The Woman Behind the Group the Left Loves to Hate

It was 9 o’clock at night when Bill Meierling, a top official at the American Legislative Exchange Council, received the word from NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.”

ALEC’s newly appointed CEO, Lisa Nelson, was scheduled to appear the next morning on Rehm’s long-running, Washington-based radio show.

But ALEC’s critics on the left had posted their displeasure about Nelson’s appearance on the show’s website, arguing that the panel of guests wasn’t going to be balanced.

So Rehm’s producers changed the lineup at the last minute to include another ALEC critic.

“I found it energizing,” Nelson recalls of her appearance on the show, “because I was completely forward looking.”

It was Oct. 2, 2014.

Nelson originally was scheduled to appear on “The Diane Rehm Show” that day with Tom Hamburger, a reporter for The Washington Post who covers what the newspaper calls the intersection of money and politics, and John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation, a liberal magazine. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, was to call in.

But, pressed by ALEC’s opponents, Rehm’s producers added Miles Rapoport, then president of the liberal citizens’ advocacy group Common Cause, to the show.

Rapoport and Common Cause, where he is now a senior adviser, were no strangers to Nelson, who had taken the helm at ALEC two months earlier.

For several years, Common Cause had been pressuring corporate members of ALEC to withdraw support from the group, a network of lawmakers, researchers, and business leaders that advocates free market policies in state legislatures.

In 2012 and 2013, Common Cause had filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against ALEC, alleging the group violated the terms of its tax-exempt status by engaging in lobbying activities. ALEC maintains that the group doesn’t lobby.

Rapoport’s sudden addition to Rehm’s show wasn’t the only change.

When Norquist, a well-known conservative, called in to participate as scheduled, Rehm told her producers to keep him on hold, Nelson recalls in an interview with The Daily Signal.

For the length of the show—a full hour—Norquist waited, but the producers never opened up his line. Nichols, however, one of the authors of a 2011 series in The Nation called “ALEC Exposed,” was on the air for about 10 minutes.

“The Diane Rehm Show” did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment.

During the show, Rapoport and Nichols accused ALEC of placing the interests of its corporate members ahead of the constituents who elected the organization’s more than 2,000 public members, all of them state lawmakers.

The two also criticized ALEC for its stance on climate change and prior support of voter ID laws.

The criticism wasn’t anything new for Nelson, who, though having just taken over ALEC, was fully aware of the pressure progressive groups were putting on the organization’s corporate members to drop out.

Nelson was unfazed by their efforts to beat up on ALEC.  The encounter on Rehm’s show was “manufactured,” she says today.

“I found it energizing because—and I think it was probably a blessing that it was so early in my tenure—because I was completely forward looking,” Nelson tells The Daily Signal. “I was able to say, ‘No, whatever happened in the past is the past, and I’m looking forward.’”

‘Refocusing’ ALEC

ALEC, founded in 1973, had been fielding attacks from the left for years, though those opponents have increased the attacks since the 2010 midterm elections.

And while ALEC’s leadership had made some changes prior to Nelson’s coming on board, she says, she served as the catalyst for more changes, which included a new commitment to transparency.

For example, starting in 2013, the group began posting drafts of model policies on its website, as well as financial filings to the IRS.

More than 70 reporters attended ALEC’s annual meeting in Indianapolis this past July.

But perhaps the biggest change under Nelson has come in the way the group is dealing with pressure from groups such as Common Cause and publications such as The Nation: Instead of remaining silent, as ALEC had done in the past, Nelson is hitting back.

“I was here pre-Lisa Nelson and post-Lisa Nelson,” Meierling, ALEC’s vice president of public affairs, tells The Daily Signal. “What the organization needed was an energetic, agenda-setting leader, and Lisa is that person to be able to coalesce powerful communities around ideas and catalyze them to action.”

Marianne Eterno, vice president of government relations at Guarantee Trust Life Insurance Co., a long-time private member of the organization, says the ALEC of today is quite different than the ALEC of the past.

“[Nelson] refocused ALEC on its true mission, which is hard to do when you’re under assault, which ALEC was two years ago,” Eterno, who sits on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Council, tells The Daily Signal. “To her credit, not only did she successfully beat back all of ALEC’s detractors—they’re still out there, but they’re not having the effect they used to—she also was able to refocus the organization and get them moving forward.”

“To do both of them simultaneously and be so successful is absolutely amazing,” Eterno says.

‘Slings and Arrows’

Walk into Nelson’s office at ALEC’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, and her conservative bonafides become clear.

Photos of Nelson with House Speaker Paul Ryan, President George W. Bush, and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina line her bookshelf, alongside others with actor Morgan Freeman and Oprah Winfrey.

A copy of the cover from National Review’s first edition from 1955, signed by the staff, hangs on a wall. In 1991, Nelson set up National Review Institute for the conservative magazine’s iconic founder, William F. Buckley Jr.

On a ledge below a television playing Fox News Channel is a gavel from the 105th Congress in 1997. That was the year Nelson went to work as an adviser to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leaving her job as executive director of GOPAC–an organization founded 18 years earlier to train Republicans running for public office.

It was Nelson’s work with Gingrich after the Republican Revolution of 1994 that she says readied her for the attacks waged on ALEC.

“Working for Newt prepared me for kind of the slings and arrows,” Nelson says. “When you’re in the speaker’s office, when you’ve taken the House for the first time in 40 years, there are going to be a lot of people trying to poke holes in what you’re trying to do.”

When Nelson became CEO of ALEC, Gingrich praised her leadership skills.

“Lisa Nelson was a key leader at GOPAC in developing the Contract with America,” Gingrich said in a statement at the time. “She is a great leader with a deep public policy interest and a real understanding of innovation. She will greatly enhance ALEC’s ability to serve state legislators.”

The former House speaker did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment for this article.

Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer, a Republican, was national chairman of ALEC when Nelson took over as CEO in 2014.

In the past two years, Upmeyer says, Nelson has increased transparency within ALEC and faced opposition from progressive groups head on.

“She’s been wonderful about making sure we stay our course, making sure that mission, the true mission, the legs of the stool, are incorporated into everything we undertake,” Upmeyer tells The Daily Signal. “We pushed back [against opposition] hard, and Lisa has really led that charge.”

‘Pretty Good Instincts’

Above Nelson’s desk are two nearly identical pictures that give visitors a condensed version of her resume: a degree in political science and international relations from the University of California at Berkeley; executive director at GOPAC; public affairs liaison to Gingrich; senior vice president for external relations at AOL-Time Warner; head of government relations at Visa Inc., and today, CEO of ALEC.

Just three weeks before she appeared on “The Diane Rehm Show,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in his own interview on Rehm’s show, said Google would be leaving ALEC because the organization supposedly denies that mankind’s activities are raising global temperatures.

ALEC argues that climate change is an “historical phenomenon and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions.”

Nelson, meanwhile, credits Gingrich and the work of Republicans during the 1990s with setting the landscape that allowed technology companies such as Google to thrive.

And Nelson says she had a “very personal reaction” to the news that the tech giant was leaving ALEC, given her connection to Silicon Valley.

“I came to this organization thinking that I was going to bring in the technology community and the true innovators out of Silicon Valley. I knew exactly who they were, and I knew exactly how they’re politically motivated,” she says, adding:

I think we had pretty good instincts on how hard to push back [against opponents of ALEC], which gave us a lot of courage to say, ‘We can do this, we can push back, and we can answer to these companies that are kind of caving to the intimidation and to the games that are being played.’

Lisa Nelson, CEO of ALEC, describes herself as a catalyst for changes that have made the organization more transparent. (Photo: American Legislative Exchange Council)

Progressive groups have had their eyes on ALEC for years, but they ramped up pressure on its corporate members after the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

ALEC has said it based model legislation for states on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows someone who feels threatened to “meet force with force, including deadly force.” Critics said that law protected George Zimmerman, who a jury found not guilty in the fatal shooting of Martin.

One month after Martin’s death, the group Color of Change, co-founded by Rashad Robinson and Van Jones, a former adviser to President Obama, sent letters to CEOs and boards of corporations—among them Amazon, Coca-Cola, John Deere, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Proctor Gamble, Wendy’s, and Visa—they suspected were ALEC members.

Facing ‘Corporate Blackmail’

Nelson, who worked at Visa at the time, saw a letter Color of Change sent to Joseph Saunders, then CEO of Visa, and the corporation’s board of directors.

“Our members and our allies have been calling on companies to stop supporting the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and we have promised them that we will publicly hold accountable corporations that continue to fund ALEC,” the letter read.

Color of Change’s letter went on to warn the targeted companies that it planned to run radio ads to “make consumers aware” of their relationships with ALEC and the “policies it supports.”

The letter added: “We plan to begin running these ads soon on Black radio stations across the country. We also plan to make the media aware of this ad campaign.”

Included were links to audio recordings of the radio ads, which accused ALEC of “attacking the rights of black folks, Latinos, and workers in states across the country.”

The letter was “corporate blackmail,” Nelson says, and she urged Saunders not to cower to the threats. She recalls:

The conversation with my CEO was literally, ‘We are not going to let them bully us … and we’re not going to let them tell us who we can be members of and who we can’t.’ If you buckle into something like this and into a tactic like this, then who’s to say what’s next?

Visa ended up continuing its relationship with ALEC. Other corporations, including Amazon and Wal-Mart in 2012 and Google in 2014, folded.

Since taking over ALEC in 2014, Nelson says, she has proactively had conversations with leaders of member companies as the attacks have continued.

“If business doesn’t stand up for itself in its right to engage in this debate and this dialogue, then they’re going to lose their ability to do that,” Nelson says. “It’s frustrating to see that a company could kind of lay down so easily.”

‘The Water is Warm’

One of Nelson’s original goals for ALEC was to grow the organization both in terms of public members—state lawmakers—and private members—corporations, small businesses, trade associations, and think tanks.

And though she has served as the group’s top executive for only two years—and in spite of the high-profile exits—ALEC’s membership has climbed.

The organization grew by 17 percent in private-sector membership, with 28 companies joining.

ALEC currently has more than 200 private members.

In 2016, according to the group, it added 360 new legislators to the ranks and had 600 first-time attendees at its annual conference in Indiana.

ALEC also is expanding into new policy arenas.

Through its Center for Innovation and Technology, the organization is fostering discussions around the gig, or shared, economy. Additionally, Nelson says, ALEC will focus on issues of free speech, academic freedom, and donor privacy.

In recent years, liberal activist groups have sought to force ALEC and other nonprofits with whom they disagree to disclose donors. Opponents of such efforts say the goal is to intimidate donors and chill free speech.

Nelson says she firmly believes ALEC exists to foster debate among legislators and to help them land “in the right place.” She says:

It’s all fair in love and war, and in the area of policy and debates. We want to have debate on all sides of any issue. We want to bring in all the people on all sides.

And while some organizations may shy away from the heated opposition that has plagued ALEC, Nelson has just one thing to say to her group’s detractors: Join.

“The water,” she says, “is warm.”

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