SAUERBREY: The Durbin inquisition

Intimidation tactics should be beneath a senator

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How does a conservative group know it is doing something right? It’s a pretty good clue when a heavy-handed leftist U.S. senator attempts to intimidate its supporters.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, has sent a chilling letter to some 300 organizations and individuals who are suspected of having supported the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) at any time since 2005.

The Durbin letter asks the recipients if they have served as a member of ALEC or provided any funding to ALEC in 2013. It also asks if the recipient supports “stand your ground” self-defense legislation that was promoted by ALEC a number of years ago. The letter demands a response by Sept. 1, for the purpose of a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

ALEC, formed 40 years ago by a tiny band of conservative legislators, has grown into the largest private membership organization of state lawmakers, currently boasting more than 2,000 legislators from all of the 50 states, as well as more than 85 members of Congress and 14 sitting or former governors who are considered “alumni.”

ALEC is a real thorn in the side of the left. It is a public-private partnership bringing together legislators, policy wonks and business leaders dedicated to free-market, limited-government solutions to societal problems. The council develops model legislation based on those principles and makes it available for legislators to consider.

As ALEC’s effectiveness was becoming obvious in recent years, the left began to attack the organization as a “shadowy” shill for corporate special interests. One critic called ALEC “a corporate dating service.” To the left, it is inconceivable that legislators would benefit from business input in developing public policy.

Unlike other state-funded organizations, such as the National Council of State Legislators and the Council of State Governments, ALEC is not funded by taxpayer dollars, and this is its vulnerability. ALEC depends on private-sector money to survive, so if ALEC supporters can be intimidated, its voice may be shut down.

Following attacks by The Nation magazine and other left-wing voices, the anti-ALEC campaign began in earnest in 2011, when Color of Change launched a boycott of ALEC attacking its support of voter-ID legislation. Sadly, some sponsors buckled under the pressure.

Another regular feature of ALEC meetings has been efforts by protesters to disrupt proceedings. At ALEC’s recent 40th annual meeting in Chicago, paid protesters surrounded the hotel and harassed attendees.

The Durbin letter is one more heavy-handed effort to intimidate ALEC supporters. The Goldwater Institute, likening the Durbin letter to a Joseph McCarthy witch hunt, has responded, “We refuse to answer whether we are or ever have been a supporter of ALEC or its model legislation. We refuse to answer not because we disavow ALEC — far from it. We refuse to answer because as free Americans, that is our right.”

However, as a powerful U.S. senator knows, many businesses are vulnerable to regulatory retaliation and will be afraid to exercise their rights. The goal of his letter is clearly to scare sponsors into renouncing ALEC.

I am eager to tell Mr. Durbin that I am a proud past national chairman of ALEC. I was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978, one of a handful of conservatives in one of the most liberal legislatures in America. I found in ALEC a network of legislators that shared my core principles, an organization that provided access to sensible policy solutions and one that gave me hope.

For a member of the U.S. Senate to use his power to interfere with individuals and organizations who do not share his views is a disgrace.

Ellen Sauerbrey is former minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates and former national chairman of ALEC.

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