The American Legislative Exchange Council, the low-profile but high-impact force behind a wave of conservative-oriented legislative initiatives across the country, said Tuesday it was dropping the task force that helped produce some of its most contentious bills.
ALEC's work was in the national spotlight in recent days because it helped draft the language for the "stand your ground" self-defense law at the center of the legal battle in the racially charged fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Sharply criticized by liberal groups, ALEC has been called an "idea factory" that has written model bill language for state legislators on issues ranging from tougher voter ID standards and anti-immigration statutes to laws rejecting key parts of President Obama's new health care law. The group's critics have been targeting ALEC's corporate sponsors in a bid to undercut its financing.
ALEC National Chairman David Frizzell said in a statement Tuesday that the embattled conservative legislative organization would intensify its focus on economic issues, shelving its work on such issues as gun rights and voter-identification laws.
"While we recognize there are other critical noneconomic issues that are vitally important to millions of Americans, we believe we must concentrate on initiatives that spur competitiveness and innovation and put more Americans back to work," said Mr. Frizzell, who is also Republican majority whip in the Indiana state House of Representatives.
ALEC officials in recent days had attacked the pressure campaign, but Mr. Frizzell abruptly announced the group had eliminated its public safety and elections task force. The group has eight remaining task forces, including ones dealing with communications, foreign affairs and health care.
Never popular with liberal groups, ALEC had come under intense scrutiny after the Feb. 26 shooting death of the 17-year-old in Florida. The group helped draft Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows citizens greater latitude in defending themselves in the face of perceived threats.
The law was cited as a factor in the original police decision not to charge neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon after a confrontation. Following weeks of national protests and calls for his arrest, Mr. Zimmerman, 28, was charged April 11 with second-degree murder.
ALEC began losing backers such as Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods after they were threatened with boycotts by civil-rights groups, led by ColorOfChange. At least 10 ALEC corporate members have pulled their support since the boycott effort began, according to Common Cause.
Common Cause, a longtime ALEC foe, cheered the demise of the task force as "an important victory for the American public."
"The American public has wised up to ALEC's misguided and secretive attempts to co-opt state legislators for corporate profit," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar.
But ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson called the move "nothing more than a PR stunt aimed at diverting attention from its agenda, which has done serious damage to our communities."
ColorOfChange, which bills itself as the nation's largest online civil rights organization with 800,000 members, has tangled with ALEC before in fighting more stringent voter-identification bills introduced in many state legislatures over the past two years.
"Shutting down one task force does not provide justice to the millions of Americans whose lives are impacted by these dangerous and discriminatory laws courtesy of ALEC and its corporate backers," said Mr. Robinson in a statement. "It's clear that major corporations were in bed with an institution that has worked against basic American values such as the right to vote."
ALEC is supported in large part by corporate dues, which range from $7,000 to $25,000 per year. The group bills itself as the nation's largest nonpartisan association of state legislators, with more than 2,000 state lawmakers in 50 states and more than 100 former members in Congress.
The group's defenders describe it as a clearinghouse for policy ideas for state legislators, one that has been unfairly singled out because of its conservative, free-market orientation.
Wrote one state legislative aide recently on the influential conservative website RedState.com, "ALEC has become a target of a sloppily-orchestrated but well-funded effort by conspiracy theorists and anarchists ... who care more about creating another dark, sinister bogeyman to scare you rather than honestly and seriously confronting the challenges before us."
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