Trayvon Martin Death Spurs Scrutiny of Business-Backed Group
Few people know the American Legislative Exchange Council by name — or that it has been backed by some big corporations — but they may know the laws the organization develops.
For decades, the group of lawmakers and private sector officials has worked closely to draft legislation that focuses on everything from the fairly mundane, like tax policy and cable TV regulations, to the controversial, such as voter ID laws and Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute.
That last one put it into the spotlight in recent weeks after the death of teen Trayvon Martin. The law gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight, and ALEC — as the group is known — has worked in recent years to spread it to other states.
Liberal activists saw a chance to turn the spotlight on an organization they have long criticized — a move ALEC calls unfair.
"The past month has been the largest amount of exposure about ALEC probably in its history," said Lisa Graves, a leader at the Center for Media and Democracy, which along with other groups has been targeting the organization.
As the furor over the Martin case grew along with the public pressure campaign, ALEC started to lose support from the private sector, including the Coca-Cola Co. , Kraft Foods Inc. , McDonald's Corp. , PepsiCo Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
ALEC announced Tuesday that it was eliminating its public safety task force that had dealt with the "Stand Your Ground" law and said it was refocusing those resources on economic matters. The group said liberal foes are simply trying to score political points by taking advantage of the Martin tragedy.
"We are a target because our opponents believe they have the opportunity to attack an effective, successful organization that promotes free-market, limited government policies that they disagree with," said Ron Scheberle, the council's executive director.
"This is an all-out intimidation campaign designed to promote government-based solutions rather than the free-market principles," he said.
ALEC was founded more than 30 years ago by a group of state legislators and conservative policy advocates, and the organization quickly drew the support of major Republican leaders such as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.
Private sector entities are considered "equals," and can purchase access depending on the size of the ALEC membership fee.
During the Reagan administration, it began using task forces and pushed for moving various federal government duties to the states. A task force that focuses on insurance issues, for example, is co-chaired by Colorado Rep. Glenn Vaad and State Farm Insurance lawyer Emory Wilkerson.
ALEC's strength is built around its coordination between private sector companies and legislators who can push laws in their states.
Graves contends that ALEC improperly places lawmakers and corporate lobbyists in cozy settings where they jointly formulate legislation that gets introduced in states around the country.
"We're in a democracy where most Americans think corporations already have too much influence," Graves said. "To institutionalize that influence in this way is a huge problem."
In the case of the Florida law, ALEC said it did not inspire the law but instead used it as a model that other states could mimic, arguing that it doesn't allow you to pursue a confrontation but allows you to defend yourself from an immediate danger.
Similar statutes now exist in 24 other states.
Opponents of the law fear that the statutes lead to too many unnecessary deaths caused by trigger-happy people who feel they are in danger. Prosecutors and police have generally opposed the laws as confusing and prone to abuse by criminals.
George Zimmerman, charged last week with second-degree murder in Martin's death, maintains that he shot the teen in self-defense after Martin attacked him. His attorney plans to cite the law, which is part of the reason why authorities were reluctant to charge Zimmerman initially.
Martin's family claims Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was the aggressor and targeted Martin as suspicious mainly because he was black.
Gun rights are not a primary focus of ALEC's activities, as the group has task forces assessing issues ranging from the regulation of cable television to how states hire attorneys. They have championed various Republican causes, such as pushing voter ID at polls.
Democrats and advocacy groups have argued that the voter ID laws will suppress certain voting demographics, and ALEC said in response this week that it was also dismantling its task force on elections.
Bob Williams, a former Washington state lawmaker who has participated in ALEC since 1978, said the group has been particularly successful in driving government transparency reforms — such as putting budgets online and giving the public a chance to review the documents before they are passed.
Williams, who works mostly on tax and fiscal policy for ALEC, said conservative think tanks have more sway in the process than companies who may also raise concerns or provide input.
"I haven't seen the corporate interests drive the tax and fiscal agenda at all," he said.
Among the financial supporters who have been on the defensive in recent weeks is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which said it provided a $376,000 grant to ALEC to educate the group's members about the foundation's education goals. Chris Williams, a spokesman for the foundation, said they believe it's important to engage with policymakers across the political spectrum, but they don't plan on giving another ALEC grant in the future — in part because of the backlash tied to the Martin case.
"It's made it pretty distracting to try to do work with them," Williams said.