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Warning from Trayvon’s Killing: Don’t Ignore the Legislatures

Neal Peirce / Mar 31 2012

For Release Sunday, April 1, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceAs deeply tragic as it is in its own right, the Florida shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin exposes far-ranging — and connected — fissures in American political life.

First: News reports have indicated the shooter, while claiming self-defense, is showing some remorse. Great — but better not to have laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute at all. Guns supposedly empower; in truth they easily turn altercations into killings.

Second: Who pushed the law’s passage? Answer: the National Rifle Association. It drafted the bill, pushed it through the Florida legislature in 2005, and then stood by approvingly as then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it.

An early supporter: State Sen. Marco Rubio, now a U.S. Senator and mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee. Rubio is reluctant to change the law without more evidence. But he’ll unquestionably be challenged on it. Even some early supporters are doubtful. Kendall Coffee, former U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida, has condemned the statute as “a license to kill.” A 2010 survey by the Tampa Bay Times found that Florida’s rates of “justifiable homicide” had tripled since the law’s passage.

Second question: Why have several other states emulated the Florida law? Yes, National Rifle Association lobbying. But the NRA used a waiting vehicle: the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a mainstay of right-wing causes, from business tax cuts to privatized prisons. According to news reports, it convenes legislators at posh locations for closed-door meetings with its major corporate backers, and then rolls out model bills that find their way onto legislative agendas across the nation.

The NRA persuaded ALEC to adopt its Florida statute as a model to push in all states. Now ALEC has taken the same statute used to cover the shooting of Trayvon Martin and succeeded in having it enacted, in many cases word for word, in 16 other states.

ALEC’s corporate board includes a near Who’s Who of U.S. corporate heavy-weights, including WalMart, AT&T, State Farm, Pfizer, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Bayer Corp., ExxonMobil, Kraft Foods and Johnson and Johnson. And notably the now politically-famed Koch Companies (the Koch brothers who throw vast resources into Republican campaigns).

Recent ALEC victories include passage of highly controversial anti-immigrant statutes in Arizona and Alabama, along with persuading states nationwide to pass ID laws requiring various forms of photo identification to register or vote.

The ostensible purpose of the voter ID laws: to prevent fraud. But in reality, voter fraud in the United States is exceedingly rare. Sponsors’ real motive is almost surely to discourage students, or low-income voters of color, who often lack photo ID or related documentation, from voting at all. And why work to suppress that vote? Because, overwhelmingly, they vote Democratic.

The voter ID laws have been passed in such states as Florida and Texas, and most recently in Pennsylvania. The Wisconsin law was declared unconstitutional by a lower court. The laws are pending in a number of states, notably Missouri and Michigan. Political realism says they could well tip the party balance in Congress to the Republican party’s favor, as well as denying President Obama victory in battleground states that are vital to his drive for an electoral college majority.

ALEC may claim it’s non-partisan, but its impact, and big corporate money bags, are anything but.

However, ALEC’s idea of working closely with legislators is a powerful model that liberals would do well to learn from.

Ironically, there was such a progressive organization until a few years ago — the Center for Policy Alternatives. Like ALEC, it solicited and distributed legislators’ ideas for bills. Its network was mostly Democratic, but included middle-of-the-road Republicans (back then less of an endangered species than today). A major effort was to bring the non-profit and progressive community to meetings of the National Conference of State Legislatures, maintaining a healthy policy balance in debates and contacts there.

Sadly, the Center expired. Why? I asked Linda Tarr-Whelan, the Center’s leader for several years and now a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the public policy group Demos. A “blindness,” she replied, among actual or potential funders “to understand how progressive federalism should work.”

A major loss was also termination of the Flemming Fellows Leadership Program, which the Center for Policy Alternatives formed at the suggestion of Mary Landrieu of Lousiana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, now both U.S. senators. The idea was to give citizen legislators at the state level an opportunity to interact and work together across party and state lines. Named after Arthur Fleming, a highly respected Republican civil servant, and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program represented America’s best in non-partisan creative government thinking.

Where is today’s leadership — foundation or other — for similar “bring us together” initiatives? Sadly, political money flows into the raw confrontation of campaigns. Millions are spent on political attack ads but very little into thoughtful and balanced debates and meetings of legislators across party lines.

But in today’s alarmingly divided America, the need has never been more acute.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Pamela Collett
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks for another excellent column. Where is the political will to open up space in the USA for democracy? Disenfranchisement and corporate control has severely degraded democracy in the USA.

  2. Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    We run the real risk of having democracy simply die in the US. Maybe not with a bang, but with these continued whimpers as more and more control is stripped away from the public and put into the hands of oligarchs and their corporations. Getting power back will be difficult to impossible since power is being amassed by the few along with all the money. I am increasingly pessimistic.

    Especially pessimistic as more and more people listen to the echo chamber and fail to think. Call me paranoid, but what Goebbels could do in Germany, the echo chamber can do in the US. Its easy to be sucked in by the promises of those who tell the public the answer to these problems is to shoot people you don’t trust, strip those despised unions of their power, and deport the alien. Here is hoping Wisconsin has learned its lesson, and can pass it on to the rest of us. I am not hopeful.

  3. Graeme Sephton
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Yes it is a good point to ask why do good creative progressive ideas not have a well organized and well funded vehicle like ALEC?

    I think the problem stems from the fact that the current election funding mechanism (loads of money) creates an asymmetric struggle. If an idea might make some constituency money then it becomes an investment in the candidate(s). This particular “democratic” system will inevitably therefore favor schemes that will generate short term financial gains. The “Enron amendment” provides the enterprising with the classic model and recipe of how to do it .

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Excerpts from an e-mail received from Arnold Long, an Australian friend:
    I read with great sadness about Trayvon’s murder. So much is good in the U.S. but it also has one of the worst societies in the world for any disadvantaged people.
    It seems sad that a society supposedly a democracy sets it self up as the jury judge and executioner on most of the world’s problems yet allows its citizens shoot each other under the guise of “freedom” ?
    It is bad enough that the U.S. has bombed something like 55 countries since World War II but it is just as brutal on its own citizens, by both action and inaction.
    I wish more U.S. people could seriously look outside their tunnel vision and see how other countries treat their citizens far better.
    It is so sad to know a young man gets killed seemingly with immunity for the killer simply because he did not look like he lived in that community.
    Truly I feel sorry for your country and its citizens.
    Arnold Long