After a massive corporate exodus prompted by growing scrutiny of its activities, the secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has announced it will stop pushing so-called Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws. Our guest Lisa Graves says this is an attempt by ALEC "to try to keep its donors and try to have the press move along." She notes, "ALEC’s broader agenda, which it calls its jobs agenda, is extraordinarily extreme itself," noting that one of its bills would cut off one’s right to sue if one’s loved one is killed by a drug approved the Food and Drug Administration, even if the drug is later recalled. Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which built "ALEC Exposed," a website showcasing more than 800 model bills the group has pushed in states nationwide. We’re also joined by Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, which has criticized corporations for working with ALEC to pass laws that hurt people of color, young people and the elderly, especially voter ID laws. "You can’t come for black folks’ money by day and try to take away our vote by night," Robinson says. [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In the wake of a national outcry over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, is halting its push for Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. Florida passed the law in 2005 after massive lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Shortly afterward, a nearly identical bill was adopted by ALEC as model legislation, and [ALEC] went on to push the law in multiple states. The group also drafted voter identification measures that passed across the country.
Well, on Tuesday, ALEC announced it would shift its focus away from social issues. ALEC chairman and Indiana State Representative David Frizzell said, quote, "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."
AMY GOODMAN: The announcement comes on the heels of an exodus from the corporate lobbying group. Snack food giant Mars, as well as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Intuit, they’ve all recently declined to renew their membership in ALEC. In addition, the Gates Foundation has announced it will not continue to fund ALEC.
Meanwhile, at an event during last weekend’s National Rifle Association annual meeting, NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said the group doesn’t "apologize" for its support for Stand Your Ground self-defense legislation, as he put it.
CHRIS COX: There’s support across the board for the Second Amendment. There’s support across the board—even post-media hysteria over the last few weeks, there’s support across the board for legitimate self-defense, that we don’t apologize for supporting our—whether you call it a national right or a God-given right—that we don’t apologize for supporting legislation that recognizes our right to defend ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined now by two guests: from Washington, D.C., Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which built ALEC Exposed, a website showcasing more than 800 of the group’s model bills; here in New York, we’re joined by Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, which has criticized corporations for working with ALEC to pass laws that hurt people of color, young people and the elderly.
Lisa Graves, Rashad Robinson, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Lisa Graves. The significance of the announcement by ALEC itself this week?
LISA GRAVES: It shows the potency of the tremendous grassroots outpouring of objection to ALEC’s agenda and ALEC’s procedures, where corporate lobbyists and politicians actually vote behind closed doors on these proposed model legislation without the press or public present on this extreme agenda. And groups like Color of Change and others have really helped spearhead a breakthrough here on ALEC, based in part in the work we’ve done through ALEC Exposed to expose these bills and help connect the dots between the corporations, the politicians and this extraordinarily extreme agenda.
But I also think it’s a PR maneuver by ALEC to try to keep its donors and try to have the press move along, because, quite frankly, ALEC’s broader agenda, which it calls its jobs agenda, is extraordinarily extreme itself. For example, one of its bills would cut off your right to sue if your loved one, if your spouse or your child, is killed by a drug that was approved by the FDA, even if that drug was later recalled. And so, their agenda is not just about making it harder for American citizens to vote, and it’s not just about pushing these—the NRA agenda to dramatically expand traditional self-defense rules so that you have shoot-first or kill-at-will laws. Instead, their agenda is actually extreme on all sorts of measures.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rashad Robinson, I want to ask you how significant you think the work of organizations, the advocacy work done by organizations such as yours, Color of Change, was in bringing ALEC to make this decision.
RASHAD ROBINSON: Absolutely. You know, we started this campaign last year, last December, as we were trying to bring voices of everyday people to the conversation around discriminatory voter ID. And we went out to our membership. Color of Change is the largest online black political organization. We have over 900,000 members nationally. And there’s nothing more important than sort of the right to vote when you’re doing civic participation work. I think the work that’s happened here, not just by Color of Change, but by a number of organizations, really does show the power that everyday people’s voices can have in our democracy, and that even while corporations continue to have more power in our political process, we can still hold them accountable.
And this was really about letting folks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Kraft know that they can’t come for black folks’ money by day and try to take away our vote by night. And by pushing these corporations to make a different decision about their relationship with ALEC, we’ve also shined the light on ALEC, making it much harder for them to do what they do in state legislatures around the country. And so, this is, I think, not just important in terms of what it tells everyday people about their ability to raise their voices and make a difference, but also about the long-term impact ALEC is going to be able to have in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: You met with heads of corporations? Which ones?
RASHAD ROBINSON: We met with like, you know, senior executives of major corporations, the heads of government affairs offices, the heads of diversities—
AMY GOODMAN: Which corporations?
RASHAD ROBINSON: —of Coca-Cola, of Pepsi. We had conversations with McDonald’s. We—
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you tell them?
RASHAD ROBINSON: We told them exactly what I just said here, that you can’t come for black folks’ money by day and try to, you know, take away our vote by night. Many of the corporations, when we had conversations with them, talked specifically about sort of a narrow slice of ALEC’s work. So, like, for instance, the soda companies talked about the soda tax, and that’s why they were part of ALEC. We let them know that they couldn’t kind of pick and choose what they were involved with with ALEC. Many of the corporations also said that, you know, "We give to this side of the aisle, and we give to that side of the aisle." We let them know very clearly that there are not two sides to black people’s right to vote. This is not a debate that we should still be having in this country. This is not about left or right, but this is about the kind of moral issue around the right to vote in this country. I don’t think very many of the corporations wanted to defend that.
After the Trayvon Martin tragedy, we started to also bring that into the conversation and remind corporations that they would also have to answer for the Stand Your Ground laws, and was this something that they wanted to defend publicly? Corporations like Pepsi and Kraft actually pulled out before we ever publicly escalated on them. Or companies like Coca-Cola, for instance, we escalated them on at 9:00 on a Wednesday, and by 5:00 they had announced they were pulling out. I think that this shows that there is just some pieces of ALEC’s agenda that are simply indefensible. ALEC will no longer defend them, and major corporations don’t want to defend them, either.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lisa, I wanted to ask you—many critics have said about ALEC—have objected to ALEC on the grounds that it institutionalizes corruption. Can you explain what that means?
LISA GRAVES: Sure. You know, what ALEC does is really extraordinary to many people who hadn’t heard of them before last year when we launched ALEC Exposed. What ALEC does is it provides so-called scholarships to state legislators to travel to fancy resorts, where they go to closed-door meetings of ALEC task forces. And at those closed-door meetings, corporate lobbyists and special interest groups vote, as equals, with state politicians, with our elected officials. And so you have unelected corporate lobbyists voting as equals, behind closed doors, with elected officials with no press and no public present. And then those elected officials go back out in their states. And if they’re leaders of that state for ALEC, they have a duty, under ALEC’s public bylaws, to get those bills introduced and made into law.
Those bills run the gamut of efforts to basically rework and rewrite our rights in numerous ways, including on the right to vote. Those bills include efforts to strip the rights of workers, both in the public sector and private sector, to organize and even have access to paid sick leave. They include efforts to make it more difficult for us to pass any rules at the state or federal level to deal with climate changes underway. Their agenda includes massive tax giveaways for the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals in the world. And it also includes a massive privatization scheme to take your tax dollars and redirect them into the private sector, into the private till, through privatizing prisons to for-profit prisons, for-profit school companies, and even the notion that American citizens, that the American people, shouldn’t really own public assets or public institutions, that those buildings—our buildings—should be sold off to the private sector and basically leased back to us.
And so, through ALEC, ALEC has been exerting extraordinary influence on laws in states across the country through this process where corporations have even more influence than through ordinary lobbying. And they do so behind closed doors and in the dark. And so, we’ve helped shine a light on what ALEC is up to. And I think it does corrupt democracy for these procedures to go on and for these politicians to debase themselves in such a way that they would actually deign to give a corporate lobbyist, unelected official, an equal vote to themselves through the ALEC task forces.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And this is called—I mean, people—critics have objected to this by calling it "institutionalized corruption," because in fact what ALEC does is legal?
LISA GRAVES: Well, ALEC has claimed that it’s legal. In fact, ALEC is a charity under federal tax law, which means that the donations made by corporations and individuals to ALEC can be claimed as a tax write-off. It doesn’t describe what it does as lobbying, even though it claims that over 800 to a thousand bills are introduced every year that are part of the ALEC template or ALEC library, that we’ve helped expose through alecexposed.org. And they claim that they’ve had a success rate of up to 20 percent or more of getting these bills made into law. And yet, ALEC contends that it doesn’t engage in lobbying, that it’s not a lobbying organization, and this is all charitable. Some groups have challenged that, like Common Cause, my group, the Center for Media and Democracy, and PR Watch has joined in those efforts to say that this is wrong. And we’ve also filed complaints with the ethics boards in Wisconsin, and we’re planning other complaints, as well, because what the public record shows is extraordinary efforts by ALEC to get these bills made into law. And if that’s not lobbying, I’m not sure what is.
AMY GOODMAN: Last Thursday, Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell blamed Anna Scholl, the executive director of ProgressVA, for allegedly spreading misinformation about ALEC. Howell used to lead ALEC, and Scholl helped release a report critical of ALEC back in January. Part of their exchange was caught on camera.
ANNA SCHOLL: I’d love to get information from you on what you think is inaccurate, so we can correct it. We’re—
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: Well—
ANNA SCHOLL: —very concerned about making sure that we’re giving correct information to the public.
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: The articles that Anita wrote—they were based on your report—was full of either half-truths or untruths. And I’ll give you a good example.
ANNA SCHOLL: That would be helpful.
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: Everybody has highlighted the fact that the Commonwealth pays about $230,000 over the last 10 years for expenses for legislators to attend ALEC meetings.
ANNA SCHOLL: Is that not accurate?
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: What’s not accurate is the fact that during that same period of time, the Commonwealth has paid $2.5 million for those same legislators or other legislators to go to NCSL, a more moderate group, to be sure.
ANNA SCHOLL: So, I’m sorry. I understand. I’m just curious about which part of the report you found to be inaccurate.
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: The part where you say they got $230,000 over 10 years—
ANNA SCHOLL: So the state didn’t spend $230,000—
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: No.
ANNA SCHOLL: —sending legislators to ALEC conferences.
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: No. I guess I’m not speaking in little enough words for you to understand. What I’m trying to tell you—
ANNA SCHOLL: I’m a smart girl, actually. I went to the University of Virginia. I benefited from public education.
REP. WILLIAM HOWELL: Well, good for you.
ANNA SCHOLL: I think words with multiple syllables will be just fine for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Rashad Robinson of Color of Change, can you talk about ALEC’s response to its supporters, to these disclosures by groups like Center for Media and Democracy and your group and others?
RASHAD ROBINSON: Well, ALEC’s—actually, their public relations has been all over the place for the last couple of weeks. Initially, they ignored the campaign. Then, as corporations started pulling out, they called us a well—they called us a "well-funded, expertly coordinated campaign." My staff really appreciated the "expertly coordinated" but were a little shocked about the "well-funded," considering our small staff size and office space.
Then, sort of over the next couple of days, you know, the conservative press started rallying around ALEC, doing the attack ads on Fox News on Color of Change and other organizations. And then, you know, ALEC, late last week, put out a statement basically saying that they were—that they only concentrate on, you know, free market economic issues, and really tried to push this, that that’s what they do, and we’re attacking free market and economic—and organizations that want to work on the economy in this climate.
Our simple message to the corporations that still fund ALEC was, what about voter suppression and what about Stand Your Ground laws is in their economic interest? And then, this week we hear that ALEC now is dropping those as policies. They’ve essentially went out—basically went out into a body of water and dumped a lot of oil, and now they’re wiping their hands off and saying, "Well, we won’t dump any more oil." They’re not saying—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, BP is doing pretty well right now.
RASHAD ROBINSON: BP is doing well, and maybe that’s what they’re following, right? But they’re not saying they’re going to clean up the oil, right? So now we have these laws that people are going to be dealing—millions of people are dealing with all around the country, and they’re not saying what they’re going to do about it. So, they may not continue to push these laws, but Americans are going to still be dealing with discriminatory voter ID laws. They’re still going to be dealing with Stand Your Ground laws. And ALEC has real no—no response for it. And that’s why we’re going to continue our efforts to hold these corporations accountable.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we invited the American Legislative Exchange Council to join us on the program today, but no one from the organization responded to our inquires. Last Wednesday, Ron Scheberle, executive director of ALEC, issued a response to what ALEC described as a, quote, "coordinated and well-funded intimidation campaign against corporate members of the organization." Scheberle said, quote, "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." Lisa Graves, can you comment on this statement from ALEC?
LISA GRAVES: Well, sure. This is just more misinformation and disinformation from ALEC, and it echoes some of the disinformation by William Howell in Virginia when he attacked Progress—one of the Progress Now groups in that state and nationally suggested that ALEC is open and open to the press. It’s simply not true. They have small portions of their effort that are open to the press. Most of their business is actually behind closed doors. They say that they want to have a dialogue. That’s different than what they’re doing. What they’re actually doing is putting these legislators in closed-door meetings at fancy resorts where they’re voting as equals with corporate lobbyists, unelected corporate lobbyists, and special interest groups. They have kicked the press out of these—out of even access to some of the ALEC meetings, even the public portions of the meetings. They are very closed. And they’ve operated successfully because they’ve been in the dark, because they’ve been able to have their fingerprints all over legislation across the country that dramatically changes the rights of American citizens.
These things like the tort reform, so-called tort reform agenda of ALEC, that make it harder for Americans to get justice in our court system when they lose their loved one or lose the main wage earner in their family, that’s about corporate irresponsibility. That’s not about creating jobs. You can look through their agenda, point by point by point, and see how this claim about their jobs agenda is simply delusion and misdirection, because so much of the ALEC agenda is about protecting corporations and corporate giveaways, keeping them from being held to account. And that’s why the Center for Media and Democracy, along with People for the American Way, Common Cause, the Progress groups, and also with the tremendous efforts of Color of Change on the issues of suppressing the right of Americans to vote and making it more difficult for Americans to vote, as well as the NRA’s agenda, have come together to call out the ALEC corporation.
AMY GOODMAN: The NRA is clearly angry. The Secret Service is now investigating the musician Ted Nugent for making potentially threatening comments about President Obama. He was speaking at the annual NRA meeting last weekend and said, quote, "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will be either dead or in jail by this time next year. ... We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November. Any questions?" He added, "It isn’t the enemy that ruined America. It’s good people who bent over and let the enemy in. If the coyote’s in your living room pissing on your couch, it’s not the coyote’s fault. It’s your fault for not shooting him."
Rashad Robinson, we’re going to wrap up with your response to this and whether you have faith that these corporations that have pulled out—do you believe that they’ll come back in once ALEC has said that they’re going to drop their so-called Stand Your Ground, what others called "shoot first," laws and voter ID laws? But respond to Nugent’s comments.
RASHAD ROBINSON: You know, these type of comments and these type of rhetorics are really sort of a throwback to days when folks could make these type of comments. It’s particularly about—around black leaders in America. The Republican Party and Mitt Romney, in particular, need to respond to this.
AMY GOODMAN: Because he is a Mitt Romney supporter.
RASHAD ROBINSON: He’s a Mitt Romney supporter, and they’re associated with him. And they—and Mitt Romney, if he wants to run a campaign that’s about representing all of America, then he absolutely needs to respond and needs to disassociate himself.
But it also, I think, speaks to a larger problem that we have in this country with, you know, the glorification of guns and the glorification of violence. And I absolutely think that sort of the way in which the NRA has been able to work with ALEC over the years, the way that Wal-Mart has been able to serve on the committee, does speak to the underlying problem. I think Lisa outlined all the challenges with ALEC. For us at Color of Change, the corporations that we’ve worked with to move outside of ALEC and the corporations that we’ve called out, and who have moved out, need to understand that our organization is not going away, that the voices of our members will continue to be raised when we see injustice, when we see corporations that say one thing to us in our community and do another thing by night with their resources, and we will hold them accountable. And so, they should understand that going back to ALEC will not be good business. It will not be in their best interest, and it certainly will not serve their relationship with the African-American community.
AMY GOODMAN: Romney wanted Nugent’s endorsement. When he said this, the campaign didn’t mention Nugent by name, but said, "Divisive language is offensive no matter what side of the political aisle it comes from." The spokesperson, Andrea Saul, said, "Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil."
RASHAD ROBINSON: I think this is bigger than being civil. You know, that type of comment, we need leadership. For someone to call out the President and say that we—to threaten him or to say that he might shoot him, or to call or to gen up violence in that type of way, Mitt Romney needs to show real leadership, not just simply say that everyone needs to be civil. We need leaders in our president, not just folks who are—want to play the middle ground.
AMY GOODMAN: Rashad Robinson, we want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of Color of Change, and Lisa Graves, for the Center for Media and Democracy, speaking in Washington, D.C. And Lisa, again, congratulations on your Izzy Award. I just saw you on Tuesday night up at Ithaca College, where the Center for Media and Democracy got the Izzy Award, named for the muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, for your exposing of ALEC.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back—
LISA GRAVES: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —the most viral the video in history. A hundred million people viewed it in a week. We’re going to talk about Kony 2012. Stay with us.