For Release Sunday, April 1, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, email@example.com.