With the massive growth of Super PACs, and the oceans of money they represent going to further the careers of political candidates everywhere, it almost seems quaint to argue over old-school advocacy groups.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, was founded in 1970 and went up in flames 40 years later. In its prime, the organization, which operated nationally as a 501(c)(4) organization that had lobbying power, advocated for a variety of social justice issues, but especially better housing, a living wage, and improved public schools. Notably for purposes of this blog, it also advocated for gun control.
But the organization was hit with a double whammy in 2008 and 2009 when, already in the midst of an embezzlement scandal, it became the target of conservative gadfly James O’Keefe and his selectively edited films that painted the group as some sort of haven for pederasts and tax cheats. By 2010, ACORN was gone.
And now, we have the American Legislative Exchange Council. Founded just three years after ACORN, ALEC is a conservative group that lobbies for pretty much everything ACORN stood against. Where ACORN held massive voter-registration drives in poor communities, ALEC has pushed voter ID laws that make it more difficult for the poorest segments of America to get to the voting booth. Where ACORN supported gun-control laws, ALEC is largely responsible for the stand-your-ground law that is at the heart of the Trayvon Martin killing.
And like ACORN before it, ALEC now faces the prospect of extinction. Unlike the 501(c)(4) ACORN, ALEC is registered as a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which expressly forbids the group from lobbying. But lobbying appears to be a large part of what ALEC does. Today, the government watchdog group Common Cause announced that it has filed its second complaint with the IRS against ALEC, arguing that the group doesn’t deserve its tax-exempt status in light of its lobbying efforts.
So does ALEC lobby governments? Well, Common Cause will certainly have a number of examples to offer the IRS. I have a long-standing rule that, in any weird national story involving corruption, there will eventually be a connection to Florida. And as if it were not enough that Florida’s stand-your-ground law is the model that ALEC has used to shop around to other states, there’s also the example of Florida State Rep. Rachel Burgin (R-Obviously). Back in November 2011, Rep. Burgin introduced to the Florida Legislature a bill that called on the federal government to reduce corporate taxes. The bill, as initially sent out, read in part “WHEREAS, it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance …”
State Rep. Burgin simply took the bill handed to her by ALEC and brought it straight to the floor. It was quickly rescinded and the language removed, but the damage had already been done.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the withering criticism our state’s stand-your-ground law has received, many of ALEC’s corporate backers have announced they were ending their memberships. Indeed, much of these corporate divorces occurred after April 4, 2012, when the advocacy group Color of Change announced a boycott of Coca-Cola for its support of ALEC. Coca-Cola then dropped its support. Then Kraft Foods dropped. And then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on April 9. Then McDonald’s the next day. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
But this, of course, ignores the fact that these corporations – and the Gates Foundation – were supporting this idiocy in the first place. On April 17, ALEC announced it was ending its Public Safety and Elections Task Force, the group responsible for both the stand-your-ground and voter ID laws. The very next day, the conservative think tank the National Center for Public Policy Research announced the re-creation of its own voter ID task force, so nothing has really changed. Just a different group advocating for the same awful policy, but a different group with just as much access.
But just as all the feel-good announcements of these corporations jumping ship miss the point – that these organizations were perfectly happy to support such horrible public policy until they took negative press for it – so too does the story of ALEC’s being up against the wall ignore more-important truths. Mainly, that the mountains of money being spent by Super PACs makes organizations like ALEC seem quaint at best.