It was the first time we saw a real organized effort, close enough to get involved with, to gather caring people and hear about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, in great detail, from experts. We had to go. "All About Alec" was a spectacular success put together by Oregon Area Progressives in Fitchburg, WI (no they're not lost... this Oregon is a local community). Great speakers, superb content, and an outstanding bunch of wayyyy more than 200 folks showed up!
Getting on the road from Saint Paul at 3am was the easiest thing to do, because we thought it would be a great thing. We weren't quite right... it was BETTER!
Here's a rundown on the conference, plus links to information and sources.
OAP -- http://www.oregonareaprogressives.org -- is the sort of organization ought to try to build everywhere. What a phenomenal performance from a small, dedicated group that's been strong and productive for all of us! OAP sets a high standard.
It's a good thing we rolled into Fitchburg -- south side of Madison -- a bit early, because the address we had wasn't quite right. Seriously, that street number just isn't there. We poked around about a half-mile off, and finally asked someone at the Fitchburg City Hall who sent us directly to where we needed to be. Apparently the folks there haven't heard about the new way to treat FitzWalkerstan citizens... they were great. When we got to BTCI* there were places to park, maybe a couple or three dozen folks and a few minutes before things got started so we went in a took seats. Should have stayed in the lobby and actually seen hundreds of people show up! Sitting up front let them all come in behind and it was a great surprise when the attendance was finally announced. Turns out they completely filled the parking lot and there were dozens of cars parked out along the street... totally unexpected. This IS what democracy looks like!
* BTCI is BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, which is the sort of thing you get in a place like Madison... they're doing serious research on genomics and stem cells, leading public discussions on bioethics and working with schools to promote actual science. Since they made their fine meeting room/auditorium available, you might want to check them out: http://www.btci.org/.
We went to "All About ALEC" because exposing ALEC is my partner's big project (we all should have one... do you?). Not that I'm against it... I just have my own goals. But she's really right on this one, and as a lawyer it really is something that she understands and needs to change. You may know of ALEC, as it gets more press now than ever, but the details aren't really clear yet for lots of folks. So it's on us, all of us, to get into it, spread the word, explain to everyone we can how dangerous it is and the damage they're trying to do. OAP is all over it in Wisconsin, right in the heart of the radical conspiracy to destroy America, but so far we don't have anything here in the Twin Cities (or Minnesota) to act as a resource for ALEC information, and this conference seemed like the best way so far to learn and see how it's done. And it was. I hope the Wisconsin folks didn't mind us dropping by to poach information and shake a few hands.
John Nichols ran the show. That tells you this was a class act from the beginning. He moderated, start to finish, and along the way offered observations and insights that lifted things from the start in a great way. Follow him in The Nation -- http://www.thenation.com/ -- and pay attention when he gets time in the broadcast media. We have too few champions with his access, and his skill.
Along with John, much credit to Carlene Bechen and Charlie Uphoff, OAP stalwarts who were constantly there to make things work, sort out mics and nameplates and keep everything running on time and on point. Can we clone them?
We started the day with an introduction from the Mayor of Fitchburg, Shawn Pfaff, who has a strong legislative history. He said he's in a non-partisan office, but I think that was a political statement. Wisconsin is going to need a real governor pretty soon... is anybody watching?
First ALEC specialist up: Lisa Graves, Executive Director (since 2009) for The Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, with a long history inside the belly of the beast (and when it really WAS a beast): Chief Counsel for Nominations on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for DoJ, and more. She gave a stunning presentation of what ALEC is about, how it works and what it means. Good stuff. CMD is already a central point of authority on what ALEC is doing, and detailed specific information. It's something we need, and need to know about: The CMD states [from Wikipedia] that it "...does not accept corporate, labor union or government grants", and maintains lists of financial supporters on its website. This is the essence of 'public service'.
CMD was started with a focus on media, how it works and what it really does. They have several web presence points, and the big one is http://www.prwatch.org/. You might want to sign up for their emails. Along the way, Lisa got involved in the ALEC mess, and now is heading up the work on it. She, and CMD, are responsible for the "ALEX Exposed" project -- here's a recent article from their site: http://www.prwatch.org/... and here's the ALEC Exposed wiki: http://www.alecexposed.org/... where you can dig in to the model bills that ALEC has produced, and the finest collection of information about ALEC anywhere.
It was really a treat to hear about it all from one of today's leaders. One of the strong points of the day for me was her introduction on how ALEC is organized, with committees or task forces in each state for various purposes. It's not just annual meetings we're up against, it's a carefully calibrated and focused assault on particular goals, done by specialists who know their subjects and their targets, and who never back off. In fact that's the other (and very chilling) lesson of the day: that it's never over, and we can never relax. Anywhere. ALEC pushes legislation over and over, often multiple similar bills in the same year in the same state, because they believe that even if many fail, every time they gain even the smallest victory it advances the overall goal. Which is precisely how they've gotten where they are today.
Another fact of ALEC operation is the notion of the unity of their operatives, their legal staff and the legislators that participate with them. Basically, everyone has to agree to their product -- model legislation -- before it goes forward, which is an essential part of constructing something that suffers little further alteration when it goes into the regular legislative process. Since it's all been hashed out and agreed to privately and in advance, it seems to make the proponents comfortable with pushing along without tolerating interference from anyone. How convenient.
Have a look at the CMD sites, and it wouldn't be a bad thing to let Lisa know about it. She should be on everyone's 'best friends' list.
Next up: Mike McCabe, from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign -- http://www.wisdc.org/ -- who brought home what ALEC is up to in Wisconsin, with specific information that highlighted just how intertwined the ALEC machine has made itself at the state level. And it's clear that they're doing the same thing everywhere. He also made it even more dramatic, how national corporate names are engaged in the state committees and task forces, and what sorts of laws they're interested in pursuing.
It's really quite ingenious of ALEC, the direction they've gone to gain influence. Working on the national government not only is difficult and unpredictable, it tends to be so visible that there is inevitably publicity and attention on the effort, which obviously they don't want. However, with the disappearance of most any sort of serious media, local or national, or at least media that even remembers the concept of 'journalism' in most cases, when they attack at the state and even local level they're for the most part invisible until the deed is done. That's certainly what Wisconsin shows us (Scotty Walker was a member of ALEC for years as he wormed his way into politics). And it's even more difficult, because although the ALEC model legislation is bad, when it gets to state legislatures it often gets reworked and modified in various ways, which not only makes it harder to recognize, it means the whole mess ( I believe intentionally!) becomes much harder to resolve if and when any federal legislation is needed to resolve the problems we wind up with.
Mike addressed the concept of controlling "message development", which we often hear called "framing", and laid out links from ALEC to a lot of players we should know about: the Franklin Center, the Sam Adams Alliance (ties to Koch), and the Bradley Foundation (with a vice-chairman of ALEC on board), all sources of message development for their purposes. One has to wonder whether Frank Luntz is on the ALEC payroll. He described the money cycle through PACs and operations like the Republican Governor's Association (RGA), and the way even the notion of any limits on funding in politics, even where laws still exist to try to control it, is just a notion. It really is a vast conspiracy. And to wrap it up, he described the legislative intentions of ALEC as a "subversion of democracy", then described the ongoing process of "stacking the courts" -- supporting the intentions of ALEC by judicial approvals -- as part and parcel of continuing and completing the cycle. All very scary, and all what has to be known.
Lisa and Mike gave us a lot of the meat of the day in their presentations, and from there on we had a series of panels of one or two persons on more specific topics, each introduced and moderated by John Nichols. Each panel member gave a short presentation (and all were good!), then took questions from the crowd. We had some really good questions, and the answers were substantial. Over the day there were several standing ovations at the end of segments. That is quite something to be a part of.
First panel was one very special visitor: Jan Schakowsky, US Representative from Illinois. There was some ribbing about the Wisconsin 14 and their visit to Illinois last winter, but Jan gave as well as she got on that score. She added her views on the cost to the majority of Americans if ALEC gets it's way. Everybody loved her. And, as John Nichols commented later in the day, she didn't just show up, speak and run like many busy political figures. She was there before her turn to speak, and she stayed through lunch and much of the afternoon, speaking to people and just demonstrating how the job should be done.
Next up was a great session on education, with Dan Holub from the Wisconsin Education Association Council and Julie Underwood, Dean of the UW Madison School of Education. Dan focused on the attack on public education in general, and Julie spoke as an expert on school law. You really come away wondering why ALEC would want to be demeaning the authority of people as bright and committed as these. Of course, the recent news from the Walker crowd was mentioned here: his buddies got their tax cuts but his revenue predictions didn't work out well, so there will be serious cuts to education to make up the shortfall. Funny how the biggest slashing was done on UW Madison, who took a 35%+ hit when they only represent 7% of the current budget. It's like he's the best advertisement possible for his own recall.
Then a perfect light catered lunch from a local deli (your choice, turkey or veggie), a few minutes of a break and back to the afternoon presentations.
Mark Pocan is an unmitigated treat, and a bona fide expert on Wisconsin financial matters, a Wisconsin Assembly member who should be training representatives everywhere. You really have to hear him in person to appreciate his energy, his dedication and especially his humor. For the kinds of things he's doing, and the situations he's facing, I'd be thinking of mayhem and he just laughs his way through it. Amazing. Mark found out about ALEC some years ago, and as a Representative took advantage of his position and joined the organization. They had to let him in, even if they had a clue what sort of things he was interested in, because ALEC advertises themselves as "non-partisan" (and if that makes you spit out your coffee, I understand). Small aside: there were several mentions through the day about the fact that ALEC indeed does have members from both parties, although as you might surmise the huge majority of members is from one side of the aisle, and the very small minority from the other side is from a very limited selection of mostly southern states who are not known for supporting their own national party's interests.
So Mark, as a dutiful member of ALEC, went to the most recent meeting, in August, in New Orleans. It's a lovely story. They could not keep him out of the regular meetings, so that was not a very exciting part of it. They knew who he was, and somehow he was not placed on any committees, so he could not have any of the specialized materials a committee member would get. His best effort was to try to peer over to one side or the other to crib from the stuff folks around him had, which was not greatly successful. As it turns out, the real action wasn't in the formal sessions, it was in the various private parties in the evening. At least that's pretty normal for conventions. He managed to get into one of the toniest ones (featuring the very manly sport of cigar braggadocio), and worked his away around for a bit until they figured it out and suggested he wasn't really an invitee. Funny story, for sure. But in the process of being a member, he got a lot of new information, which has been passed along to the CMD, and that becomes part of the available information. Mark also got the password for their super-secret website, that only people who know the double-fantastic triple-lutz handshake are supposed to get into, and happily handed out that nugget to everyone he could. And when people started to learn the inside dealings of ALEC, as they say, hilarity ensued....
And along with Mark was Jack Norman from the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. The theme for the panel was taxes, and of course that discussion was a good one. Jack gave us an extensive list of the sort of things being done about taxes in Wisconsin, and every damned one was some gift to a special interest party. Who knew that it was important to classify snowmaking as subject to common sales tax? (Does that have anything to do with the fact that sales tax rates are less than the way snowmaking might be taxed otherwise?) And sitting out there in this topic is an attempt to put tax regulations -- really reductions and permanent limits -- into the form of a constitutional amendment, where they would be virtually impossible to remove or even change in the future. We need to understand the overall tactic of vilifying and attacking tax (all the better for their friends' taxes) really means that every time they succeed, available revenues are reduced, which in turn means that next year they'll be able to scream 'austerity' and slash more programs at the same time they work on even more tax issues. Over and over and over.
Mark Miller from the Wisconsin State Senate came up next with Nino Amato from the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, addressing voting ID issues. This is a hot-button issue for ALEC, and especially hot in Wisconsin in the Walker era. ALEC suports the elimination of as many possibly "hostile" voters as they can (and as we get the word out about ALEC I'm guessing there will be more and more of them), and the questions for the topic came on pretty heavy. One point made that's worth remembering is that whenever they can make registration or participation in voting more difficult, even if there's not a specific charge applied, when it takes more time or travel or expense to register or vote or collect required information for either, that amounts to a "back door" poll tax. People care about this.
Robert Kraig from Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Assembly member Sondy Pope-Roberts, took the next turn to deal with healthcare. Kraig's presentation was a highlight, and they both got some great questions. A constant goal of ALEC in terms of healthcare is to make sure everything possible remains under the control of the insurance industry (which, no matter how it advertises itself, has absolutely nothing to do with any health except that of balance sheets). One of the questioners mentioned Medicare-for-All, and just the question got a long round of applause. Another high-interest issue here.
The day would not have been complete without some union folks, and we got two good ones: Jim Cavanaugh from the South Central Federation of Labor, and Joanne Ricca from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Again, high marks to the folks of OAP for getting really good participants for the day. This segment linked some labor-related history to ALEC through some names we know, like Paul Weyrich, the Young Americans for Freedom (!) in the Goldwater years, the constant financial support of Coors and Scaife and Lilly... it's been going on for a long, long time. And a stunning, exemplary reference from a Bircher-type book, "The Conservative Mind" by Russell Kirk in 1953 (you should read it just to learn, but keep some Maalox handy), that worker rights are less important than property rights. A really long time.
To top it all off, the day closed with a little talk from Jay Heck of Common Cause. CC is another group to know -- http://www.commoncause.org. It has been working for us since before most of us remember, and they're still out there. CC is very interested in ALEC, and you'll find more information on their site. It was like a fine wine, a perfect finish.
And at the end of the day, almost everyone was still there. On Saturday. Sunny. Warm. Inside, interested, listening, almost everyone. This IS how democracy is done!!
The whole presentation needs to be packaged and sent on tour, like a sixties music revue. This is what we need to know, what everyone needs to know. It's the sort of focus on cause that many want from the occupy movement, and it's relevant to and for everyone. I'm glad I went. I'm going to be busy, because there's work to do.
PS -- We stayed with family Saturday night, and hauled off to the Vilas Zoo in Madison the next day, where they have an annual Halloween fling (mostly) for kids. Weather was superb for late October, kids had great costumes, and we ran across a super-hero. No really. The rest of the year she's a mild-mannered housewife, but on that day she showed up in her alter-ego (and awesome costume):