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Not So Smart, ALEC
Clan of extremist lawmakers fails to cover its tracks

by Hans Johnson
Contributing Editor, In These Times
President, Progressive Victory

Ever wonder why right-wing legislators seem to march in such lockstep, while moderates and progressives scramble to close ranks and squabble just to frame an agenda? This differential in discipline is no accident.

Republicans at both the state and federal level tend to dominate the policy processand, when paired with an executive of their own party, put the R in rubber stamp―for a very simple reason. They have at their disposal one of the world's most powerful secret societies handing them their marching orders and providing them their gear. It's the American Legislative Exchange Council.

For nearly 35 years, the right-wing group has strived to rewrite the law in every state of the union, offering model bills and talking points on rolling back wages, reining in unions, curbing privacy, repealing nondiscrimination, removing environmental safeguards, reducing taxes, restricting consumer litigation, and just about every other area of society. ALEC's message to conservative lawmakers is like the motto of Scrubbing Bubbles: We work hard, so you don't have to.

But even an outfit that counts as members 6 U.S. Senators, 82 Representatives, and at least 2,000 state lawmakers (all but a token handful, Republicans) can get a little camera-shy. Maybe they want to keep from public view the swank junkets where corporations cut the deals with right-wing lawmakersand cut and paste their policy goals into new bills pushed through by their puppets.

ALEC, like a reclusive and very particular diva, wants only to be seen in the most favorable light, from one angle: the right.

Its image is precious. That's why episodes of bigotry by its leaders are an outsized danger to ALEC's reputation and continued power. When your constituency includes some the nuttiest, nastiest right-wing activists in North America, blatant appeals to prejudice come with the territory.

In February, a longtime member and leader of ALEC, Texas state Rep. Warren Chisum got caught peddling an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory to his legislative colleagues. Chisum already had a long track record as a ringleader of antigay crusades during his 18-year career in the legislature, where he reins as appropriations chair. In his latest foray, he wrote a letter to all fellow representatives to urge them to consider barring teaching of evolution. Why? "Irrefutable evidence" that the "Big Bang" and "so-called evolution science" is derived "from Rabbinic writings." Chisum's memo also cited a Web site featuring Holocaust denials and denunciations of Albert Einstein.

With the New York Times and a network of bloggers scrutinizing his bizarre misstep, Chisum backtracked. He asked a Jewish, Democratic colleague in the legislature to stand up for him and sing his praises. And he blamed his own memo on the promptings of a friend and fellow legislator in Georgia, whom he claims to have met through the National Conference of State Legislators.

But NCSL, a nonpartisan group, doesn't circulate model policy on religion or crackpot schemes like limiting evolution teaching. That's the province of ALEC. While it bills itself as a forum for promoting free enterprise and responsible policy-making, ALEC also dabbles in some of the wackiest anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and antigay fringes of the right wing.

Three of ALEC's top six leaders have been protagonists in political attacks on gay people in their states and built their conservative credentials on appealing to intolerance. They are Nebraska state Sen. L. Patrick Engel, Missouri state Rep. Jane Cunningham, and Kansas state Sen. Susan Wagle.

All three supported state constitutional amendments to bar committed same-sex couples from access to civil marriage and its many rights and responsibilities. Wagle browbeat her colleagues into putting the measure before state voters. Though from Wichita, she drew ridicule in her state for repeatedly targeting a state university professor in Lawrence whom she accused of obscene course content. Campus inquiries found the material suitable for the classroom.

Wagle is one reason her state's Republican party has all but split in two over the dominance of extremists in leadership positions. And Chisum is reminiscent of the far-right flirtation with anti-Semitism that thrives inside and still drives right-wing politics.

That ALEC, an organization so crucial to the cultivation of leaders and so indispensable to Republican governance, relies so heavily on homophobes and anti-Semites showcases the threat to pluralism posed by conservative politics. Some on the right must have grasped this fact and felt a sense of shame. It might explain why ALEC covets its secrecy as much as its power.