- Lisa Gravesexecutive director of the Center for Media and Democracy.
Amidst a movement to overturn “Stand Your Ground” gun laws after the Trayvon Martin shooting, we look at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that worked with the National Rifle Association to pass the measures across the country. On Wednesday, the fast-food giant Wendy’s became the sixth corporation to publicly cut ties with the secretive right-wing group for backing the laws. Over the past week McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Intuit have all announced that they have decided to not renew their membership with ALEC. We speak with Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which runs ”ALEC Exposed,” a website that published more than 800 “model” bills and resolutions secretly voted on by corporations and politicians. “We’ve seen ALEC, which is really a corporate bill mill, push legislation on all sorts of issues to make it harder for Americans to get justice, to make it harder for Americans to vote, to make it harder for Americans to have their day in court if they or their loved one is killed or injured by a corporation, by corporate greed, by a bad drug, by a product,” Graves says. She notes many of the draft bills outline the privatization of Social Security, schools and prisons. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The killing of Trayvon Martin has also had an impact on corporate America. On Wednesday, the fast-food giant Wendy’s became the sixth corporation to publicly cut ties with the secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC has come under fire for backing a number of controversial measures, including the so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun legislation in Florida. Over the past week, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Intuit have all announced that they have decided to not renew their membership with ALEC. In addition, the Gates Foundation has announced it will not continue to fund ALEC. Critics say the Washington-based organization plays a key role in helping corporations secretly draft model pro-business legislation that has been used by state lawmakers across the country. A major funder of ALEC have been the right-wing Koch brothers.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which runs ALEC Exposed website. On Tuesday night, the Center won an Izzy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Independent Media from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. This year’s other recipient was Democracy Now! senior correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous for his coverage of the Egyptian revolution. And there, Lisa Graves also spoke.
By the way, we invited ALEC to join us on the program, but the group didn’t respond to our phone calls and email. Lisa Graves did. She has flown from Ithaca to Madison, Wisconsin, where the Center for Media and Democracy is based.
Lisa, tell us more about what ALEC is and this rush of corporations, as well as the Gates Foundation, away from ALEC.
LISA GRAVES: Well, the American Legislative Exchange Council describes itself as the largest group of state legislators in the country. But it’s really a group that’s largely funded by corporations, CEO foundations and others. And it’s a group that actually puts lawmakers, state lawmakers, behind closed doors with corporate lobbyists and special interest groups to actually vote on so-called “model legislation,” like the Stand Your Ground or “shoot first” law, and have that be a template for passing across the country.
And so, as this tragedy has unfolded, a number of corporations that have been funders of ALEC, and in fact been leaders of ALEC, in the case of Coca-Cola and others, have determined that they are not going to renew their membership in ALEC. ALEC has provided the mechanism for this particular law in Florida to become a template. That bill was conceived of by the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Marion Hammer. She came to a secret, closed-door meeting in Texas in 2005 to present this bill as an ideal bill to be pursued. At that meeting, Wal-Mart was the co-chair of that task force of ALEC, a criminal justice task force. Politicians and corporate lobbyists and special interest lobbyists voted in favor, unanimously, of making that bill a national model. And after that happened, since 2005, that bill and parts of that bill have spread to states across the country. So we certainly applaud the corporations that have decided to leave ALEC and stop bankrolling their operations.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain Marion Hammer’s significance in Florida.
LISA GRAVES: Marion Hammer is the former NRA president, the president of the National Rifle Association, and she’s the chief lobbyist for the NRA in Florida. She actually “conceived of” this bill, in the words of Wayne LaPierre. She sought out two ALEC legislators to help get this bill introduced in the state assembly and senate. She was on the floor of the body there, apparently staring people down as they voted. She stood behind Jeb Bush, the governor at the time, when he signed this bill into law. And she weighed in on the jury instructions that were written in light of this law. She was very pleased with the jury instructions that came out after this law was passed. Those are the jury instructions that will be in play as the prosecution of George Zimmerman proceeds.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Lisa, on Wednesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a campaign to fight Stand Your Ground laws. Here’s what he said about the legislation’s impact in Florida.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Before Stand Your Ground law became—laws became law in Florida, the state averaged 12 cases of justifiable homicide per year. Since the law was passed, the average has been 36—three times higher.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Bloomberg made that announcement with a bunch of other leaders in Washington, including the Reverend Al Sharpton. Your response?
LISA GRAVES: Well, that’s precisely what’s been happening. We’ve seen that trend in states across the country. Where this law passes, increasingly you see a number of individuals who are set free, who aren’t even prosecuted, for killing another person, often an unarmed person. And the way this works is that ALEC, through its legislators, through its members, are basically putting a thumb on the scale of justice to make it harder for these cases to get to a jury, both a criminal jury and a civil jury, and, once cases do get to a jury, to make it harder for juries to convict shooters of unarmed men.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s not just Stand Your Ground laws, though they are very significant for ALEC, for the American Legislative Exchange Council; they are pushing legislation on a number of issues. The Omaha TV station KMTV recently exposed how Nebraska’s voter ID bill was based on a template written by ALEC. Reporter Liz Dorland questioned Nebraska State Senator Charlie Janssen about his bill.
LIZ DORLAND: I was looking at your bill and kind of comparing it to Iowa’s bill, and there’s a lot of similarities in the language there. Can you talk a little bit about those points?
SEN. CHARLIE JANSSEN: I really didn’t use Iowa’s bill to draft my bill. I used Indiana’s bill, originally.
LIZ DORLAND: Indiana’s bill? Again, every single point, down to an exception for nursing homes and a Monday deadline for bringing in your late ID—every single point matches the ALEC template.
Indiana’s is very similar to this model draft that ALEC—ALEC Exposed says that this is the model draft for voter ID bills for a lot of these states across the entire nation. Do you know about ALEC?
SEN. CHARLIE JANSSEN: You know what? The first time I’ve talked about ALEC in two years today is when you inquired about it. I’m not a member of ALEC. I’ve never attended an ALEC function, either here in Lincoln, or they have national conventions.
LIZ DORLAND: Then I hand him this, a document that still lists the senator on a big ALEC committee.
SEN. CHARLIE JANSSEN: Yeah, my first year down here, I was—I signed up for ALEC. And then I let my dues lapse.
LIZ DORLAND: So I ask him to explain why his bill is remarkably similar to ALEC’s model bill.
And so, your bill is not similar to this? Have you seen that?
SEN. CHARLIE JANSSEN: No, I’d have no idea. I don’t look at any ALEC materials.
LIZ DORLAND: But we did, and the match is hard to ignore.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s KMTV reporter Liz Dorland, an excerpt of her report on Nebraska’s voter ID law. Talk about the relationship between the corporate executives and the legislators in writing this kind of legislation, Lisa Graves.
LISA GRAVES: Well, this particular bill, the so-called voter ID legislation, that makes it more difficult for Americans to vote, was actually approved at a secret, closed-door ALEC meeting of the criminal—of the Public Safety and Elections Task Force, that was at that time co-chaired by the NRA, the National Rifle Association. What ALEC does is it provides a way for corporate lobbyists and politicians to meet at resorts across the country, have closed-door meetings without the press or the public present, to consider proposed bills like this, to consider copycat legislation that basically would take—would be taken across the country.
And we’ve seen ALEC, which is really a corporate bill mill, push legislation on all sorts of issues to make it harder for Americans to get justice, to make it harder for Americans to vote, to make it harder for Americans to have their day in court if they or their loved one is killed or injured by a corporation, by corporate greed, by a bad drug, by a product. They’ve made it more difficult for people to pursue justice in a whole host of ways. And in fact, these bills, which we’ve documented on ALEC Exposed, cover the gamut of basically every way to change the rights of Americans in this country, including privatizing Social Security, privatizing Medicare—medical programs, privatizing schools, privatizing prisons, and even the notion of selling off state assets to the private sector, and then having the public basically lease them back from corporations.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Lisa Graves, you can understand corporations wanting to have a business-friendly legislation, but how do these corporations justify their involvement in bills like Stand Your Ground or in voter ID, that really have nothing to do, technically, with their role as a corporation in the society? And—how do they justify that?
LISA GRAVES: Well, I think some of them aren’t justifying it and are fleeing. But, in fact, I think some corporations are making a gamble that if these voter suppression bills pass, it will shave a few percentage points off the vote, and perhaps more pro-corporate legislators will be elected, more ALEC legislators will prevail in elections. And quite frankly, these corporations, the over 100 corporations that are financial supporters of ALEC, make its agenda possible. They basically provide the financial support for ALEC’s operations and its agenda.
And ALEC’s agenda, I think, is quite extreme. It’s not just—it’s not just voter ID, and it’s not just these Stand Your Ground gun laws. It includes changes to the rights of working Americans, their rights to organize, whether in the public sector or the private sector. It includes dramatic changes to our tax law and the ability of the government to even raise revenue. And it includes provisions that make it more difficult for local democracy, for Americans to stand up to putting a nuclear plant in their back yard.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Graves, can you talk about why the Gates Foundation was funding ALEC? They, too, along with Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coke, are all leaving. But why did they start funding it?
LISA GRAVES: Well, it appears that the Gates Foundation was—provided a substantial grant to ALEC—it was in the six figures—to work on education issues. ALEC’s education agenda is one that’s largely driven by the privatization motive. In fact, the co-chair of ALEC’s Education Task Force is an online school company. So, ALEC has a whole set of bills that we’ve uncovered through ALEC Exposed that talk about how to basically redirect your tax dollars into the private sector, into these for-profit charter schools, for-profit corporate schools, and basically take money away from public schools and the public school system and put it into these other types of educational companies. And it’s interesting because while the Gates Foundation made that donation, that one-time donation to ALEC, a number of other corporations actually regularly give to ALEC to its so-called “scholarship fund,” which provides scholarships to legislators—good legislators, in their mind—to attend these fancy conventions at resorts and vote behind closed doors with these same corporate lobbyists.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa, we just have 30 seconds, but we’ve covered this a lot. The networks do not do a lot on this. Can you talk about the media’s involvement, the corporations that own the media, and their involvement with ALEC? Just 30 seconds.
LISA GRAVES: Sure, that’s right. Comcast is a co-chair, a corporate co-chair, in some states in this country. Time Warner has been active in ALEC. A number of the big telecom and internet companies, like AT&T and also Verizon, are longtime members of ALEC. And so, they’ve pushed for a number of bills to make it harder to have municipal broadband and otherwise make it harder for Americans to get their voices heard in the legislature on these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Graves, thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, has won an Izzy Award, named for the muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, from the Park Center for Independent Media this week. Thanks, Lisa.