a councilmember gave a thoughtful description of how a city’s permitting process could be streamlined, but then at the end he apologized for not laying off a bunch of city workers as it was part of a compromise to get his legislation passed.
While ALEC met inside the Hyatt in San Diego, several thousand union members and their supporters demonstrated outside opposing ALEC’s model legislation which would strip away the right of workers to organize and bargain for better working conditions. A councilmember speaking at our ACCE meeting chuckled after the sound of beating drums drifted up to the room. She smartly remarked, “We must be doing something right, if we can hear their drums.”
Later inside the elevator, several ACCE members chatted about how the demonstrators were bused in and they were just the same folks going to different sites. Another laughed and said that they were capitalists because they wanted jobs.
If the democrat dominated unions are scorned and dismissed as a nuisance, it’s the republican dominated SCOTUS (i.e. the Supreme Court) that is feared and loathed as an enemy of federalism and hence freedom. It seemed apparent to all present at ALEC that their recent decisions upholding gay marriage and the Affordability Care Act (aka Obamacare) trampled state sovereignty. That led to many a speaker on and off the stage to characterize SCOTUS as irrelevant and acting beyond its powers.
Gov. Mike Huckabee, renamed the Supreme Court the Extreme Court, telling an ALEC luncheon, that they “cannot make laws, they give thoughtful opinions, but they don’t have law making powers.” At another gathering, a speaker kept emphasizing how the court ‘s opinions – drawing out the last word so no one would miss her point, could be ignored since, “They don’t make laws, all they do is give opinions.”
Mark Meckler, the founder of the Tea Party Patriots and current President of Citizens for Self-Governance, argued for having a Convention of States to constitutionally limit the terms of the SCOTUS justices and possibly other federal judges.
Closer to home, at the ACCE meetings, the most apparent enemy to innovation were politicians’ own local city and county staffs and other politicians. It didn’t matter if they were Republicans or Conservatives.
Jon Russell, the director of ACCE, said the main purpose of their members was to rock the boat, get changes made. He told me how his own council was out of touch with the city’s substantial minority population, having only one black councilmember out of 9 when black residents made up close to a third of Culpeper’s population. He got the council elections moved, over opposition on the council but with the support of the local NAACP, from May to November in line with national elections in order to encourage more of the black community to vote.
A county commissioner in Indiana criticized the republican super majority controlled legislature for funding a rapid ride bus project through an income tax increase. He assured me that he opposed this mass transit project because of the funding not the project itself. He also shared with a small group of us that the Chamber was behind the income tax, because they didn’t want businesses to spend the money on the project and instead were willing to see their workers pay for it.
A Phoenix Councilmember complained to our ACCE meeting that city staff refused to give him information on how they handled the permit process. And, that other councilmembers, republicans and democrats alike, didn’t care to make any changes to speed up permitting because it would be too much work. He was surprised to find that even some businesses would just as soon keep the current practices because they didn’t want to fight the system.
Other examples continued throughout the ACCE conference: stubborn and incompetent government staff, lazy and even corrupt politicians regardless of party, although republicans came in for more berating because they should know better. Overall they were angry with the federal government, but often included the local ones they were supposed to be in charge of.
Next I’ll describe how the various clusters of fuming and frustrated ACCE & ALEC members create an organization that is both dynamic and riveted with contradictions.
Internal Divisions within ALEC
It is verifiable how large corporations push ALEC’s policies to allow them to maximize their profits while passing on the cost of mitigating any environmental damage they cause to the public sector. The same goes for the public picking up the tab for workers who need health care or housing because businesses do not pay wages that can sustain families. Nevertheless, there are deep anti-government currents within ALEC that are expressed more loudly by public officials (and think tank staff) than by the corporate representatives.
As I heard the speakers and saw the stacks of printed material available from the think tanks it was obvious that there are fissures within the ALEC membership on how they and corporations should relate to government. Most ALEC public sector members fall into one of three major factions: social conservatives and their closely aligned Christian conservatives; conservative Republican Party members; and libertarian conservatives and their closely aligned fiscal conservatives. The last group tends to be isolationists on foreign policy. Applause was light when Gov. Walker suggested to the lunch crowd that we “Put steel in front of our enemies as we go forward.”
But the divisions among the libertarian wing is minor in comparison to how both they and the social conservatives accuse mainstream Republicans of being sell outs to the system by being lax in pushing for “free market” solutions or reducing government. Mark Meckler, head of Citizens for Self-Governance, looked over a crowd of ALEC members and told them how he had never met so many liars as when he started lobbying state legislators to support a Convention of States.
The crowd gave a nervous chuckle and Meckler quickly assured them that he was sure not referring to anyone in the room. Some of those present were worried that a constitutional convention might go beyond requiring a balanced budget constitutional amendment and that it might drift into other areas far more radical. The bottom line is that the elected Republicans, who want to stay in office, will say they support something that they know they will only pursue if their constituents are behind it. That doesn’t cut it with the ideologues.
And, that is at the core of the tension within ALEC: those who really believe that government should shrink down to thimble size and those who know that at some point it just isn’t practical. The corporations that remain in ALEC support less government interference so they appear to be fine with the general concept (even though more than 100 corporations have dumped ALEC, as CMD has documented). So they may not publicly object to Texas Senator Ted Cruz accusing the federal government of having a tax structure that is purportedly leading this country toward a tyranny or West Virginia’s Solicitor General Elbert Lin telling the ALEC audience that EPA is abrogating state sovereignty.
At the end of the day, some of these public officials seemed to acknowledge that government serves some useful purpose. Some also see where it is incompetent or unresponsive, and they want taxes reduced. But what they don’t seem to see–and the corporations funding ALEC appear to be fine with that blind spot– is that too many corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes and some of them are also incompetent in providing services they take over from the government and services they provide to their customers.
Will ACCE become the ALEC for Cities and Counties?¬¬
In coming to the ALEC/ACCE conference my big question was, would the American City County Exchange (ACCE) be able to duplicate ALEC’s success in getting hundreds of bills passed around the country that cripple worker and environmental protections? Would it open the floodgates to corporate influence in shaping our urban political environment?
It seemed to me that ALEC may find success in suburban and smaller cities but not in the largest metropolitan areas. That’s because their demographic profile is like Congress’s: it’s primarily older white men, which is not the profile of our largest cities.
As of 2007 there were just over 19,000 municipal governments. Although 90% of them have populations under 25,000, the 100 cities with populations of more than 100,000 account for about 20% of the nation’s population. Those cities have significant minority populations. At least 35 of them have more than 33% black residents, and that is not counting the percentage of other minority groups.
That reality has led conservative state legislators to dice up state legislative districts to pack as many democrats into as few districts as possible, i.e. limiting the voter impact of the larger cities. Now that the Supreme Court has thrown out a challenge to creating nonpartisan commissions to draw those boundaries, ALEC and ACCE, in the name of protecting state sovereignty from SCOTUS, should be expected to redouble their efforts to fight these independent commissions that are designed to avoid gerrymandered districts.
While other major cities around the country have followed Seattle in raising the minimum wage, the right wing is pretty limited in what they can do to stop that effort – either within city councils or at the ballot box when proposed by initiative. As a result ACCE may continue to push laws and resolutions that make municipal governments cede their power to state legislatures. They can do this by stripping away the power of cities to control – or at least shape – their own economic environment. A perfect example: stopping cities from passing plastic bag bans by forcing them to go through the state legislature. This approach was deployed by ALEC for nearly two decades. Marching in lockstep with the legislative agenda of the NRA and the gun industry, ALEC peddled “preemption” of city laws through a claimed need for “consistency,” pitting rural gun owners against city efforts to control handgun crimes.
Although it wasn’t directly mentioned at this ACCE meeting, ALEC has long opposed paid sick leave or increasing the minimum wage, and ALEC has pushed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s legislation to pre-empt paid sick leave in Milwaukee. ACCE has also embraced pre-emption in other areas while simultaneously pushing an effort by Brent Yessin, an attorney representing his organization My Check My Choice, to use counties to attack unions. This has resulted in a lawsuit about the legality of local bodies passing so-called “right to work” measures even though federal law expressly provides that certain union rules are governed by either federal or state laws.
It seems then ACCE’s primary mission will be to augment ALEC’s efforts to keep or gain control of the state legislatures. Consequently, progressive forces cannot assume that just passing good municipal legislation will be replicated in other states or that they are secure where they have been enacted.
With over 80% of the nation’s population living in urban areas, the debate will have to be framed around improving people’s lives, both socially and economically in that context. It is possible that by attacking “preemption” legislation coming from state legislatures dominated by ALEC and its funders, progressives may be able to reach out to those supporting federalism at the municipal level as a means for obtaining greater freedom– from prejudice and poverty.