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ALEC's Illegal Past? | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

ALEC's Illegal Past?


Demonstrators protest against ALEC in the lobby of the Palmer House Hotel. (Courtesy of Flickr user Mikasi)

The notorious American Legislative Exchange Council is meeting in Chicago, and the city’s mighty protest warriors are in effect: writes Micah Uetricht today on the Nation website, “A crowd of forty protesters took over the lobby of the Palmer Hotel on Monday, with six people arrested as religious, environmental, and labor activists denounced ALEC. A group of several dozen hoodie-wearing protesters staged a die-in at the hotel this morning, noting the group’s role in spreading Stand Your Ground laws that helped protect George Zimmerman after shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, a mass rally has been called for Thursday organized by the Chicago Federation of Labor, and other actions are expected throughout the week.”

By now most everyone on the left knows of ALEC and how it works, which is an accomplishment in itself: it writes “model bills” intended to ram right-wing notions through state legislatures, to institute the “right to work” (for less), to repeal the minimum wage—and, of course, Stand Your Ground. And they did so under the radar—until, that is, a brilliant and concerted activist effort to flush them out into the light of day. Now you can learn everything you need to know about them in this outstanding episode of Bill Moyers & Company, “The United States of ALEC.” Which means, in one important respect, ALEC has already been beaten. For escaping the notice of Washington-focused observers was always their goal.

As the 1980 book Thunder on the Right, by Alan Crawford, documented (a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the rise of the Reagan Revolution), there had been an American Legislative Exchange Council before the right-wing godfather Paul Weyrich convinced Richard Mellon Scaife to cough up $80,000 in seed funding to turn it into a right-wing ideological wrecking crew in 1974. But it had merely been sleepy educational exchange for right-leaning state legislators, and one which besides, as a 501(c)3, was banned from direct political participation. One day, however, quite nearly out of the blue, that $80,000 check arrived from Scaife. ALEC’s executive director, whose name was Jaunita Barrett, asked Weyrich, Scaife’s emissary, why in the world he would want to underwrite such a shell of an outfit, and a non-political one to boot. He responded that this was precisely her organization’s appeal: “Juanita, ALEC is the only state legislative organization in the country—of our persuasion—which has a 501(c)3. If they took ALEC to Washington and did a good job, they…could go back to Scaife and get Scaife to set up a Political Action Committee to finance state legislative campaign races.”

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It worked: dismissing the meddlesome Jaunita Barnett, ALEC set up shop in both Washington and the rent-free office of a conservative Illinois state representative, whose phone lines it illegally made use of, and began surreptitiously advancing the conservative infiltration of state legislative agendas. ALEC wasn’t even mentioned in any newspapers until 1978. By which point the Trojan Horse had already begun ferrying politicians on propaganda junkets Taiwan, sponsoring conferences to seed Proposition 13–style movements around the country—and surely more, but it’s hard to know what, because they had been so effective in avoiding publicity. And hardly at all before the 1990s—and, until a couple of years ago, even political junkies didn’t know it existed, even as it became one of the most powerful forces in state capitols around the country.

Well, ALEC can’t hide any more. Certainly not in Chicago. I’ll be there yelling and screaming at them in front of the Palmer House Hotel tomorrow, Thursday, at noon, side by side with my Chicago Teachers Union brothers and sisters—kids, come by and say “Hi!”

Micah Uetricht writes about the coalition of labor, community and environmental groups is making it clear that ALEC isn’t welcome in the union town.

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