It's been a week since a coalition of liberal and civil rights groups went public with a campaign to undermine the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has advocated stringent voter-identification and "stand your ground" laws around the U.S.
Seven corporations — Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars, Kraft Foods, McDonalds, Wendy's and the software maker Intuit — say they have dropped their memberships in ALEC. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said it won't give ALEC any more grants, though one already under way will continue.
Facing petition drives and phone calls generated by the anti-ALEC coalition, the companies all took pains to say they belonged to ALEC only to work on their own specific issues.
Rashad Robinson, director of ColorofChange.org, a civil rights organization in the coalition, says they are trying to put ALEC's corporate members on the spot.
"They'll be making a choice, that they're going to stand with an organization that works to suppress the vote and support shoot-first legislation, and they won't be able to do that in private," he says.
'Intimidate And Bully'
The voter-identification laws have been one of ALEC's priorities; as have the "stand your ground" laws patterned after the Florida statute invoked in the Trayvon Martin case. ALEC developed these bills and others by having state legislators team up with corporate lobbyists.
The lawmakers take the model legislation home to introduce at their state capitols. A company can join ALEC for as little as $7,000 a year, but overall, corporate and foundation money covers nearly the entire $7 million budget.
ALEC says it's being targeted because of its free-enterprise agenda.
"The groups attacking ALEC and its members are the same activists who have always pushed for big-government solutions," said Kaitlyn Buss, the council's spokeswoman. "And those groups will use any excuse to intimidate and bully."
She said ALEC's allies are rallying.
"We are committed to coming up with more solutions that increase jobs, that promote economic growth, and that is something that all Americans need right now," she said.
The coalition campaign is based partly on an archive of ALEC-drafted legislation — documents leaked last spring to the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group in Wisconsin.
"People for the first time could really connect the dots between which corporations were involved in ALEC and what the legislative agenda was of ALEC," said Lisa Graves, the head of the center. "And people could look in their statehouses and see that agenda moving."
But if leaked documents provide the information, something else helps to raise the stakes: Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations spend freely in political campaigns.
Legally speaking, Citizens United has absolutely nothing to do with ALEC, but corporate CEOs remember what happened soon after the Citizens United decision came down: The retail chain Target gave $100,000 in support of a Minnesota state candidate who opposed gay marriage.
The move was at odds with Target's hip, urban image, and the blow-back from customers was fierce.
"The sensitivity level in corporate America went up, particularly among retail corporations, appreciably," says Ken Gross, a lawyer who advises corporate clients on campaign finance issues. "It set off alarm bells in many quarters."
David Primo, who teaches political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, says the corporations are boxed in. He says it's not fair to hold the ALEC corporate members responsible for everything the council does, but with tinderbox issues such as voter ID and "stand your ground," he says, the corporations can't afford to have a debate.
"What gets picked up on that is race, money, politics," he says. "And you need to try to deal with that message and not have that message tarnish your brand."
The coalition is pressing ahead. Now it's challenging AT&T, State Farm insurance, drug-makers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, and the health care company Johnson & Johnson.
Johnson & Johnson says it doesn't support every position taken by the council. GlaxoSmithKline declined to comment, and the others didn't respond to NPR's requests.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.