On the day that President Obama delivered his most recent State of the Union address, Lisa Nelson, CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), set forth a markedly different path for the nation’s future over at the RedState blog.
A former Capitol Hill powerhouse who has also held major corporate executive positions, Nelson is a feisty advocate for free markets and limited government.
While President Obama that night foresaw a country in which the federal government became increasingly activist and dominant in all spheres of our lives, Nelson argued for federalism and state legislatures taking a greater role.
“State legislatures have the power to set innovative and bold agendas, and legislators should prioritize policies that put the American people and their livelihoods first,” wrote Nelson, who became CEO of ALEC last summer. Before joining ALEC, Nelson was Head of Global Government Relations for Visa, Inc., and before that she was a top executive at Time Warner.
In addition to corporate smarts, Nelson acquired an insider's knowledge of the political process as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s public affairs liaison. She had previously been executive director of GOPAC. GOPAC was founded in 1978 by former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont. Under Gingrich, GOPAC became a prime vehicle for preparing fledgling GOP candidates to seek state or local offices.
ALEC, which was founded more than forty years ago as a membership organization for business leaders and state legislators who share a belief in limited government, free markets and federalism, describes itself as “a think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions.”
ALEC does not lobby but instead provides members with research, policy papers, and ALEC’s famed “model policies”—or prototypes from which state legislators can pick and choose ideas in thinking through and formulating their own pieces of legislation. Nelson describes the creation of model policies as “a ground up, bottom up process” and adds that the impetus for a model policy comes from legislators.
“ALEC task force directors help craft model policy and work with legislators, think tanks, and the private sector and all the folks who might be stakeholders and are interested in a particular issue, whether it’s health care, energy or education policy,” Nelson explains. “Over the course of a year the task force has meetings, debates and dialogue from which the model policy is crafted. The beauty of our model policy process is that by the time it becomes a model, it has been vetted with think tanks, across the aisles, with stakeholders who have a business or policy interest and legislators who have perhaps tried something similar in their states and looked at different and innovative approaches to the way the policy should be crafted.”
In the coming year, ALEC will focus on the need to simplify state tax codes, cutting red tape that hampers entrepreneurship and hiring, ways states can force the federal government to be accountable for its budget, market-driven solutions to energy problems, ensuring that American students are prepared to take their places in the global economy, and “worker freedom,” or the right to refuse to join a union. As Nelson noted in her RedState blog, right-to-work states have an 8.6 percent economic growth rate, which is more than twice that of forced-union states. ALEC also supports making it easier for charter schools to be set up and function.
Reform of the criminal justice system is another item on ALEC’s agenda. The organization proposes that states re-examine mandatory minimum sentencing and take steps so that ordinary citizens will not inadvertently be turned into criminals by accidentally breaking a complicated regulation or rule that they either didn’t know was on the books or was so complex that they didn’t interpret it correctly. The state of Ohio has already enacted such a law.
“People around the country are interested in kitchen table issues,” said Nelson, “jobs, the economy, and individual opportunity. Generally speaking, our issues at ALEC align with what people and state legislatures are concentrating on.”
If you can judge an organization on the basis of its enemies, ALEC is definitely an organization that has arrived as one of the biggest players on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Indeed, a Washington Post article on Nelson’s ascent to the nonprofit’s leadership position called ALEC the “free-market group that has become a bogeyman of the left.” The leftwing Center for Media and Democracy has an “ALEC Exposed” website, while ALEC regularly comes under attack in the Huffington Post and other left-leaning outlets.
“If the left sees us as a bogeyman,” Nelson said, “it is because we are so effective. Also if you think that business is the root of all evil, as many on the left do, then anything we do at the state and local level to help businesses would be something that they would want to attack.” ALEC has been so successful that liberals have set up an organization called the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), which the Wall Street Journal has called “a liberal knockoff of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).”
The Journal then went on the say this of SiX founders: “These are the same people who have been bashing ALEC as corrupt because it favors smaller government, and who bullied timorous corporations such as Coca-Cola , General Motors , Procter & Gamble ,Google and Microsoft into dropping their membership.
“What really irks the left is that ALEC has been a successful incubator of free-market policies, including right-to-work legislation, private-school vouchers and pension and tort reform. ALEC puts state legislators in touch with businesses and others who want to push pro-growth policies, and it often writes model legislation that legislators can adapt.”
Nelson said that, despite some highly-publicized defections, ALEC ended 2014 with more members than before the resignations. ALEC, by the way, is nonpartisan. The membership is attracted not because of party affiliation but because of a mutual commitment to limited government and free-market principles.
Several former ALEC members cited an alleged disagreement over climate change as their reason for leaving ALEC. “We are very focused on energy policy,” said Nelson, “but we do not have a position on climate change. ALEC will always seek out free-market solutions to energy problems and policy that will provide the energy the country needs.”
As one of the top women in the policy field, Nelson said she has always had a secret weapon: husband Dave Nelson, who set up a business at home so that he could be available for the Nelsons’ son and daughter, now both in their twenties, while Lisa worked for Speaker Gingrich. Even with her husband at home, however, Nelson had rules about time with the family. “I had a rule that I would go out only one work night a week for a work-related function,” she said.
“My work-life balance now that I am an empty nester is more of a work balance,” Nelson said, “but I did manage to get a little life in there. From working on the Hill or in a corporate environment and raising my children, I would say that it is important to say a couple of things about work-life balance. Place limits on what you can do, and be practical about that.”
ALEC is, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “poised to become even more influential” after the 2014 midterms, which saw even more conservative, free-market types elected to state-level offices. And that makes Lisa Nelson one of the most influential conservative policy wonks in the U.S.—if she wasn’t that already.