If you’re like most folks, you’ve never heard of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) before. According to the organizers of a demonstration held on Fountain Square April 29, that’s the way they like it; working quietly behind the scenes, drafting draconian far-right legislation that helps conservatism creep deeper into American society.
Almost none of the protesters had heard of ALEC prior to a few weeks ago and the organization’s absence in the nation’s news cycle is viewed by some as evidence of the group’s shadowy intents. Of course, just because some of the protesters might have been overly suspicious and not that well-informed doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
ALEC is a nonprofit membership organization that is made up of nearly 2,000 state legislators and around 300 private-sector members, according to spokesperson Raegan Weber.
It consists of a vigorously conservative group of state senators and representatives from around the nation who get together with businesses, foundations and other nonprofits and draft legislation. The membership list is kept private, which is a standard practice among similar organizations, Weber says.
Aliya Rahman, an Over-the-Rhine resident and Miami University student, was one of the organizers of the ALEC protest, which drew between 125 and 150 demonstrators to march around the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza and to speak at Fountain Square. ALEC does the bidding of private interest groups and backs economic policies that place the burden for the nation’s financial recovery on the backs of workers, she says.
“We think there should be a balance between public and private interest and we don’t see that happening,” Rahman adds.
The recent passage of Ohio Senate Bill No. 5, which restricts collective bargaining rights in Ohio, was one of the reasons Rahman and other protesters started examining ALEC’s activities. She believes ALEC had a fundamental role in this legislation; fliers passed out at the rally stated that ALEC is behind S.B. 5 and Arizona’s Senate Bill No. 1070, which targets illegal immigration.
“I just think that’s a real hoot,” replies Bill Seitz, an Ohio state senator from Green Township. “I voted against S.B.
5. If this was some grand ALEC conspiracy, I would be in on it.”
Seitz was sharply criticized by his fellow Republicans for opposing S.B. 5 and also happens to sit on ALEC’s board of directors. Also, he’s co-chair of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force — that’s how ALEC is organized, in task forces that tackle issues such as commerce, education, elections and energy, to name a few topics.
When Rahman was informed that Seitz opposed S.B. 5 and about what he had to say, she responded that although she could accept ALEC might not have been behind it, “(ALEC) is totally part of the kind of ideology and climate building that’s a part of it.”
In fact, National Public Radio reported in 2010 that private-sector ALEC board member Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) participated in the drafting of Arizona S.B. 1070. The report refers to the organization as “secretive” and documented what it described as a behind-the-scenes effort to draft and pass the law and how the CCA stood to benefit from people incarcerated under it.
Susan Quarm, a Clifton resident and UC student, says it’s scary that ALEC is meeting secretly to draft laws that effect the nation.
“The purpose of this protest is to out them,” Quarm says.
But Seitz laughed at the notion of ALEC’s secrecy. He says it’s like any other professional association: They meet, have conventions and discuss ways to further their agenda. The April 28-29 meeting in Cincinnati included dialogues on tort reform, legislation that would encourage the hiring of ex-convicts and a speech about how to communicate with the public about tort reform.
One protester suggested that ALEC was behind a bill co-sponsored by Ohio State Rep. Bob Mecklenborg (R-Green Township) that would require voters to show a photo identification card at the polls. Seitz, however, says this makes no sense as Mecklenborg attended his first ALEC meeting just last week.
Among the private-sector organizations linked to ALEC in the national media are R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Coors, the National Rifle Association and the American Petroleum Institute. Even though the ALEC membership rolls are kept private, the identity of sponsors isn’t a secret, Seitz adds.
“I don’t know who they are, and I couldn’t care less,” Seitz says. He describes ALEC as a resource that allows him to consider how legislation is being crafted and challenged across the nation.
Although CityBeat was blocked from entering the ALEC event, this writer met with several members of the South Dakota State Senate outside the building. South Dakota State Sen. Deb Peters was irritated by suggestions of secrecy and said the protest had no effect on her.
“(ALEC) is extremely educational,” Peters says. “ALEC staffers are our staff. It’s nothing about ALEC telling us what to do … It’s public- and private-sector involvement. There are no secrets. You can just talk to a member and get the draft legislation.”
ALEC has several notable local connections: Victor Schwartz, once the dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School and now a partner in the Kansas City-based law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, is a private-sector member; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich was part of the team that founded ALEC in 1973.
The group has 27 staffers based in Washington, D.C., and has an annual budget of $7 million. Legislators usually bring proposed policies to the table already drafted, Weber says, noting that ALEC staff isn’t paid to draft legislation. The group’s model legislation is used by legislators as they please; either as a template or for ideas on other bills that might be proposed.
Last week’s protest lasted through the afternoon and attendees peacefully dispersed afterward. There was one lone counter-protester, a bald man in his late forties who was skipping rope among signs calling for smaller government and an end to labor unions. He refused to give his name to CityBeat.
The protestors seemed to be pushing back at perceived incursions into state law by the Far Right, although they seemed to lack knowledge of direct connections between ALEC and the conservative legislation that they opposed.
In short, ALEC does seem to be the conservative firebrand its opponents claim, but many of its so-called “secrets” are out in the open, for anyone who bothers to look.