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David Sirota Headshot

Obama's Huge Opportunity To Expose the Extremist Machine

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Two and a half years ago, I joined in what would become the successful efforts to create the Progressive States Network - an organization designed to both support progressive state legislators and fight back against right wing extremists that have used America's state legislators to manipulate public policy. As I had discovered during my years in politics, one of the most aggressive extremist groups that operates at the state level is called the American Legislative Exchange Council - or ALEC for short. It's a seemingly innocuous name, but as Progressive States detailed in one of its first reports - and as other terrific progressive organizations have detailed at length - ALEC is not an innocuous organization - it is arguably the most important legislative appendage of Big Money and right-wing interests in American politics. That's why U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) must reject ALEC's invitation for him to speak at its upcoming national conference.

Yes, you read that correctly: ALEC is trumpeting Obama's photo on the front of its website, saying the organization has either "confirmed" or "invited" him to address its big conference (it's not clear which is the case). Obama's photo is just above the announcement for a Capitol Hill event that will tell lawmakers that the popular and highly successful Children's Health Insurance Program is supposedly "bad for kids, families and taxpayers" - a not so surprising claim from ALEC, the organization that has used millions of dollars from corporate interests to wage state campaigns against minimum wage increases, union organizing rights, basic consumer protection laws, and environmental regulations.

Obama is a former state legislator, meaning that he understands the power and destructive agenda of ALEC. If he has not accepted ALEC's invitation, and ALEC is nonetheless using his notoriety to build an audience for its conference, Obama has a huge opportunity - a PR gift given to him by the Right. He could demand his photo be removed from ALEC's website and marketing materials, and issue a strong statement talking about how nefarious right-wing extremist groups like ALEC really are, both tactically and public policy-wise. He would create a significant moment for public education about the real forces that drive - and distort - our politics.

If Obama, on the other hand, has accepted ALEC's invitation, then that raises all sorts of questions about exactly why he would help legitimate an extremist group - and one he knows quite well from his time in the Illinois statehouse. He may try to say he's interested in speaking to all sorts of different groups - but remember, ALEC is not just any other group. As the Progressive States Network's press release notes, ALEC publicly brags about its mission using corporate cash to buy political access at the state level. This is a group that takes truckloads of cash from ExxonMobil to rail against proposals to stop oil industry price gouging and start regulating greenhouse gas emissions. It is a group that had a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist head its health policy task force. It is a group, in short, whose explicit purpose is to help Big Money wage a war against the progressive movement and middle class Americans at the state legislative level.

My guess is that Obama has not accepted ALEC's invitation, and if/when he comes out and rejects ALEC's efforts to use his celebrity for their own causes, the Progressive States Network - and the progressive movement in general - will be there to cheer him on. We need as many leaders as possible calling out the right-wing machine for what it is: An array of fringe extremist groups working to perpetuate the status quo on behalf of a small handful of ultra-wealthy elites. No presidential candidates - and certainly not those who see themselves as progressive leaders - should want anything to do with a group like ALEC.