DALLAS — We’d gathered at Eddie Deen’s Ranch to interrupt the American Legislative Exchange Council at dinner. I was wearing a pink cowboy hat, temporarily inducted into the CODEPINK Posse, an effort organized by the local branch of the well-known national rabble rousers for peace. About 30 of us stood along the sidewalk outside the Ranch, watched by a half-dozen police officers looking bored, a chatty police detective and a pair of startled horses held by two men dressed as cowboys. Overhead, an airplane circled, towing a warning about corporate corruption.
Powerful people in suits laughed at us and snapped smartphone photos as they disembarked from the chartered buses they rode to the Western-themed restaurant. It was July 31 and ALEC was in town for its 41st meeting. After the first of several days of corporate backroom deals at the Hilton Anatole, ALEC’s members wanted to pretend they were cowboys while they ate.
The buses kept coming and out poured some of the world’s most powerful: corporate executives, rich investors, state legislators and their families. Though they’d normally disdain public transportation — when they aren’t orchestrating cuts against it in the name of austerity — I imagined the atmosphere on the bus was jovial, as if the “1%” was on a field trip.
CODEPINK are no strangers to using humor to fight evil. Duded up in pink Western-wear, with faux handcuffs and a “RUN ALEC OUT OF TEXAS” banner, they were aiming for laughter. As the suits’ humor peaked, CODEPINK Dallas — mostly older women — began chanting, “WE MAY BE FUNNY, BUT YOU ARE CORRUPT!”
Speaking out is thirsty, thankless work in the Texas heat. After two hours, a Ranch worker dressed as a cowboy brought us all bottled water.
ALEC: Where the corporate sausage is made
For over 40 years, ALEC has had a corrupting influence on state politics. Its corporate sponsors and rich private investors write legislation, then their hand-picked, loyal legislators introduce those bills into law. The mainstream media rarely connects the dots, even when covering ALEC-related laws. And while many have heard of Stand Your Ground and its contribution to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, few are aware of ALEC’s sponsorship of that law in multiple states.
In the summer of 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled ALECexposed.org, bringing ALEC widespread negative attention for the first time in its four-decade-long history. The site features over 800 model bills and dozens of corporate sponsors. The agenda revealed was startling in its breadth: to name just a few of its policies, ALEC seeks privatization of education and policing, aides the Koch brothers in undermining laws that support renewable energy, and attacks the rights of unions and the retired.
On July 30, Jim Hightower, a former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and publisher of the popular newsletter The Hightower Lowdown, was on hand at the Community Brewery after a noon rally at the Hilton Anatole was attended by hundreds of activists, retirees and union members in honor of ALEC’s 41st national conference. After a rousing speech to encourage the crowd, he told this reporter, “The only way we’re going to take power back for ordinary working people to become a self-governing people again is to confront the corporate interests and to expose them.”
As much as protesters wanted to reach ALEC with their objections, another purpose of the week’s events was to expose the Dallas public to ALEC’s existence among them.
“Most people never heard of ALEC,” he continued. “This big rally we had at the Anatole hotel today, that showed to a lot of people maybe just driving by that there’s something out there called ALEC. [...] If people see it, they will be disgusted by what’s happened. This is the most visible, the most ostentatious merger of corporate power with right-wing legislative power and they meet in secret. [...] If you want to see where the sausage is made, we were at that factory today.”
I spoke with Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace researcher who studies ALEC and similar groups, about how a newcomer to the movement can begin to unravel this complex network of corporate corruption. “The most important thing to do is learn about ALEC [. ...] It’s actually a really complicated organization. It’s state politicians, it’s corporate lawyers and lobbyists and it’s ALEC’s staff. They convene and have a weird governance and the more people understand that, the more people know what to look out for.”