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UP #373 – ALEC Conference Part 2 // Meet the folks who want to tear down government

This series about my attendance at the ALEC conference has first appeared on the website PR Watch.

If yesterday’s far left wanted to overthrow the government, today’s far right would just as soon get rid of most of it. The term “far right” implies a small fringe group, wanting to shove most of the federal apparatus into the dustbin of history, as Marx would say. However ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), is not a small fringe group, they claim to have a quarter of all state legislators as members.

Who are these people? They are not like the Occupy Movement’s youth who pitched tents in parks. They are more like their parents, who stayed at home and watched TV. But make no mistake, they are organized and well funded to carry their ideas forward.

About a 1,000 ALEC delegates and lobbyists attended their largest meetings at the San Diego Hyatt last week. I eyeballed three separate clusters at different times at the conference and the highest percentage of people of color I could count was 8 percent. Women delegates faired better at 20 percent. A handful of youthful interns from the Heritage Foundation kept order, although there was no rowdiness.

ALEC created ACCE (the American City County Exchange) in 2014 as a separate organization for municipal officials. I assumed ALEC’s corporate members initiated ACCE. That may be too simplistic a view, at least from what ACCE’s founder and Director Jon Russell told me.

Russell is a councilmember from the township of Culpeper, Virginia, with a population just under 20,000, which is 52% white, and 32% black. It would seem to be a city in need of federal assistance. The last census showed males had a median income of $28,658 and 27% of the population was below the poverty line. Russell, a father of four children, is white, as was all nine councilmembers when he was first elected.

Despite the differences in our politics I found that we had a similar past in organizing. Both of us started national networks of municipal officials to promote our political views. Jon had connections with about 20 other local politicians from his conservative advocacy work, and I had a similar number from my progressive national work.

I helped launch Local Progress in 2013 by calling together about 30 politicians, community organizers and non-profits. The following year Russell walked into ALEC and told them he wanted to start a conservative national network of municipal officials to carry out ALEC’s mission. They hired him as director and devoted their ample resources to building it. Since his elected job is part time, he retained his seat. Meanwhile, the non-profit Center for Popular Democracy agreed to host Local Progress. The members raised money to pay for a CPD staff person to act as a part-time director and I served as chair.

Today Local Progress has 370 elected officials as members, and ACCE has 312, but they also have over 200 private interest partners. If those businesses pay separately to join ACCE, that would give Russell’s group well over $200,000 in annual income just through corporate membership fees. Although we are currently limiting our membership to cities, ACCE includes counties. We have no membership fees and do not charge for attending our annual conferences, while their fee is $50 per elected official and they charge anywhere from $200 to $700 to attend their meetings, depending on when one registers.

Russell told me that they give out limited grants since many of their members are from smaller towns that do not have budgets to support attending such conferences. I suspect there are a large number of such grants or corporate scholarships provided to those that they would like to see attend.

l intends to double his membership every year and sees the potential to eventually exceed ALEC’s since there are thousands more local officials than state legislators. Given the funds being poured into ALEC by corporations and foundations like the Koch Institute, not to mention access to ALEC’s 40 plus staff, ACCE could become a major player in shaping municipal policies. Their presence may not grow in the larger democratic cities, but there are thousands of smaller cities that could feel their impact.

Throughout ACCE’s second annual gathering, I sat in a small room with two-dozen members, all white like myself and mostly men, discussing how to limit government’s influence. Russell told the group, “We are looking at our work as pioneers of the future, not prison guards of the past.” Their first publication outlining that future comes out later this year, to be followed by white papers on federalism & local control best practices.

In my next installment I’ll share what I saw of corporate participation in the Conference.

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