Politics

05.04.12

Former Chair Accuses ALEC of Anti-Democrat Bias

Ben Jacobs talks to a former leader of the corporate-lobbying organization about its increasingly partisan bent.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the controversial group that helped craft “stand your ground” legislation as well as raft of business-friendly local laws, has become increasingly partisan as its leadership has been taken over by “two or three or four people,” according to one of the last Democrats to chair the organization.

“The year I was national chairman was kind of a very frustrating year for me. The executive director [then Lori Roman] did not follow what I expected her to do. I didn’t have a lot of support from the board,” said Dolores Mertz, a now-retired Iowa state representative who was the group’s national chairman in 2007. “[Roman] told me that she didn’t like Democrats and she wasn’t going to work with them.”

“I am concerned about the lobbying that’s going on, especially with their 501(c)3 status,” said Mertz, referring to the part of the tax code ALEC falls under, which requires the group to be nonprofit and bars it from spending significant money on lobbying. The last four chairmen of the group, which appoints a new state legislator to the role each year, have been Republicans, as have 28 of its 33 chairs since its founding in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, the conservative co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing projects.

ALEC’s membership is made up of both legislators and private-sector representatives (mostly lobbyists). For model legislation to gain the group’s blessing, it must first be approved by a majority of both the lawmakers and the business members on a task force considering it. Critics, mostly on the left, have long called the group a vehicle for corporate interests to lobby state legislators and shape laws that benefit their interests. These complaints have been amplified in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, as big backers including Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and McDonald’s have dropped their support as public attention has focused on the powerful but traditionally low-profile organization.

“[Roman] told me that she didn’t like Democrats and she wasn’t going to work with them.”

“Wow,” said Doug Clopp, the deputy director for programs at Common Cause, when The Daily Beast related Mertz’s comments, which he said stood “in stark contradiction to a lot of the public statements that ALEC is making of late.” Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS in April accusing ALEC of being “a corporate lobbying group masquerading as a public charity.”

Lori Roman, who is now the founder and president of Regular Folks United, said in response to Mertz’s comments about her only that she “didn’t want to get into the middle of it.” Kaitlyn Buss, ALEC’s communications director, said that “someone’s comment from a few years ago doesn’t represent the current executive director and would be a gross misrepresentation of what ALEC is." She described ALEC as a “principles-based, nonpartisan organization” that advocates for policies “founded on the principles of free market, free enterprise, and limited government.” Many of those policies, she said, “enjoy broad bipartisan support.”

ALEC has dismissed its critics as “a coalition of extreme liberal activists” and “liberal front groups” intent on “intimidation” and harassment” of the group.

Lisa Graves, the executive director of the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy and founder of ALEC Exposed, said she was unsurprised by Mertz’s comments, noting that of Alec’s 104 legislators in leadership roles, 103 were Republicans.

Despite her frustration with her year at the helm, Mertz remained with the group until she retired from public office at the end of 2010. In fact, she even attended the annual meeting in New Orleans last year to accept an award for “Excellence in Leadership and Outstanding Service.” ALEC’s private-sector orientation remains “pretty good,” said Mertz.

“I really don’t want to say anything negative about them. I really think it’s a great organization. I’m mystified as to what happened to bring it to this point to [lose] so many sponsors.”