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Smart ALEC

Rep. Jennifer Seelig catches heat for association with ALEC

By Katharine Biele
Posted // May 23,2012 -

It was all pretty funny double-agent play until Feb. 26, 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed. That’s when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) blipped onto the national radar, big time. The death of that young, hooded black man by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman brought Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to light, and with it the people and corporations who helped shepherd it to passage.

ALEC touts itself as a “nonpartisan individual-membership organization of state legislators that favors federalism and conservative public-policy solutions.” But it is much more than that. The website ALECExposed.org has identified 800 pieces of legislation that were modeled by corporations for various state legislatures. That includes a host of educational-voucher bills, and others affecting consumers, health care, immigration and, of course, public safety.

And until the Martin case, ALEC managed to work in virtual secrecy—since 1973, when conservative kingmaker Paul Weyrich founded it and other right-wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation.

Local legislators, of course, were well aware of ALEC, and it’s no surprise that 32 Utah Republican lawmakers belong to the group. That Salt Lake City Democrats Rep. Jennifer Seelig and former Sen. Scott McCoy joined up was surprising at best.

Seelig, who allowed her membership to lapse last month, says the whole thing was largely a joke. “Scott said, ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you, a progressive female, and me, a gay male, were to join?’” Seelig says.

The idea was to “expose all of the inner meetings,” Seelig says. “I was a majority of one. I could have recruited progressive leaders from all over to fulfill a policy agenda but, ultimately, it was time and energy.”

After Trayvon Martin, though, Twitter was suddenly aglow with questions about her membership. “I got personally attacked on my Facebook page,” Seelig says. And according to Wikipedia-version history, friends of Seelig were “correcting” misinformation about her ALEC association.

Jesse Fruhwirth, former City Weekly writer and now OccupySLC activist, was so concerned that he invited Seelig to a confab at the Twilite Lounge. “We played pool, and I was trying to urge her to give a speech at one of the protests to clarify her role,” Fruhwirth says. Seelig called back to say she wouldn’t speak publicly because of her work issue.

That issue is her employment with 1-800-Contacts, which, incidentally, is the corporate co-chair of ALEC’s annual summer conference in Salt Lake City. Like many legislators, Seelig must tread a fine line between loyalty to her job and to her constituents.

“Jen Seelig’s record on social issues is unimpeachable,” Fruhwirth says. “But the interplay between government and business is very shadowy.”

Seelig, who sits on the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, actually traveled to Cincinnati in 2011 for an ALEC conference on public safety. Since the Trayvon Martin case and the resignations of many corporate entities, ALEC has disbanded its Public Safety and Elections task force. The reason, ostensibly, was to focus more keenly on economic issues.

Former Utah Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, understands the fleeing from ALEC. She did it herself almost a decade ago. That was when she was sitting on the House public-utilities committee, which was considering electrical deregulation. “Utah resisted deregulation—much to our glory,” Allen says.

Allen rarely left the Legislature during the session but heard about an ALEC conference in Seattle on electrical regulation. She decided to take a day to attend. “Off I went to Seattle, and in two days, I gained only two bits of information,” she says. “One was that global warming is a myth, and the other was that mercury in fish is not a real threat. … The information was so prejudicial that I said, ‘That’s it. I am completely disillusioned.’”

Allen had joined ALEC, as she had several groups related to legislatures. It cost only $50, and legislative funds paid up to $1,500 for travel. She no longer believes that taxpayer dollars should go to such travel. “It’s treated just like the National Conference of State Legislatures, but it is not unbiased. … The conference I went to seemed to be for sale.”

For sale or not, it is more the secrecy aspect that concerns Utah activists. The Alliance for a Better Utah is rolling out a website devoted to ALEC issues and complementing the ALEC Exposed website that came online after Trayvon Martin. The Alliance wants to compare model legislation from ALEC to bills proffered in Utah. “We want to understand which legislation is coming from ALEC and point out the companies to benefit from it,” says Alliance director Maryann Martindale. “Who are the corporate players and who donated to campaigns here?”

To this end, the Alliance has sent out questionnaires to legislators, asking them to fess up to their ALEC connections. Only Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, actually posts ALEC as a “personal affiliation” on his legislative website. “Most others don’t,” Martindale says. “We want them to throw off the cloak of secrecy and own it.”

ALEC’s secrecy, though, is its moniker. Michael Bowman, ALEC’s senior director of policy, recently reiterated a tired rationale to a NPR reporter—that legislators will speak more freely when they’re not being eyed by the public.

So far, the Alliance has heard back from only four or five nonmember legislators and three who are ALEC members. Ultimately, the Alliance would like voters to thank their legislators for this affiliation or to ask them to resign. The goal is transparency, she says. Martindale finds it ironic that the conservative majority in Utah wants legislative autonomy, and yet appears to act in lockstep with ALEC’s partners, however far-flung.

Seelig maintains she was never in step with ALEC, but some Democratic delegates think her association will affect her chances for legislative leadership in November. “You don’t know Jen very well if you think she’s sympathetic to ALEC,” says Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who, like Seelig, is interested in the caucus-minority-leader position. “There’s no question to her loyalty to the caucus. The downside is that it looks bad to a number of people out there when ALEC comes to light.”

Still, King notes that those people won’t be voting on minority leadership. The close-knit House Democrats will, and “we’re both hard-core Democrats.” Seelig insists that the leadership position and her ALEC membership have nothing to do with one another, but ALEC has certainly taken its toll on her.

“The Legislature can suck the life out of you, and this is one example. It infiltrates on every level,” she says. Seelig seems to have become the unwitting target of progressives who want her to carry the torch against ALEC. She won’t. Maybe it’s the business ties; maybe it’s the joke gone bad. But she’s been burned once, and that’s enough.

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 24,2012 at 14:15

Seelig is a good legislator, but she has some weird stuff going on in her personal life.

Why doesn't anyone ask her about the nature of her relationship with Stephen Sandstrom? There's something quite strange going on there.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 24,2012 at 09:43

ALEC Welcoming Committee Call to Action!

We the people of Salt Lake City invite all those opposed to the tyranny of the 1% to join us from July 23-28th 2012 in providing a warm welcome for the 39th Annual Meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council being held at the Grand America in SLC. This annual meeting by ALEC is paid for and attended by corporate sponsors who sit behind closed doors with our elected state legislators. At these meetings laws are created without the voice of the people that will later benefit those same corporate sponsors at the expense of our communities.

ALEC functions as the most influential mechanism by which corporations maintain their dominance over people and policy by occupying our political institutions. ALEC is responsible for thirty nine years worth of oppressive legislation. Model legislation proposed by ALEC and enacted by our elected representatives have destroyed workers rights and strangled free speech. These model policies have driven the privatization of agriculture, education, health care, and the prison industry all at the expense of the ecosystems that sustain us.

We will not allow this systemic corruption to continue. We the people have developed direct democratic communities and processes to challenge the status quo. We call for a local and national convergence of these communities from July 23-28 in Salt Lake City. We remain committed to nonviolence as we provide an open and inclusive space for resistance, rebellion and a diversity of tactics. We the People demand our frustrations be known as we develop solutions together where the voice of the people is heard over the voice of the corporations. It is by solidarity through struggle that we will find our greatest strength.

With Love,

ALEC welcome Committee

PS.  Bring tests.  Pitch Forks optional

 

 

Posted // May 25,2012 at 10:41 - Shut the fuck up, will you please? You're incessant ranting is hurtng you more than helping, I guarantee you. One simple announcement is sufficient; beyond that you start sounding like you have serious personality disorders or you're a Republican provocateur.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 24,2012 at 09:41

ALEC functions as the most influential mechanism by which corporations maintain their dominance over people and policy by occupying our political institutions. ALEC is responsible for thirty nine years worth of oppressive legislation. Model legislation proposed by ALEC and enacted by our elected representatives have destroyed workers rights and strangled free speech. These model policies have driven the privatization of agriculture, education, health care, and the prison industry all at the expense of the ecosystems that sustain us.

We will not allow this systemic corruption to continue. We the people have developed direct democratic communities and processes to challenge the status quo. We call for a local and national convergence of these communities from July 23-28 in Salt Lake City. We remain committed to nonviolence as we provide an open and inclusive space for resistance, rebellion and a diversity of tactics. We the People demand our frustrations be known as we develop solutions together where the voice of the people is heard over the voice of the corporations. It is by solidarity through struggle that we will find our greatest strength.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 24,2012 at 09:39

ALEC Welcoming Committee Call to Action!

We the people of Salt Lake City invite all those opposed to the tyranny of the 1% to join us from July 23-28th 2012 in providing a warm welcome for the 39th Annual Meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council being held at the Grand America in SLC. This annual meeting by ALEC is paid for and attended by corporate sponsors who sit behind closed doors with our elected state legislators. At these meetings laws are created without the voice of the people that will later benefit those same corporate sponsors at the expense of our communities.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // May 24,2012 at 09:01

I work for a small non-profit environmental organization in SLC and I've worked with Representative Jen Seelig over the past couple years. In my work with Rep. Seelig and in my observations of her interactions on the Hill she's always been a tenacious champion for the environment and for those underserved by local government. In committee, on the House floor, and in the hallways of the capitol I’ve witnessed Rep. Seelig stand up to the good old boys club that dominates the legislature. Far from carrying water for ALEC, Seelig is often the only voice in the committee room asking smart, probing questions and presenting a sharp counterpoint – all of which would not have happened in her absence. 

 

Rep. Seelig is smart, strategic, and effective - the very kind of Democratic representative that progressive voices like Fruhwirth and the Alliance for a Better Utah should be supporting. The problem on Utah’s Hill is not Rep. Seelig – I doubt you’d find any ALEC related legislation that she’s voted for – the problem is that there aren’t enough legislators like her on the Hill. If Occupy and the Alliance for a Better Utah are tired of Utah politics, if they’re exhausted by the conservative stranglehold on the Hill, I guarantee that the solution to this won’t be found in attacking and silencing one of our smartest and most effective progressive legislators. 

 

I’m sympathetic to many of Occupy’s aims; however, I find the attacks on Rep. Seelig and the concomitant attempt to impose an ideological purity test on democratic reps un-strategic and sophomoric at best. At worst, these senseless political attacks directed at a legislator who’s own voting record contradicts her opponents fears seems to me a progressive mirroring of the ideological purity tests that are so laughable when administered by conservatives in the form of the all too ubiquitous election season pledges.

 

Again, I’m sympathetic to Occupy and hold in high esteem the individuals at the Alliance who I’ve met at various functions. It’s precisely my sympathy for these two groups which has me so incredibly baffled by their misdirected fixation on Representative Seelig. Changing Utah’s backwards politics won’t happen by attacking one of our most forward thinking representatives. Doing progressive political work in this state is already difficult, it’s made far more difficult when progressives would prefer forming a circular firing squad to rounding up the wagons and fighting to protect our state from the real threats who would sell off public lands to the highest bidder from extractive industries, accept every level of nuclear waste – not to mention a nuclear reactor or two, tell us that equal rights are unacceptable, that abstinence only is effective sex-ed, and that constantly ranking near the bottom in the nation for education is acceptable. 

 

 

 

 

Posted // May 24,2012 at 22:18 - Bravo Rob. Yours is one of the most logical and thoughtful comments I've seen posted on any comment board on any topic in a long time. I've worked with Rep. Jennifer Seelig professionally and politically. And I count her as a friend. You are absolutely correct in your summary of Rep. Seelig's intellect, ability to work both sides of the aisle and her talent at zeroing in on the heart of a piece of legislation. And from my first-hand experience with her, you can add this to her progressive legislative accomplishments: In the 2012 legislative session, she, Rep. David Litvack and Sen. Ben McAdams helped shepherd through the appropriations process an additional $150K in funding for direct services for victims of sexual violence. That much money could cover 150 rape exams for victims at local hospitals and numerous other services that help female and male survivors heal from the trauma of sexual assault in this state. What I am saying is the self-appointed critics interviewed for this story know nothing of political realities and how real work gets accomplished at Utah's Capitol. I worked alongside Rep. Seelig in helping to secure that money for victims of sexual violence and know how hard it was to get. Her critics can continue to be small and single-issue and feign some sort of political purity. It's a "my way or the high way" attitude, and that is why they never see the real change they keep yammering for. Holly Mullen Executive Director Rape Recovery Center

 

Posted // May 24,2012 at 10:52 - One final thought: it's BIG, and AWESOME, that Jen quit ALEC, whatever her reasons were for joining in the first place. We asked her to resign her membership, and while she tells me that our request had nothing to do with her decision to quit, we're pleased all the same. I, personally, still want Jen to find her voice and talk about what she was doing their fully and honestly, but I do want to point out that overall, she deserves praise for exiting this shadowy organization that is a full embodiment of a corporate plutocracy disguised as democracy.

 

Posted // May 24,2012 at 10:47 - Hey Rob, I'd agree with you except that Seelig has yet to offer a really believable and cogent explanation for her membership. If she joined to expose ALEC, why isn't she willing to share more about her membership in ALEC? Would she travel all the way to Ohio for a "joke"? It's been months that I've talked to Seelig about this and none of the explanations she gives seem to totally explain her membership. Add on top of that void the fact that--hullo!--she is a corporate executive for the 1-800-CONTACTS, the Utah state co-chair of ALEC's annual conference here in Utah. Does 1-800-CONTACTS have some business interest in being a member of ALEC? Well certainly they must--companies don't join ALEC to find nice ideas on how to host charity fun runs, they join ALEC to get money-making legislation. So, was Seelig's membership also more for her job at 1-800-CONTACTS than her job as a bona fide progressive legislator? My gut tells me that is the case, which also would explain why she won't talk more about what she did at ALEC--either privately or publicly. So, my question becomes--and I would love it if others would help me sniff this out: what intere$t does 1-800-CONTACTS have in ALEC? What type of money-making bills are they working on there or have they already done? Seelig may well be completely out of that game--I believe her when she says she let her membership lapse. But whatever we can discover about 1-800-CONTACTS interest in ALEC, I'll bet it has something to do with Public Safety, let's just put it that way. Notice, I'm not making any allegations. I'm theorizing and hypothesizing in a void LEFT BY JEN SEELIG. If she doesn't want people like me making speculations about what she was doing there, about what bills she voted on, etc., then she can start blabbing about ALEC like Mark Pocan, D-Wisc. Until she starts talking, I'm going to keep investigating and hypothesizing.

 

 
 
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