Behind Enemy Lines at ALEC's Right-Wing Policy Conference

Activists say the American Legislative Exchange Council backs corporate interests over people

The 15-foot-tall fat cat clutches his money bag in one paw and the working man's throat in the other. (Photo by John Anderson)

"Hey hey, ho ho, corporate lobbyists have got to go!" chanted around 100 labor, immigrant, environmental, disability, and social justice advocates outside the JW Marriott Hotel Downtown on Wed., Aug. 14. "Hey, ALEC, you can't hide, we can see your greedy side!" they later continued. The protesters stood alongside a 15-foot, cigar­-chomping, inflatable cat wearing a pinstriped suit – with one paw he held a construction worker by the throat; with the other, he grasped a bag of cash. The "unwelcome reception," organized by Progress Texas and joined by a coalition of advocacy groups, rallied against what was gathering inside the high-end hotel: the 46th annual American Legislative Exchange Council conference.

Better known as ALEC, the group markets itself as "America's largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism." Gaining public notoriety in the past decade, the group has been around since 1973. According to investigations into the shadowy organization, ALEC is a corporate-backed group with ties to the right-wing Koch Brothers network that drafts "model policy" for member legislators to use as their own at their statehouses.

While keeping members' identities secret, ALEC claims "one-quarter of the country's state legislators" participate in its efforts. The "corporate bill mill," as described by watchdog groups, is behind controversial "Stand Your Ground" gun laws and measures that limit workers' rights and health care access. With Reaganomics icon Arthur Laffer as a celebrated ALEC scholar, the group supports corporate tax breaks, the privatization of public services (from education to prisons), and voter suppression policies.

Activists laid out the charges against ALEC at the Downtown protest. "Hijacking the legislative process to serve corporate interests and right-wing billionaires is not welcome in Texas," said Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Montserrat Garibay. "ALEC has promoted far-right agendas on the environment, health care, disability rights, voting rights, immigration, and on other issues that we address every day in a quest to build a better Texas. They are a secretive, partisan shadow group. And this week, ALEC is in Austin working behind closed doors to hatch more bad bills."

Montserrat Garibay (Photo by John Anderson)

Heiwa Salovitz with ADAPT of Texas criticized the group's attacks on Medicare and Medicaid and its push for a rollback of the Americans with Disabilities Act. "We need to make sure ALEC knows they're not welcome in Austin, and they're not welcome in our Capitol," he said. Jorge Lopez with the Workers Defense Project recounted his traumatic experience in a privately owned Texas detention center (major detention operators CoreCivic and GEO Group are longtime ALEC backers). Anne White Hat, leader of a campaign to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in south Louisiana, told the crowd she's one of the first people to be charged under ALEC-model laws "criminalizing" environmental and anti-pipeline protests. "I'm standing here and fighting for my life – I'm facing 10 years in prison," said White Hat.

Council Member Greg Casar noted the symbolism of ALEC's meeting at the JW Marriott, where workers accused the developer of underpaying them in 2013, as a reflection of ALEC's battle against the labor movement. He told the crowd, "ALEC is not a bunch of elected officials, ALEC is the corporate special interests that see the best way of making money as trampling on every worker's rights, every civil right, and trampling on the planet. They are not elected officials, they are just the puppets of these corporations that pick and choose to extract their profit."

Greg Casar (Photo by John Anderson)

In scorching 100-degree heat, the activists marched along Second Street and blocked shuttles transporting ALEC attendees in front of the JW Marriott garage. "Human need over corporate greed!" they repeated. Eventually, several police officers – who had been trailing the peaceful protest – cleared the way for the vehicles, but that didn't stop activists from continuing their march along the street.

Resistance to ALEC comes from a diverse range of groups that oppose its corporate influence in policymaking.

U.S. House candidate Wendy Davis – not most people's idea of a socialist radical – joined the protest. When asked why she supported the activists, the former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee told us, "ALEC represents everything I'm fighting against in my congressional campaign. ALEC props up corporate interests against everyday people at every turn. That means keeping drug prices high, blocking living wages and paid sick leave. ALEC makes sure to neuter and diminish the voices that stand up to corporate greed."

Resistance to ALEC comes from a diverse range of groups that oppose its corporate influence in policymaking. Those companies sponsoring ALEC include Koch Industries, Pfizer, and Philip Morris, along with Texas-based BNSF Railway, Energy Future Holdings, McLane Company, and VISTRA Energy. So how influential is ALEC in Texas? A damning new report by the Center for Media and Democracy – released just days before ALEC rode into Austin – offers us an answer.

Even the Graft's Bigger in Texas

Texas is home to the largest delegation of politicians with ALEC ties, according to CMD and Common Cause Education Fund's August 2019 "ALEC in Texas" report. While ALEC keeps its membership roster under wraps, through uncovered documents, signed letters, and state expense forms, CMD identified 59 Texas legislators with known ties to ALEC – almost one-third of the Legislature.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, serve as ALEC state chairs, while state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, sits on ALEC's national board of directors. Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Heg­ar, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, and Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian were all members of ALEC when they were in the Lege. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is an ALEC alum, while Gov. Greg Abbott was a featured ALEC conference speaker in 2014 and 2016.

Former governor and current U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is a star ALEC alumnus, netting a major award in 2010 and granting ALEC a "private briefing on energy policy at the White House," according to CMD. Delivering the opening conference speech before ALEC members in Austin earlier this month, Perry – who in 2011, during the GOP presidential primary, declared he would abolish the Department of Energy if elected to the White House – exclaimed like a child that he had the "coolest" job in the world. "Regulations should be the rules of the road, not barriers to success," Perry told the crowd. "[ALEC members] recognize if you free people from overregulation, overtaxation, overlitigation, that their future will be better." (Perry's definition of freedom has produced the much-romanticized "Texas Miracle" – a superficially robust economy that in reality still overburdens and overtaxes its middle and lower classes.)

With its strong presence in the Legislature, ALEC has "maintained a vise-like grip on Texas politics for decades," says the CMD report. That's meant we now have state laws mirroring ALEC's blueprint model policies – oftentimes word-for-word. Notably, ALEC pushed the so-called "Stand Your Ground" law (which it called "ALEC's Castle Doctrine Act"), which sparked national controversy after George Zimmer­man escaped punishment in Florida for killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. In 2007, Texas enacted a strict version of this same law. In 2011, the state passed one of the harshest voter ID laws in the country; it mirrored ALEC's model Voter ID Act and other policies proposed by ALEC legislators in at least 36 other states in 2011 and 2012. With support from right-wing activists and ALEC-backing corporations, Texas legislators propped up "school choice" and voucher programs in 2014, and in 2017, legislators created "high-risk insurance pools" to separate people with preexisting or chronic conditions from the broader insurance market, an element of a national strategy to halt major sections of the Affordable Care Act; CMD writes that the Texas bill language was pulled straight from ALEC's website. Also in 2017, ALEC helped push policy granting private companies eminent domain authority to acquire land for the Texas Central high-speed rail project.

In the most recent legislative session, ALEC's influence can be seen in bills like the "Critical Infrastructure Protection Act" by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall. Also lifting language from ALEC, the bill raises penalties and fines for activists who engage in environmental civil disobedience to "impede, inhibit, or interfere" with the operations of "critical infrastructure," including oil and gas facilities, water treatment plants, and pipelines. Intentional acts that damage critical infrastructure could result in a third-degree felony and up to a 10-year jail sentence. Also using language straight from ALEC model policy, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, co-authored a "campus free speech" bill (Senate Bill 18), filed amid an increasing presence of white supremacy activists and fascist literature on college campuses. The bill, which follows ALEC-spawned measures in 16 other states, forces universities to "establish disciplinary sanctions for students, student organizations, or faculty who unduly interfere with the expressive activities of others on campus." Both laws have been signed by Abbott and will take effect on Sept. 1.

Who's Picking Up the Tab?

"ALEC's corporate pay-to-play lobbying scheme serves to hide special interest influence, so the public never knows who writes the laws that affect our daily lives and environment," said Arn Pearson, CMD's executive director. "We're working to shine a light into the dark corners of ALEC's policymaking." While ALEC has been largely successful in attracting support from large corporations, it saw an exodus around 2011 as media and watchdog organizations like CMD began to expose its influence. Since then, some 115 companies have put distance between themselves and ALEC, including Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, Amazon, ExxonMobil, AT&T, and Google.

Perhaps ALEC's coziest partner in Austin is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state's premier conservative think tank. TPPF is a member of ALEC's sister organization, the State Policy Network, as well as a funder of ALEC, serving on its task forces for topics including education, health and human services, civil justice, and the environment. The TPPF and other SPN members have advanced ALEC policies to "hamstring labor; privatize education; disenfranchise minorities, students and the elderly; and roll back state environmental initiatives," the CMD report notes. Some ALEC-allied politicians, like former state Reps. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, went on to work for TPPF. Isaac's former legislative aide Ellen Troxclair, later the Austin City Council's lone conservative, served on ALEC's American City County Exchange; she's now a senior fellow at TPPF's Center for Local Governance.

The TPPF has sought to quash progressive local workers' rights ordinances, including a (so far successful) legal action against Austin's paid sick leave policy and litigation against similar efforts in Dal­las. The Legislature tried but ultimately failed this spring to pass bills preempting such local ordinances, in which CMD again sees the traces of ALEC's model policies. "Following in the footsteps of Big Tobac­co and the NRA, ALEC has pushed anti-democratic preemption model policies from the 'Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act' to the effort to preempt local paid sick leave ordinances with the intention of protecting corporate interests at the expense of workers," David Armiak, research director at CMD, told us. He added that under the guise of "worker freedom" and "worker rights," the group has taken the lead in coaching state legislators on how best to frame anti-worker measures like "right-to-work" laws that aim to disempower public sector unions and protect corporate interests.

Troxclair was in attendance at the Austin ALEC conference, along with a reported 45 members of the Texas Legislature, according to a list provided to corporate watchdog group Documented by a meeting attendee. That includes far-right state Reps. Tony Tinder­holt, R-Arlington; Jeff Leach, R-Plano; Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park; Candy Noble, R-Allen; Valoree Swanson, R-Spring; and state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, author of the 2019 omnibus bill that would have barred cities from requiring worker protections including paid sick leave. Nearly 70 groups in the Koch Bros. network were present at the JW Marriott, including 55 staff members from Americans for Prosper­ity, reveals Documented. And the Trump White House was also in the house: Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 campaign, and special assistants to the president William Crozer and James Redstone joined the conference.

Redistricting: Citizens Only

After skipping the 6am yoga session (did they teach you how to do the laffer curve pose instead of downward dog?) and the afternoon ice cream social (only one drop of chocolate syrup needed; the rest will surely trickle down) and walking past an oversized sign with Vice President Mike Pence's ghostly face declaring, with no shred of irony, "I was for ALEC before it was cool," I headed into a two-part panel titled "What Is Redistricting and Why Must We Do It?" and "How to Survive Redistricting."

Author and pseudo-economist Stephen Moore – the guy Trump wanted to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board, but who was too clownish even for Senate Republicans – shares his finely honed insights with the ALEC crowd. (Photo by John Anderson)

Amid shifting demographics, Texas Republicans, with a long history of intentionally discriminating against minority voters through gerrymandered maps, are gearing up to cling to power with the next round of redistricting in 2021 – an "adult political bloodsport," quipped one of the panelists. Moving forward, states could have more power when it comes to redistricting: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult for voting rights groups to challenge extreme partisan gerrymandering, ruling that those cases are beyond the scope of federal courts. Last year, ALEC drafted a model resolution backing "the right of state legislatures to determine electoral districts" instead of the courts. ALEC Texas state Chair Phil King recounted his involvement in the state's notorious 2003 redistricting battle – when House and Senate Democrats fled the state to break legislative quorum – and briefly mentioned the litigation Texas has faced since it last redrew maps in 2011. Those maps were found to be discriminatory against voters of color, not a particular exemplar for other states, but the court battle throughout this decade to get them invalidated and replaced never bore fruit.

Hans von Spakovsky, a legend of the voter suppression movement, prepped the packed room with a wholly defensive playbook that assumed Republicans will "absolutely" get sued by the "left wing" when drawing maps. A leader at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Spakovsky is a strong advocate for restrictive voting laws (he helped defend Texas' 2011 voter ID law in court as an expert witness) and has raised the alarm amid white conservative circles about nonexistent "voter fraud" dating back to the Bush years. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights adamantly opposed his nomination to the Federal Election Commission, writing that "his record of partisan enforcement of the voting rights laws while an official at the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), and his pursuit of policies that systematically block access to the franchise for poor and minority voters make him unqualified to serve in such an important capacity." In 2017, Trump selected Spakovsky to be part of his short-lived Election Integrity Commission.

"You can't use too much race; if race is the predominant factor in your redistricting, then you're violating the 14th Amendment; it's going to get thrown out," he told the audience. "But if you don't include race at all, you are going to get sued under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, because His­pan­ics and African Americans are going to claim you didn't create any districts in which they can elect their candidate of choice."

States currently use total population numbers when redistricting, as the Consti­tu­tion requires that "the whole number of persons in each State" be counted by the decennial census. Spakovsky advised his crowd to "seriously consider" using citizen population instead, since states with large numbers of "aliens" – especially "illegal aliens" – are getting more "political power" than they would if we used citizen population, he said. "I think it's fundamentally unfair," said Spakovsky. "Liberals do not want you doing this because the higher [the] number of noncitizens, the greater the chance they're going to vote for a liberal." The left, he said, does not want us to have "accurate data" on citizenship in the U.S. This was after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the Trump administration's attempt to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 U.S. census, a move that would likely cause undercounting due to diminished response from immigrant households, and thus potential federal underfunding of government services.

“Calling people ‘aliens’ is pretty clearly a code word for ‘brown people the right wing wants to disenfranchise.’” – Anthony Gutier­rez, executive director of Common Cause Texas

"Calling people 'aliens' is pretty clearly a code word for 'brown people the right wing wants to disenfranchise,' and not just undocumented residents – entire communities of immigrants in Texas," says Anthony Gutier­rez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. "It's infuriating that ALEC and Republicans would want to redraw the lines this way – we would all suffer as a state. The push for citizen-only redistricting is part of a much bigger game plan for the GOP who have tried to purge voters and pass confusing voting laws."

Like the other panelists, Cleta Mitchell, a Republican attorney who served as co-counsel for the National Rifle Association at the Supreme Court, warned attendees working on redistricting to be vigilant about anything they say in emails or even in private, as they may end up as headlines during litigation. She cited a "left-wing" Think Progress article published days earlier about the ALEC workshop, saying it painted the group as an "evil conservative organization" that was going to "indoctrinate mindless state legislators on how to gerrymander." Your notes on this panel, she cautioned the crowd, would "probably be a demand in [legal] discovery – so get rid of them before you go home."

Reframing the Narrative

While ALEC claims to be "nonpartisan" and supposedly focused on policy rather than social issues, one presentation in particular reinforced that its members view progressives as the enemy. It called for a new framing strategy to instill an emotional and moral argument in favor of right-wing views on issues like health care, immigration, taxes, and climate change.

"Winning the Battle for America's Uncon­scious Mind: Using Political Psychology to Improve Your Messaging," led by Trump supporter, conservative author, and former psychologist Timothy Daughtry, detailed how conservatives can tailor their narrative to win back constituents swayed by the growing power of "cultural Marxism" and "social justice warriors." When asked why and how a conservative could defend "hate speech," Daughtry advised legislators to reframe the issue. Instead of responding, "I don't hate anyone, I just believe in free speech," they should say, "If someone finds your question hateful, does that mean you don't have the right to ask it?" – which "seized the offense," he explained to the packed conference room. Daughtry also offered legislators a way to reframe being labeled a "villain" in the immigration debate: "We can serve 10 refugees close to their home country for the price of one in the U.S.," he suggested. "Why would you uproot someone into a different culture? Because [the left] wants their votes."

The left wing, said Daughtry, is "trying to tell us that capitalism is the villain, and the victims are the poor people, and the heroes are the ones that want to redistribute wealth. We are more likely to argue the villain is a system that traps people in dependency, and the hero is people coming to offer true hope and opportunity."

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