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Why is AARP cozying up to the right-wing group ALEC while big corporations flee?

The right-wing legislative lobbying group ALEC has been losing corporate members at a remarkable pace since 2012, due in part to its support of measures attacking clean energy, workers rights and voting rights. 

That makes the appearance of AARP on the list of sponsors of ALEC’s 2016 annual meeting last month all the more curious. As the Center for Media and Democracy, a long-term ALEC nemesis, revealed last week, “AARP isn’t exactly hiding its new financial relationship with ALEC.”

The retirees lobbying and service organization was listed in the annual meeting program as a “trustee’s level” sponsor. CMD reports that an AARP-branded portable cellphone charger was handed out to attendees as they registered for the event, held July 27-29 in Indianapolis.

The Koch-affiliated ALEC — the name stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council — operates by offering model legislative packages to its members, who typically are conservative Republican state legislators. They introduce the bills at home, allowing their legislative concepts to metastasize into statehouses across the country.

A prime example is “stand-your-ground” laws. The original measure was enacted by Florida in 2005 with the support of the National Rifle Assn. It provided a defense to anyone using “deadly force … if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.” The law was a key to the successful defense of George Zimmerman against a murder charge in the 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. After Florida enacted its measure, it was translated into an ALEC model and passed in 16 more states.

Among the policies that have been promoted by ALEC are several that arguably undermine the interests of seniors and retirees, AARP’s core constituency. ALEC has pushed for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which has saved Medicare enrollees millions of dollars by closing the Medicare drug benefit “donut hole.” It has opposed Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. It has targeted public pensions, pushing to cap benefits and shift workers toward defined contribution plans, which layer more market risk on individual workers’ shoulders. 

Backlash against ALEC began in 2011, just as its influence among state legislators was reaching its peak. At the time, ALEC model bills and resolutions were being offered nationwide to repeal Obamacare, tighten voter ID laws, loosen environmental regulations, scale back public pensions and sap the organizing ability of unions.  But its very prominence became a bane. 

“ALEC has become part of the broad litany of complaints among those castigating corporations for gaming democratic institutions in their favor,” wrote Governing, a nonpartisanly wonkish publication for state and local policymakers, in 2011. An exodus of big corporations soon followed.

AARP initially responded to the CMD disclosures by asserting that its participation in the annual meeting was part of its general political outreach, and didn’t reflect any alignment with ALEC policies.“Our participation … is not an endorsement of any particular perspective, but, rather, is evidence of our commitment to discussing these issues with people on all sides.”

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On Monday, in response to our queries, AARP gave a bit more detail on its relationship with ALEC while reiterating, “AARP’s engagement with ALEC is NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies either past or present.” It specifically disavowed support for ALEC model bills seeking a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget, which is a direct attack on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; nor the other model legislation posted on ALEC’s website. AARP has advocated in opposition of these proposals in the states and in Congress and will continue to do so.” ALEC hasn’t responded to our request for comment. 

AARP’s statement acknowledged that it paid a fee to ALEC in 2016 to provide “an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities from a position of strength at ALEC’s annual meeting.” AARP added, “given that Republicans control one or more chambers in 39 of the nation’s 50 state legislatures, we believe having a seat at the table at the ALEC annual meeting was necessary to our mission of representing the interests and needs of people 50-plus and their families.”

The statement didn’t address CMD’s assertion that AARP had paid fees or dues to ALEC in the past, or specify how much it had paid for the meeting sponsorship. An AARP spokesman said he would get back to me with more details; I’ll update this post as more information comes in.

Yet in arguing that a relationship with ALEC is necessary to “engage” with the legislators affiliated with the group, AARP is taking a different approach from the dozens of corporations that have abandoned ALEC. Presumably Ford, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have as much of an interest in meeting with conservative Republican legislators as AARP. Yet they’ve all dropped their membership in the organization. Among the departing members have been the fossil fuel companies BP and Shell, the latter of which announced that ALEC’s “stance on climate change is clearly inconsistent with our own.”

“It’s increasingly obvious that you can not run a successful 21st century company while associating with ideologues from the stone age,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune declared after a spate of corporate departures in 2012.

AARP may feel it’s in a different position from a company. But it’s on dangerous ground. One can’t change an organization like ALEC from the inside, and one can’t hang around its annual meeting as a sponsor and avoid at least some association with its policies. AARP’s statement says it “evaluates its relationship with all organizations with which it is involved..on an ongoing basis.” That’s similar to the language that other corporate members used, just before they pulled the plug on their relationships. It would be wise for AARP to follow that model.

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