Opinion: ALEC Explained - Why the Conservative Group isn't Going Away

In the public eye, the story of ALEC has been told quickly and will likely pass along just as quickly. A little-known non-profit think tank and advocacy group suddenly found itself at the center of attention, and just as suddenly did an about face to reassure corporate donors that were pulling support.

Not many people knew about ALEC - the American Legislative Exchange Council - before this uproar, and most people probably imagine they won't hear much more. The truth is, though, that ALEC isn't small, the campaign to pressure it wasn't quick and the story isn't just a ripple.

While ALEC may not be a household name, those who know it best are an unusually influential population: Conservative elected officials, policy leaders, communication managers and activists, who rely on ALEC for ready-made legislation on a range of right-wing issues. ALEC has been extraordinarily successful at providing high-level research and policy support that many state representatives could never afford on their own, which encourages those Assembly Members and Senators to use ALEC's work - often modeled on legislation already passed or in process in other states -- as the basis for their own governing.

It's a smart approach, one that progressives less successfully have sought to emulate with groups like the Progressive States Network. ALEC is very good at what it does, but unfortunately it often does very bad.

Which leads to the second group of people familiar with ALEC: those communities had been targeted by their regressive, restrictive and reactionary policy proposals. Over the past two years, for example, dozens of states have considered or passed laws aimed at suppressing voter turnout by requiring photo IDs at polling sites and discouraging voter registration. Communities of color, most often the victims of such legislation, took notice of this trend and saw it was no accident and not a response to a real problem. Rather, it was a calculated effort by ALEC and its allies.

So such organizations launched a calculated campaign of their own, led by groups like Color of Change, to tell ALEC's corporate sponsors what they were actually supporting and who they were hurting. It was a slow effort in part because ALEC has done a good job not being identified as a high-profile extreme-right group. So this campaign would require educating corporations, the public, the media and gradually building the case against ALEC.

All of which was already underway when George Zimmerman was spared arrest because of a "Stand Your Ground" law, which had not been created by ALEC but which ALEC had been popularized in other states. The media attention of the Trayvon Martin murder thrust ALEC into the spotlight it had avoided, and made it easier for the public and corporations to see the group for what it is.

This controversy didn't come out of nowhere, though. The campaign that had been built up to target issues like voter ID laws was able to move quickly at this moment - and the sudden unraveling of ALEC's corporate support and its own policy repositioning seemed to spring out of nowhere.

It's a good thing that ALEC has shifted its focus away from election law and social issues, important that its supporters have reconsidered the organization and critical that the public has been made more aware of the group. That's not going to stop this conservative network from successfully propagating bad policies, but it might slow the relentless march of bad legislation in certain areas. While it's unlikely that voter registration laws are going to suddenly change back, at least the momentum has been stopped.

And it's an important reminder that advocacy can work. It also demonstrates that while a story may seem sudden, a turn of events can appear spontaneous, the progressive movement needs to build slow, steady campaigns and rely on longer term vision executed by deeply-supported infrastructure to make victories like this possible.