Representative Chris Taylor is a Democrat elected to the Wisconsin legislature in 2011. Last week, she attended the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual conference in Chicago. Writing about her experience at The Progressive magazine’s website, she describes her experience inside the “ALEC universe” and writes: “ALEC members have been quietly working out of the public eye to develop their agenda so that when given the opportunity, they are ready to start creating an ALEC nation. That time has come. And they are ready.”
We caught up with her by phone back in Wisconsin to talk about what she found out about the conservative policy-making machine.
Riley: Why did you want to attend the conference? What did you hope to achieve there?
Taylor: I’m very new in the legislature. I came in the middle of last term. So I missed a lot of the Act 10 [debate]. I was working on various issues when all of that was going on. But I wanted to learn more. I wanted to have a better understanding of the group, so that I could, when I needed to, fight some of these very regressive policies better.
I think it’s so incredibly important for people to understand where these [model] bills are coming from and try to understand the rationale. I was quite blown away by the extent of where [Wisconsin] policy is coming from, because so much of it is coming from this group.
Riley: ALEC conferences are known for being very security conscious. Were you incognito? Did you wear a badge with your party affiliation?
Taylor: No. I did wear a badge with my name and that I was a Wisconsin legislator. Every person there had a badge on. When you registered you had to present ID, which is really unusual. I mean I’ve been to conferences throughout my whole life, I’ve never had to present an ID. There was a big assumption that I was a Republican. Every person I talked to assumed that I was a Republican.
Riley: And were you open with the fact that you weren’t, or —
Taylor: No, if somebody asked me I was not going to lie. I really was there just to listen and to try to figure out where some of these people were coming from.
One guy I was talking to, who was from one of these right wing think tanks was saying we need to curb Obama’s reckless power with these administrative regulations, and he wanted a federal constitutional amendment saying Congress has to approve federal regulations. I said, I don’t think most people are going to want to amend the Constitution for that. I don’t think that ignites people. Maybe it does on the far right, but most people don’t really care about that. And he said, “Oh, well, you really don’t need people to do this. You just need control over the legislature and you need money, and we have both.”
That sentiment was underscored so many times to me, that they don’t want people involved in the political process, or in the policy process. And that seems to be the intent in a lot of ways: You have a think tank in every state and all they do is come up with these very, very regressive policies, you have corporations who are going to benefit so they fund it all, and then you have the legislators as your foot soldiers to carry out the tasks.
There were a couple of instances where legislators actually did challenge some of the policies, but they always lost. The legislators were admonished many times during this conference for not doing enough and for not standing up to the federal government more.
Riley: One of the think tanks that we’ve reported on, the Heartland Institute, sponsored a breakfast. They are a climate change denial think tank. Did you go to that?
Taylor: I did.
Riley: What was the presentation like?
Taylor: It was incomprehensible. I could not follow it. It was so zany and weird. He said CO2 was not that bad for us because crops grow bigger with a lot of CO2. My husband’s an environmental historian, so I asked him, “Is that true?” He said, “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean CO2’s good for you.” The whole premise was you need to challenge the left, that there’s many, many holes in global warming, and we don’t do enough to challenge them.
We also had a presentation on the Endangered Species Act at a lunch sponsored by the Texas Oil and Gas Association. The presenter said that the Endangered Species Act threatens the economy of every single state in the nation. It’s leading to high unemployment rates, threatens local economies, it doesn’t allow growth, etc. — that this is a matter of life and death, to get rid of the Endangered Species Act, because every state’s economy is going to topple if it remains in effect.
I wasn’t very impressed by the environmental presentations, frankly. I didn’t think they were very good.
Riley: What were you impressed by?
Taylor: I was really impressed by their infrastructure. I mean, we would never duplicate something like this on the left because, first of all, we would never take instructions from corporations, but the coordination that they have between these policy think tanks, the money and the legislators, in terms of just driving an agenda, it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m fascinated by it because I’ve never seen anything like it from the left. I was the public policy director at Planned Parenthood, so I’m very familiar with building infrastructure. We did a lot of that in the state of Wisconsin. But we have nothing that I know of on the national front that connects all these things.
It is a well-oiled machine. They’re really organized, they’re really coordinated and they have the resources. And they’re not afraid to push it when they have the opportunities. Now they have 24 state legislatures that are Republican controlled and they have Republican governors. So they’ve had incredible success. They’ve had 71 bills introduced just this year that make it harder for most people who are injured to access the courts. We’ve certainly seen that here in Wisconsin. That was one of the first things that Walker did when he came in was push this tort reform through.
They have been waiting for 40 years to do some of the things they’re doing right now. They’ve been developing these model policies, making these connections and building these relationships, and when they had an opportunity, like right here in Wisconsin, they pushed it. They did not hesitate to push their extreme agenda, even though it hurts people. It doesn’t help the average person. It hurts people to say we’re not going to invest in public education. It hurts people to deprive the government of revenue by these massive tax cuts to mostly rich people.