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What is the GOP looking for in Bill Cronon’s emails?

ASK THIS | April 04, 2011

The University of Wisconsin complies in part with the state's Republican Party's chilling request for a history professor's emails – but withholds those 'that fall within the orbit of academic freedom'

By Barry Sussman

Q. What did University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon write that made the state GOP go after his emails?

Q. To what extent is the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) writing the bills that are popping up in state after state where Republicans are in power?

What made Wisconsin Republicans go after the emails of a history professor at the state university? And not just any history professor, but the incoming president of the American Historical Association?

The chilling request came on March 17, two days after Cronon published a blog post speculating about who might be behind what he called “a conservative flood tide that is sweeping through state legislatures right now,” including, of course, the union-busting laws in Wisconsin.

Wrote the professor:

"The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

"If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote. You can start by studying ALEC’s own website. Begin with its home page at http://www.alec.org."

Nieman Watchdog has written about ALEC in the past, and specifically about ALEC in Wisconsin. The point made in our articles (here and here) was the same as Cronon’s: A little-known national organization is drawing up a lot of legislation; we should know more about it. The press should tell us who funds it, how unified its approach is. There clearly is a conservative flood tide of bills, as Cronon says; to what extent is it the work of ALEC? The group has legislators from all over the country as members; reporters should find out what bills ALEC is writing in their state.

On March 21, Prof. Cronon, without mentioning ALEC, had an op ed in the New York Times detailing the rich tradition of the Republican Party in Wisconsin....until now.

For its part, ALEC states that there have been “poor reporting and gross misrepresentation” of its positions on pension reform and collective bargaining. In a news release on March 30, ALEC said it has not sent “ground troops” to Wisconsin and “is not coordinating a ground campaign on collective bargaining.” These statements of course leave a lot of room for things ALEC could be doing.

The news release also stated that “ALEC has been working with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal over the past couple of weeks to satisfy their inquiries” and that both papers have decided “that there is no story.” No story regarding what? The email didn’t exactly specify. But there has been recent copy in the New York 'Times on ALEC. On March 25, a Times editorial noted that Cronon had pointed to ALEC as part of a “powerful network of conservatives working to undermine union rights and disenfranchise Democratic voters in many states.” Paul Krugman also mentioned ALEC.

And on April 1, the Times website ran a story on EPA regulation of greenhouse gases that included strong criticism of the group. It cited a 2010 report by a trial lawyers’ organization, the American Association for Justice, that described it this way:

"On its surface, ALEC’s membership is mostly comprised of thousands of state legislators.  Each pays a nominal membership fee in order to attend ALEC retreats and receive model legislation.  But ALEC’s corporate contributors pay a king’s ransom to gain access to legislators and distribute their corporate-crafted legislation.  As a result, thousands of bills have been introduced across the country that would protect corporate interests at the expense of consumers’ rights."

As for the Wisconsin GOP requests for Prof. Cronon’s emails, University chancellor Biddy Martin agreed to the request and said on April 1 that the school would “release the records…that we believe are in compliance with state law.” But Martin specified that some types of emails would be excluded, including "what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it."

There were so many exclusions, in fact, that Talking Points Memo wrote, “reading through that list, one gets the feeling that there would not be very much left.” So how did the GOP respond to that? TPM noted that state Republican Party executive director Mark Jefferson thanked the university for complying, and thanked Chancellor Martin for her statement. Sounds like – just a guess – Jefferson knew in advance what was coming, had agreed not to press the issue, and claimed victory.


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