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American Legislative Exchange Council, Ultra-Conservative Lobby, Loses 2 Major Funders

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WASHINGTON -- Succumbing to pressure from public interest groups, Coca Cola and Pepsico have severed their ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an ultra-conservative lobby group that has pushed so-called Stand Your Ground gun legislation and voter-identification bills through state legislatures across the country.

Public interest groups, including ColorOfChange.org and Campus Progress, have long been trying to break up the powerful alliance between corporations minding their financial interests and conservative activists pursuing a right-wing social agenda.

The shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, whose assailant has to date avoided charges due in part to Florida's Stand Your Ground law, has brought new attention to the controversial law and the seminal role that ALEC, which is corporate funded, played in getting such bills passed.

Consumer-facing corporations are of course the most susceptible to public pressure. Other familiar brands still on ALEC's Private Enterprise Board include Walmart, State Farm and AT&T.

Coke spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante said in statement Wednesday: "The Coca-Cola Company has elected to discontinue its membership with the American Legislative Exchange Council. Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business. We have a long-standing policy of only taking positions on issues that impact our Company and industry."

Pepsi quietly dropped its ALEC membership several months ago.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of the online civil rights group ColorOfChange.org, said his group has been in contact with several major corporations, including Coke and Pepsi, to make them more aware of what ALEC was doing with their money.

The organization's previous conversations had been primarily about ALEC's attempt to suppress minority voting through voter-identification laws, and they have expanded recently to include the Martin shooting and Stand Your Ground.

"The message to other corporations who we've been in communication with is: You can't count on black folks' money by day and support efforts that take away our lives by night," Robinson said.

The Stand Your Ground measures -- also known as "Kill at Will" -- are supported by the National Rifle Association and provide immunity to gunmen who shoot those who they feel are threatening their lives. The laws significantly expand previous self-defense clauses by removing one's "duty to retreat," which obligated one to escape an attacker if possible, and making lethal force a first recourse to anyone who feels their life is threatened, wherever they happen to be.

State Farm and Walmart did not return requests for comment about their support for ALEC on Thursday. But a spokesman for one of the lesser-known companies on the group's board said that membership doesn't suggest that their company supports the entire breadth of ALEC's activities.

Scott Harelson, a spokesman for the Salt River Project, a large public utility in Arizona, said it had no view one way or the other on the Stand Your Ground laws, but was solely focused on ALEC's ability to influence legislation involving energy and water.

"We don't weigh in. We don't take a stand on criminal law. We don't take a position," Harelson told HuffPost. "ALEC's a large organization. It has a lot of members, any one of whom may disagree with or not be in complete agreement with any number of positions ALEC supports."

ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss could not be reached for comment. The Associated Press reports that Buss has previously said the group did not put a lot of effort or resources into promoting voter identification legislation, and she has criticized people who turned the "tragedy" of Martin's death into politics.

Despite its enormous impact on state legislatures, ALEC was relatively unknown to the public until the Center for Media and Democracy released a major expose of the group last fall.

While portraying itself as a membership group for conservative legislators, ALEC is in fact largely corporate funded, CMD found -- and is a particular favorite of the far-right Koch Brothers.

CMD described how corporations, when they want to change a law, use ALEC to supply state legislators with those legal changes during all-expense paid trips to swank hotels. Then the legislators "bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations."

But ALEC's membership is not limited just to corporations focused exclusively on their bottom lines. The NRA in 2005 bragged about its role in getting ALEC to back the Stand Your Ground laws.

The progressive group Campus Progress revealed a year ago that ALEC had drafted and distributed model legislation for voter ID laws that disproportionately affect youth, seniors, the disabled and minorities.

Campus Progress then wrote letters to 20 corporations on the ALEC board, asking them why they supported laws that made it harder for their shoppers to vote.

After learning that Florida's Stand Your Ground law was aggressively and successfully marketed to other state legislatures by ALEC, former Campus Progress director David Halperin, now a senior fellow at United Republic, wrote a similar letter last week, cosigned by several other groups, that called on companies "to stop supporting ALEC's reckless agenda, which harms the communities in which you do business."

"Some of us disagree with ALEC generally, in that we don't like corporations spending a lot of money to force laws down the throats of states that are bad for consumers, bad for workers," Halperin told The Huffington Post. But at least in those cases, he conceded, the company can make the argument that such laws are in the interests of their shareholders and customers.

"This goes beyond what companies like Walmart or ExxonMobil should be doing to just maintain their financial interests," Halperin said. "This is them getting into right-wing social policy and Republican partisan strategy."

Last week, several civil rights, labor, religious and good-government groups rallied outside ALEC's office in Washington, in what John Nichols of the Nation characterized as the beginning of a major new civil rights campaign.

There are many other examples of corporations bowing to public pressure. Just last month, after getting called out by environmental groups, General Motors pulled support from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit notorious for its attacks on the science behind global warming and climate change.

Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, said she has heard the rationales offered by companies tied to ALEC. "They all try to claim that they're looking at their particular industries, and they're not responsible for the rest," she said. "The key here is to hold these corporations accountable for providing the general support to the ALEC agenda."

The media attention to the Martin case and the Florida law, she said, "I think is an issue that is likely causing a great deal of discomfort among some of these companies that just wanted to support ALEC to, say, change the tax rules, or change insurance regulation."

By contrast, she said, "I think that people would be outraged to know that some of these household names that they rely on for their products are supporting such an extreme agenda."

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