If Plato or Machiavelli wrote about Mississippi government for the last couple years, perhaps they would describe recent lobbying trends in state government with a fitting aphorism: He who pays for lawmakers’ trips, he who pays for lawmakers’ swag, and he who writes the lawmakers’ bills is the true lawmaker.
The organization alluded to as the true lawmaker in our aphorism is the American Legislative Exchange Council, and if you haven’t heard of them before, that may be by design. Prior to recent controversies over Voter ID and Stand-Your-Ground laws, the non-profit organization remained below the radar of our national political debate for almost four decades.
The first part of this report is a general introduction to ALEC and its anti-democratic influence on Mississippi’s lawmaking process. The second part of this report is about the ALEC All-Stars that seem to be enjoying their political afterlife as “Super-Lawmakers” that influence policy across the nation, eclipsing the influence they held in their prior experience as mere lawmakers.
Some of those featured are political losers; some are political wannabes; but all of the ALEC All-Stars described in this report help to demonstrate the corrupting corporate influence on our democratic process in Mississippi.
The questions to bear in mind throughout your reading of this report are two-fold: (1) Why is it still legal for corporations to funnel money through a non-profit organization to lawmakers, former lawmakers, and their families to huddle in task forces in secret, swanky boardrooms to draft model legislation that becomes state laws across the nation? (2) If we resign ourselves to the legality of this institutionalized corruption, why is there not more outrage over the lawmakers who choose to be corrupted by this process?
ALEC Conference: Chicago, August 2013
An organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held its annual conference in Chicago back in August 2013. The conference made headlines mostly because legions of anti-ALEC protestors engaged in mass civil disobedience against ALEC’s pro-corporate (anti-democratic, anti-worker, anti-environment, and anti-public-education) policies.
But inside the posh Palmer House, protected from the sound and the fury of the protestors outside, there operated a “shadow state government” that effectively brainwashed and bribed state lawmakers, including many of Mississippi’s own, in hopes that the lawmakers will propose and pass ALEC’s corporate-sponsored model legislation around the country. At least that is how the dean of Mississippi political journalists, Bill Minor, described the modus operandi by which ALEC gains personal and policy influence over state governments.
Maybe brainwashed and bribed are too strong. I prefer the more colloquial political phrase “wined and dined.” Although first-hand accounts such as the scathing Bill Moyers special on ALEC describe a week of lobbyist/lawmaker mixer parties with free cigars and cocktails on demand, the legislators aren’t just wined and dined. They receive tangible goods as well as intangible recreational benefits during their corporate-sponsored vacations.
In Chicago last year, corporations treated Tea Party hacks from briar-patch districts in Arkansas like Hollywood one-percenters, as nefarious industries and more innocent venders like Roll Call pushed swag bags, exclusive recreational opportunities (White Sox tickets for the kiddos!), and ego-stroking micro-advertising (e.g., one vender booth was emblazoned with the flattering phrase, “Informing the Influential”).
Koch Brother Kool-Aid: How ALEC Influences Jackson
ALEC is funded by corporations generally, but the real godfathers of ALEC are the controversial, billionaire Koch Brothers who love to support free-market causes (i.e., anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-public-education, anti-democracy, anti-environmental causes). And Mississippi seems to be imbibing more Koch brother Kool-Aid than other states, to-wit:
1) BRIBERY: A report lists Mississippi as the number two state to receive corporate “scholarships” for state lawmakers’ trips and recreational activities at posh resorts like the annual conference held at the Palmer House in Chicago last August. These “scholarships” come from a controversial corporate “slush fund” that has raised questions in some states as to whether the practice violates gift bans to public officials in those states.
2) LOBBYING: And if the “scholarships” (lawmaker bribery) aren’t bad enough, the lobbying power operating in our state right now on behalf of ALEC should make anyone who cares about the process of lawmaking scrutinize anything that comes to Jackson from the ALEC bill mill. Mississippi’s top lobbyist, Steve Seale, now serves as national Chairman of the Private Enterprise Advisory Council at ALEC for the 2013-2014 term. (Seale is profiled at length below.)
3) FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: One of ALEC’s headliner speakers at its 2013 ALEC conference in Chicago was heir apparent to the Governor’s mansion in Mississippi, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. Since he was a featured speaker, ALEC itself picked up the tab for Reeves’ stay at the Palmer House. Mississippi’s own top lobbyist Steve Seale, now Chairman of the Private Enterprise Advisory Council at ALEC, introduced Reeves.
4) LAWMAKING: ALEC’s bill mill reputation is deserved. In his speech at a closing lunch at the annual ALEC conference in Chicago last year, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves admitted that Mississippi is no stranger to ALEC-shopped bills: “I thank ALEC for helping legislators craft laws that support the free market principles that will lead our states…” Everything from the recent outbreak of Voter ID laws to Stand Your Ground laws to anti-worker laws to the bills proposing privatization and virtualization of public schools — many of which have become legislative priorities, if not yet laws, in Mississippi — can be traced back to ALEC. As one Mississippi lawmaker put it:
“You’d think ALEC was voting us in office rather than the voters, the way these politicians here follow their orders.”
Mississippi‘s ALEC All-Stars Are Not So Good at Politics
So who is the mystery man who is *believed* to be depicted in the headline photograph? To paraphrase the converse of a famous Reagan quote, “They’re not from the government, and they’re not here to help.” The Institute for Southern Studies referred to Charlie Ross and another lawmaker described below as ALEC All-Stars, so I’ve appropriated the monicker for this report.
ALEC All-Star #1: Charlie Ross is a Harvard-educated attorney and former state senator whose manner and appearance remind one of a cross between Richard Nixon and Don Draper. He has never been elected to more than the legislative minor league in Jackson, despite multiple attempts.
Mr. Ross is a failed candidate for Lieutenant Governor, having lost the GOP primary to current Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant in 2007. But Ross was not done losing yet. Just a year later, Ross failed again during the GOP primary, this time a bid for Congress that he lost to current 3rd District Congressman Greg Harper in 2008.
Mr. Ross’s biggest claim to fame as a state senator was that he takes credit for passing tort reform in the state of Mississippi, a development that he states was necessary to preserve the rule of law but which any honest lawyer over forty will admit killed the non-governmental legal economy of the state and effectively closed the courthouse door to many worthy victims seeking relief against corporate neglect. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this report, but are worth mentioning, Ross’s tort reform was not all he promised (See Cottonmouth blog post referencing Bill Minor’s and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s takes on Ross’s claims). For Ross’s efforts, ALEC chose Mr. Ross as its Public Sector Chairman of the Civil Justice Task force. Then ALEC gave Mr. Ross its “Legislator of the Year” Award in 2007.
What the hell Ross was doing at the ALEC conference last year, six years after his last stint as a legislator ended, if indeed the man on the left in the photograph at the top of this post is him, is anyone’s guess. But his alumnus status as an honored member of ALEC may have something to do with it. More likely, Ross has figured out that the best way for political failures to maintain or even gain political power in Mississippi is through influence peddling for the private sector, particularly at ALEC. Then there is Ross’s direct connection to current ALEC All-Star, Steve Seale. Seale and Ross work for the same Jackson, Mississippi law firm.
ALEC All-Star #2: Steve Seale, a former state legislator like Charlie Ross, has been called the state’s highest-paid lobbyist. Not only does Seale work at the same law firm as fellow ALEC All-Star Charlie Ross, he also received one of ALEC’s annual awards in 2011 — apparently only one of three Mississippians so honored by ALEC in the organization’s forty-plus years. And like Ross, Seale also claims direct credit for tort reform, but his claim is based upon lobbying efforts on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the federal class-action level rather than the state level.
Unlike Ross who was honored for his work as a state legislator, Seale won the award for Private Sector Member of the Year for 2011 as a corporate lobbyist on behalf of his client, SAP America. But the jewel of Seale’s CV is his current post as ALEC’s National Chairman of the Private Enterprise Advisory Council.
Seale’s lobbying is but one of many interesting facets to his checkered career. At one time, one of Seale’s government clients included Madison County. As its federal lobbyist, he was paid $75,000 per year, but apparently that was not enough. He went back to the Madison County Board of Supervisors with his hand out and received an extra $2,500 per month to influence his former colleagues in the legislature in Jackson. That meant that whatever Madison County’s real state legislators annually made, $10,000 plus per diem for days they were in session, Seale earned much much more as Madison County’s hired gun.
Such a private capture of a basic public function at a healthy profit is enough to make a Koch brother wince. What does it say about our democracy that a county resorts to an influence peddler to represent its interest at a much higher rate than the real lawmakers earn? Hell, why not privatize public service completely?
Seale’s efforts to replace a real lawmaker — at perhaps a higher multiple of the salary if you include the federal lobbying — earn Seale the monicker of “political wannabe” rather than “political loser.” But he also deserves the wannabe title for a bizarre, sort-of-high-profile announcement he made in 2012. Seale claimed in an email to friends that because of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, he had decided to challenge Attorney General Jim Hood in 2015 — strange timing for that announcement considering Hood had just won another four-year term just a few months prior. Seale has been mum on his campaign to become AG since, and perhaps his new gig at ALEC has made him change his mind on the AG race.
After Seale’s service as a state legislator but before his most recent work as a lobbyist, Seale’s biggest political achievement remained his work as Chief Counsel to then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Seale’s work as Chairman of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council so far has, if anything, worsened the image of ALEC. Consider the following anecdote since Seale took the helm:
As an oil executive took to the podium to warn the audience at the ALEC annual conference in Chicago last year about the dangers of environmental regulations, Steve Seale admonished legislators to keep their chatter down:“The private-sector members spent a lot of money to get your attention and let you hear their messages during this event,” Seale said.
And here’s another example: Apparently one of the solemn duties of ALEC All-Stars is to defend the organization’s honor on the editorial page anytime a journalist scrutinizes ALEC for its crimes against democracy. When respected Mississippi political journalist Bill Minor asked legitimate questions about ALEC’s wooing of Mississippi’s lawmakers, Seale shot back with a letter to the editor at the Clarion Ledger reasserting ALEC’s role as just a humble forum to share ideas.
Yeah, right. And I suppose the Pentagon just discusses military history all day. As if Seale’s criticism of Minor was not a sufficient response on behalf of ALEC, the man Seale introduced at the annual conference, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, took some shots at Minor during his speech too.
ALEC All-Star #3: Jim Ellington, the third of the former Mississippi State legislators featured as ALEC All-Stars in this DHM report, fits the pattern. Like Charlie Ross, the same year Ellington was honored with an ALEC award for Legislator of the Year (apparently only one of three award recipients from the Magnolia state in the organization’s forty-plus years) for his service in the Mississippi House of Representatives, Ellington lost his seat in 2011.
Ellington once bragged about his ALEC bonafides as a 24-year member of the organization and a former national board of directors member. Unlike Seale and Ross, however, there is not any particular achievement that stands out for which Ellington was honored by ALEC. But ALEC apparently likes Ellington enough to continue picking up his restaurant tabs at its national shindigs, despite Ellington’s ouster from Mississippi politics, according to an insightful post by the Mississippi politics bloggers at Cottonmouth in 2012.
Aside from his deeply rooted ALEC connections, on the campaign trail, Ellington used to be a frequent speaker at Council of Conservative Citizens meetings as recent as the early 2000s. For those unaware of the CCC, they are similar to the White Citizen’s Councils from a generation ago but have become even more fringy and overtly racist, for example likening African-Americans to a “retrograde species of humanity.”
Fellow ALEC All-Star Steve Seale’s former boss, U.S. Senator Trent Lott, spoke to the CCC five times too. What is it about racist southern legislators fitting hand-in-glove into states’ rights organizations like ALEC? Can’t they just prostitute themselves to corporations without all the racist stuff? But I digress.
And while Ellington continues to enjoy back-scratching at ALEC’s corporate-sponsored expense, he returns the favor on the public relations front. Like Seale, Ellington wrote a prickly letter to the editor of the Clarion Ledger defending ALEC by suggesting that ALEC’s failure to directly fund campaigns eliminates any appearance of impropriety. He did not, however, address the issue of corporate-sponsored scholarships for lawmaker junkets like the one to Chicago that apparently involved daycare packages with White Sox games, nor did Ellington address the issue of corporate ALEC members directly contributing to campaigns of the ALEC members they wine and dine.
Finally, Ellington suggested in his letter that since “ALEC members are under no obligation to introduce any ALEC-drafted legislation,” we should all ignore the fact that his wife is carrying the corporate swag bag in the corporate-sponsored family vacation photo below at the swanky New Orleans Marriott hotel.
ALEC Rising Stars (And Future Political Losers?)
The most recent corporate-sponsored ALEC junket for Mississippi lawmakers saw a high participation rate. The Speaker of the House, Lieutenant Governor, and a host of Republican lawmakers formed a large delegation at the event in Chicago.
Chris McDaniel: Candidate for U.S. Senate and tea partier Chris McDaniel famously used the ALEC conference as his alibi when he was accused of attending a neo-confederate event the same week in August. A list of attendees at the ALEC conference based upon signatures attached to a letter to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin can be found on the Internet.
Notably, McDaniel is missing from the list of attendees, even though other lawmakers show up multiple times as signatories to the letter, including duplicate signatures by fellow Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition lawmaker Tony Smith, Euguene Clarke, Terry Burton, and Rita Martinson.
One explanation for the duplicative signatures is perhaps that the letter was circulated during more than one session, and those four lawmakers absentmindedly signed it twice. But that would suggest that lawmakers who made the trip to Chicago like McDaniel and his favorite Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition sidekicks, Senator Melanie Sojourner and Senator Michael Watson, either neglected to sign the letter at least twice or were absent from multiple sessions. What were they doing? Wooing higher ups from various conservative organizations to the McDaniel U.S. Senate cause? Sleeping in at their corporate sponsors’ expense?
Whatever the curious case of McDaniel’s trip to Chicago portends to the future of ALEC in Mississippi (there is also no record of McDaniel as a member of ALEC), the corrupting corporate influence over Mississippi’s political process can only increase with Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition members and others attending these conferences in some cases three times per year.
ALEC: A Corporation/Politician Dating Service
A lawmaker who infiltrated one of the ALEC conferences in 2011 likened the process of corporate courtship of lawmakers to a corporation/politician dating service. In an unrelated instance, commenting on the high profile divorce instigated by an affair between Republican State Representative Pat Nelson and Republican State Senator Sally Doty, one insider in Jackson referred to our legislature as “the biggest swingers club in the State of Mississippi.”
Let’s hope that our lawmakers have a little more self-control when it comes to extra-legislative affairs with corporations than they do with extra-marital affairs with colleagues.
CORRECTION UPDATE: The original version of this report stated that the man on the right in the headline photo may be Steve Seale. A source confirmed that it was not Steve Seale. DHM only stated that it may be Steve Seale, but we’ll take the source’s word that it is not. However, Seale was at the conference, and DHM stands by the rest of the report.
This article is written and posted by Dark Horse Mississippi
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