Now, more than any time in recent memory, the American Legislative Exchange Council is under attack. The influential but reticent group of conservative state legislators and corporate officers just lost the support of roughly half a dozen companies including some, like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, that are among best-known brands in American business.
The group, founded in 1973, claims about one in five state legislators across the country as members. Those lawmakers decide, in closed-door meetings that also include business members, on model legislation for members to push in individual states.
The departing companies left rather than defend themselves — and ALEC — for supporting policies that a civil rights group says discriminate against African Americans. The civil rights group, called Color of Change, claims to have 900,000 members. It originally targeted ALEC last year for promoting voter ID laws. But in the wake of the shooting of black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida, it is also attacking ALEC for spreading the type of “Stand Your Ground” law that has made it more difficult to prosecute Martin's killer.
This follows a concerted effort by other liberal groups, notably Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy, to lift the veil on closely guarded information about ALEC. The wide dissemination of ALEC's model legislation and disclosure of its membership have made it an easier target for its opponents. They can now associate specific companies with hundreds of legislative proposals advanced in the states by the group.
“Today,” said executive director Ron Scheberle in a recent statement, “we find ourselves the focus of a well-funded, expertly coordinated intimidation campaign.”
“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,” he added. (An ALEC spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.)
Among the other recent departures from ALEC are Kraft, Intuit, Wendy's, Pepsi and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Corrections Corporation of America, once a major ALEC backer, left two years ago in an apparently unrelated development.) Now organizers are pressuring State Farm and Johnson & Johnson to withdraw as well.
A spokesman for Johnson & Johnson emailed a statement saying the company worked with “many organizations across the political spectrum” on policy issues. “Our company participates with these groups, including ALEC, on a broad range of issues,” the statement read. “While we express our views to organizations with which we work, we may not align with or support every public position each of these broad-based groups takes.” State Farm did not return calls for comment.
The damage done by the companies' departure from ALEC may be more symbolic than practical. ALEC claims it has more than 500 private sector members, none of which contributes more than 5 percent of its budget.
But corporate support is the lifeblood of ALEC. Legislators pay only $50 a piece to become members. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, their dues covered only about $85,000 of the group's $7.2 million in income, or a little more than 1 percent of ALEC's revenue.
As more companies leave ALEC, more liberal groups are joining the effort to weaken it. But the movement got started with Color of Change, a mostly online group founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, it had a budget of half a million dollars.
Rashad Robinson, Color of Change's executive director, says his group decided to focus on ALEC last year. His members were upset with voter ID laws that required voters to show a driver's license or other form of identification at the polls. They thought the laws targeted black voters. Several states adopted the rules once Republicans took control after the 2010 elections, and court challenges to the laws went nowhere. But the laws, Robinson says, were nearly identical in every state.
“They were coming from the same piece of model legislation,” Robinson says. “We realized that we had to go to the source.”
The source was ALEC. Color of Change started asking companies privately to give up their membership. Most resisted. But Color of Change had selected its targets carefully, Robinson says. They were big. They were public. They had lots of black customers and lots of black employees.
The companies often defended their membership in ALEC by saying there were two sides to every issue. “Our response,” Robinson says, “was that there are not two sides to having black people vote. There are not two sides on voting rights in this country. There are not two sides of the right of racial minorities to exercise their vote in democracy. That was actually an argument that most corporations didn't want to be engaged in publicly.”
Before Color of Change goes public to pressure a company into leaving ALEC, it shows company officials the websites it plans to launch and details of the anticipated campaign. When the campaign does go public, it often does not take long for the company to withdraw. Coca-Cola and McDonald's, Robinson says, both made announcements within a day.
“Being able to mobilize tens of thousands of black Americans online,” Robinson says, “to tell a huge company like Coke that they can't come for our money by day and then come for our vote by night is very powerful.”