Altria Group Inc. (MO:US) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ:US) are among the corporations keeping their membership in a policy group that helped pass the Florida gun law being scrutinized after the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“Our involvement is focused on issues related to our business,” said Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc. “As with all organizations with which we work, we regularly evaluate our support to ensure that the organization effectively addresses the issues of concerns to our business and our shareholders.”
Altria and J&J are among the corporations on the private enterprise board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based organization that links state lawmakers with corporate representatives and policy advocacy groups to draft pro-business legislation. Other members include Wichita, Kansas- based Koch Industries Inc., whose executives have funded organizations spending millions of dollars on political ads to support Republican candidates.
A coalition of ALEC opponents, including ColorofChange.org, Common Cause and People for the American Way, has targeted the group’s corporate members, which pay dues of as much as $25,000 a year, urging them to withdraw their support.
“For these corporations who have sponsored ALEC, they have done it behind closed doors,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, a black civil rights organization based in New York. “If a light is being shone on ALEC and their relationships are no longer private and they have to answer for it publicly, does it still work?”
Risk to Companies
The boardroom discussions shed light on the risk companies face as they are being pressed by an increasing number of politically active groups for donations.
The group is under attack because “our support for free markets and limited government stands in stark contrast to their state-dependent utopia,” said Ron Scherberle, ALEC’s executive director. “This is not about one piece of legislation. This is an attempt to silence our organization and it has been going on for more than a year.”
At issue is ALEC’s role in helping to draft the so-called “Stand Your Ground” legislation enacted with the backing of the National Rifle Association. That law in Florida allows individuals who feel threatened to “meet force with force” rather than back away, and was cited by authorities in Sanford, Florida, when they did not arrest George Zimmerman when he claimed self-defense after shooting Martin.
“ALEC did not write Florida’s ’Stand Your Ground’ law,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Pennsylvania. “But it collaborated with the National Rifle Association, its member corporations including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Koch Industries, and spread this tragic mistake into nearly two dozen states.”
“We review all organizations in which we have membership each year to assure they serve a critical purpose for PepsiCo,” said Heather Gleason, a spokeswoman for the Purchase, New York- based company. “Our membership expired at the end of 2011 and we chose not to renew.”
Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft is the only one of the 21 companies and trade groups currently on ALEC’s private enterprise board to withdraw from the organization so far.
Still a Member
Others are staying.
Bill Price, a spokesman for New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, said the company participates with ALEC and other groups “on a broad range of issues and, while we express our views to organizations with which we work, we may not align with or support every public position each of these broad-based groups takes.”
A spokesman for Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US), Alan Jeffers, said the Irving, Texas-based company also would remain a member. “We just value the ability to work on issues related to energy and business competitiveness,” he said.
Bayer AG (BAYN) is one of about 300 company-members of ALEC, said Bryan Iams, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based company, and his corporation’s position “doesn’t always align with the various positions of all of its member companies. And that’s OK. As a company, we have our own positions and advocate for them in a very clear, transparent manner.”
Public Policy Forum
Bayer’s ALEC membership is “one of numerous nonpartisan organizations that provide a forum to discuss public policies and legislation that affects business,” he added.
Other members of ALEC’s corporate board declined to talk about whether they are reconsidering their involvement with the group.
Cara Ross, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS:US), said, “We’re still a current member,” and would not elaborate.
Matt Bennett, a spokesman for the Washington-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in an interview in Boston that the drug-makers “constantly evaluate our relationships to make sure they meet out mission.” He declined to say whether the partnership with ALEC was under review or would be ended.
Peter O’Toole, a spokesman for New York-based Pfizer Inc., declined to comment.
Founded in 1973
ALEC began in 1973, and its founders include former U.S. Representative Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who later led the unsuccessful effort in Congress to remove President Bill Clinton from office, and Paul Weyrich, the first president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy organization that supports tax cuts for upper-income Americans and an end to traditional Medicare.
ALEC has championed legislation that would allow states to limit the effects of President Barack Obama’s health-care law, which will expand coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, and to block efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that most scientists say contribute to global warming.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at email@example.com; Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com.