The American Legislative Exchange Council announced Tuesday that it's "refocusing" on pushing business-friendly laws in states across the country instead of legislation like Florida's Stand Your Ground law or Arizona's illegal immigration law. In the last couple weeks, the group lost several major corporate members -- Coca-Cola, Mars Inc., Wendy's, McDonalds, the Gates Foundation -- following a boycott from progressive groups angry about the Florida law initially prevented George Zimmerman from being arrested for killing Trayvon Martin.
"Today we are redoubling our efforts on the economic front, a priority that has been the hallmark of our organization for decades," ALEC national chair David Frizzell said in a statement. "We are eliminating the ALEC Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues, and reinvesting these resources in the task forces that focus on the economy. The remaining budgetary and economic issues will be reassigned."
Only last week, ALEC was defiant, issuing a statement on April 11 "on the Coordinated Intimidation Campaign Against Its Members." The statement read in part:
"Today, we find ourselves the focus of a well-funded, expertly coordinated intimidation campaign… At a time when job creation, real solutions and improved dialogue among political leaders is needed most, ALEC’s mission has never been more important. This is why we are redoubling our commitment to these essential priorities. We are not and will not be defined by ideological special interests who would like to eliminate discourse that leads to economic vitality, jobs and fiscal stability for the states."
That redoubling lasted six days, as it was followed by more companies pulling out. Many of those corporations explained their decision the way Coca-Cola did on April 4: "We have a longstanding policy of not taking positions on issues that don't have a direct bearing on our company or on our industry," it said in a statement.
ALEC once focused mainly on conservative economic issues like limiting the power of unions. But in recent years, it's ventured into the culture wars, helping to push Stand Your Ground -- which says a person in any public place, if threatened, can use lethal force to defend himself without having to retreat -- to 23 states. That's the basic for the boycott push from progressive groups Color of Change, People for the American Way, and Common Cause, and it was successful: Kraft, Intuit, Reed Elsiever, McDonald's, Coke, the Gates Foundation, and Pepsi have all left the group.
The decision is significant, because ALEC is a little-known but powerful legislation mill that works like this: lawmakers pay a small fee to join, while corporations pay huge sums to become members. Then those corporate members write model legislation favorable to their companies and pitch it to the lawmakers, who take the bill back to their statehouse, as NPR's Peter Overby explained earlier this month. (Frizzell, the ALEC chair quoted in the group's statement Tuesday, is also a state representative from Indiana.) It's not technically a lobbying group, because ALEC doesn't lobby to get the legislation through state capitols. Nevertheless, it's quite successful: lawmakers have been caught on multiple occasions with bills containing long passages stripped word-for-word from ALEC bills.
What's curious is that, as the group's policy director Michael Bowman told NPR in 2010, ALEC doesn't actually write legislation, because "Most of the bills are written by outside sources and companies, attorneys, [and legislative] counsels." That would imply that if ALEC started caring more about guns and immigration, it was because that's what it's members wanted. But several corporations, like Coca-Cola, said they don't want anything to do with those culture wars. It seems likely that since ALEC has been pushing some of these laws for several years, what the corporations really don't want anything to do with is a public fight over culture wars. Now ALEC doesn't either.