The Left’s Answer to ALEC

The State Innovation Exchange, a Democratic group, has been set up to combat corporate-led right-wing organizations. Will it have the firepower to compete?

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For years, Democratic activists have haunted the dreams of their children not with the specter of goblins or grumpkins but something far more sinister, ALEC.

ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a theoretically non-partisan organization that has pushed a conservative, pro-business agenda for decades in state legislatures across the country. The left had long tried to resist it through a diverse mix of organizations, devoted to different goals, and all to no avail. But, in theory, that started to change last week with the first meeting of SIX, the State Innovation Exchange. The group wouldn’t quite be ALEC but at least would serve as a worthy opponent.

Last Friday, in a generic Washington D.C. hotel ballroom draped with crimson curtains and packed with audience of 200 left of center state legislators, a new organization started to stake its claim to political legitimacy. SIX, which is designed to counter corporate influence, held its first meeting in an attempt to make itself an ideas factory for liberal state legislators from Nebraska to New York City.

The group’s inaugural meeting shuffled between two adjacent hotel ballrooms. In one Obama administration apparatchiks sang the attendees’ praises, in the other room the Obama apparatchiks sang their own praises while feeding guests roast beef sandwiches and coleslaw made of “Napa Valley cabbage.” Liberal legislators from across the country heard all their prejudices confirmed.

Vincent Fort, a state senator from Georgia, saw big differences between ALEC and SIX. In his opinion, “one of the things that progressives have is good ideas but often times the infrastructure and the resources are lacking.” He added that he thought this conference would help liberals to create “not only intellectual infrastructure but the relationships” which might help them be successful in the future.

He was echoed by Will Guzzardi, a newly elected state representative from Illinois, who saw SIX as an organization “poised to be very effective.” Guzzardi thought that “there’s clearly a void here, clearly some work that needs to be done in this domain and they’ve got all the right people lined up behind them.”

But the big difference between SIX and ALEC was that while ALEC was an organization with clear corporate influences, it wasn’t inherently partisan. ALEC attracted corporations that saw an opportunity to push an agenda, regardless of ideology. ALEC echoed the ideology of Charles Wilson, the first Defense Secretary in the Eisenhower administration. Wilson famously said “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” ALEC expanded that to all businesses as it pushed a pro-corporate agenda that advanced the goals of every company that paid dues to the organization.

In contrast, SIX is clearly part and parcel of the Democratic establishment. The first meeting featured multiple speakers deeply rooted in a partisan agenda. From the group’s founder, former White House staffer Nick Rathod, who boasted how the group would cooperate with groups like American Bridge to Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor, who tried use the event to push his own agenda, the group seemed part of a left of center counter-attack against ALEC.

It would be inaccurate though to call SIX a direct antidote to ALEC. As Rathod noted, SIX is not supposed to be merely the opposite of ALEC. It’s mostly funded by non-profits, not corporations, and is a well meaning attempt by the progressive movement to engage in the states. It wasn’t about profit or pushing a strictly corporate agenda. In fact, as attendees noted to The Daily Beast, legislators go to ALEC to find ways to fund their campaigns. For better or for worse, that wasn’t possible at SIX and that was a big difference. As a good progressive like Fort earnestly noted, “I don’t want to be compared to ALEC in any shape or form.”

Yet SIX wasn’t a loosely run event. It was a professional attempt to start to build a progressive effort in states across the country. Tim Mathern, a longtime North Dakota state Senator came to the event thinking that it was “all about licking our wounds.” Instead, he was pleasantly surprised at the conversation, which is all about picking up new skills to appeal to a skeptical electorate. Mathern was excited that the group was going to be so different from ALEC, which he derided as a “heavily corporately funded” group run on a “corporate model.” He thought SIX would be different. After all, there were tables for press while, at ALEC, we were told the “press was evil.” Mathern thought the test be in a couple years, “if you’re still going to have these press tables here” or if reporters were getting “kicked out.” Within ten minutes of that statement, The Daily Beast’s reporter at the event was asked to leave the hotel ballroom. It was now closed press. For better or for worse, SIX was growing up.