ALEC protesters in Chicago on August 6, 2013. (Courtesy of Flickr)
Chicago—The American Legislative Exchange Council wraps up its fortieth annual conference in Chicago today, after facing what organizers estimate to be the largest protest in the organization’s history on Thursday.
Despite the recent exodus of dozens of corporations and a public attempt to tamp down some pieces of its more explicitly far-right agenda, this year’s ALEC conference made clear that the group still wants to operate in secret, away from potential criticism—and with a group of corporations and interest groups that are as committed as ever to anti-worker, anti-environment, pro-gun legislation.
On Wednesday, I headed to the hotel’s third floor to receive a press pass for the conference at a table staffed by two interns. Upon hearing the publication’s name and receiving an editor’s letter on Nation letterhead, one stiffened. He quickly disappeared behind a curtained-off area a few feet away to make a call, while his partner seemed unaffected.
“We just have to confirm; we’ll be able to print one out in a moment,” she stated, without explaining what was being confirmed.
Seconds became minutes and the seated woman seemed to grow nervous herself, repeating her previous statement before I saw, in my peripheral vision, the young man poke his head out behind the curtain to make a dramatic hand gesture to the young woman while whispering on the phone, then quickly darting out of view when I turned my head to look at him. After three increasingly comical hand signs and quick recoils, she stated exasperatedly, “I have no idea what you’re saying.”
Nonverbal secret hand signs having failed, he emerged from behind the curtain and opted for traditional verbal communication. “I’m sorry, media registration closed a week and a half ago. We can’t let you in.”
“But she just said you could print off a pass for me,” I said.
“No, registration closed a week and a half ago,” he repeated, ignoring my point.
A frustrating back-and-forth indicated little progress would be made here (Nation writer Rick Perlstein had a similar experience). Nearby was the exhibition area, so instead of returning to the elevator, I walked in. The exhibitors included prominent free-market think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute; several pro-life groups; the National Rifle Association, who first brought Stand Your Ground laws to ALEC; the National Right to Work Committee; and the climate change-denying Heartland Institute—all groups whose influence can be seen in the model legislation ALEC has helped develop.
The Heartland Institute, an ALEC member, was a sponsor of Thursday’s conference breakfast, as the Center for Media and Democracy (who produced the “ALEC Exposed” series with The Nation last year) reported today. The event carried a $40,000 price tag and allowed the group’s president, Joseph Bast, to speak on climate change denialism. Heartland drew headlines last year for a billboard associating “belief” in climate change with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.