By Jerry Waxman
Remember that final scene in the great 1956 sci-fi flick The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Remember Kevin McCarthy running down the highway bouncing off of trucks loaded with alien seed pods shouting to us warning that as we slept they took us over? Let’s apply that to what’s happened in this country in the last thirty years since the Reagan Revolution. So, how did this happen? It’s really quite simple. Here’s part of the puzzle: a conservative activist that most of us have never heard of, Paul Weyrich, created the idea that some people should be denied the vote and he took up the cause. Just because we never heard of him doesn’t mean he didn’t affect our lives in a big way. Weyrich was the impetus in the founding of The Heritage Foundation and he was the driving force behind the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) among many other conservative initiatives so you can bet that this dude was into some serious stuff.
Take a real good look at this 1980 speech in Dallas before a major Religious Right gathering that also included speeches by Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell where Weyrich lays out the reasons for suppressing the vote. That was thirty two years ago, the year Ronald Reagan was elected and the year that the Republican long term plan to take over American politics was finally set into place. It had been in the incubator since 1955 when Milton Friedman first devised his “School Voucher” scheme in reaction to Brown v Board of Ed. Followed by and furthered along by attorney Lewis Powell, a partner in a law firm that had unsuccessfully argued against Brown. Powell’s now famous memorandum, calling for the Chamber of Commerce to be involved in local and national politics, got him placed on the Supreme Court by then President Nixon about two months after he wrote it in 1971. It took Weyrich a couple more years to put the financing into place but he convinced Joe Coors and other conservatives to invest in The Heritage Foundation which is a right wing economic and policy center.
At the same time Weyrich also planted the seeds for ALEC. Here’s the history of ALEC. Since Conservative strategy is long term they wait until the timing is right for their initiatives, and they slowly chip away at our safety nets in the process so that when they do strike we don’t realize the severity of it until it is too late. One can look back at that old movie and look at it in perspective. It was at the height of the conservative manufactured “Red Scare” most exemplified by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and HUAC that it came out. Many say that it is a metaphor for Communism taking over America; however that’s not a likely point of view. We had been fighting Communism for years since the first Red Scare in the 20’s and not only were they not taking over, they had no real impact; they were just the convenient targets of the witch hunt. Actors, directors, writers and producers from the late 40’s on were the real victims, especially since a great deal of them came from European families and struggled during the Depression. They were also overwhelmingly Jewish. Black actors such as Paul Robeson and Canada Lee were also targeted victims. The real message of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was that if we were not careful we could surrender our hard fought freedoms to McCarthyism without even knowing it. The year 1956 also helped usher in the era of the John Birch Society, whose co-founder was Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David Koch. Weyrich passed away in 2008 but the damage done by him will live a long time.
With time and plenty of money on their side all these conservative groups looked to poke holes in the social safety net in their quest to destroy the New Deal and send us back to the Gilded Age. They almost succeeded. They were completely prepared for the election of Barack Obama having had contingency plans laid out for questioning his legitimacy, stonewalling his legislation and weakening his voter base. It’s amazing how the Tea Party sprung into action so quickly. It’s also amazing how they tried to project the failures and weaknesses of the Bush Administration onto Obama. Consider what’s happening right now with oil prices and how they are trying to singularly blame him. Facts don’t matter to them-messaging successes do. This successful messaging resulted in big wins for conservatives in 2010. Now was the time for many of ALEC’s carefully crafted plans to be introduced into state and federal legislation. Yes, Democrats were again asleep at the wheel. It really began during the Clinton Administration with the President signing the Telecommunications Act of 1994, NAFTA, and Gramm, Leach Bliley which overturned Glass, Steagle and allowed banks to engage in questionable mortgages and loans.
So, today with many states having large Republican majorities in their legislatures and Republican governors the time was right for ALEC to start flexing its muscles, which started in early 2011. All it took were partisan votes to give tax breaks to people who didn’t need them and cut funding for people and institutions that desperately needed the money to survive, thereby affecting education and health care specifically. The one-two punch would be for legislators to keep enough people from voting so that power would stay in their hands. What they didn’t figure on was that there would be opposition from actual people. It started in Wisconsin. It got to Florida too. The reaction to the legislation in Wisconsin by the people has been inspiring. Two state senators have been recalled in special elections and a third who is facing recall resigned, leaving the state senate in an even tie. Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker is now officially facing recall as well as the lt. governor and a few more senators.
Florida is nowhere near as progressive as Wisconsin so it is going to take a little longer, but things are starting to happen. Last year in March Awake the State staged its first protests in thirty cities and towns across Florida and immediately caused an impact. Several ALEC written bills were put aside although a few, including HB 1355, the voter suppression bill were enacted. The bills that were not enacted last year were brought up again this year, but more on that later. Awake the State staged further protests and other groups started to spring up. At the same time the Arab Spring was taking place causing successful uprisings in Egypt and in Libya. The introduction of social media has helped change the game. Enter Occupy Wall Street and all the other occupations. The occupations have changed the conversation if not the dynamic. The occupations are only six or seven months old and they still have a long way to go before they become a force to be reckoned with but all indications are that all of these recent protest movements are making gains where none existed two years ago. This year all of the protest groups were ready to do battle. Enough complaints were sent to Sen. Bill Nelson’s office that he requested that Sen. Dick Durbin hold hearings on HB 1355. Durbin, at the press conference after the formal hearings made mention that this same type of legislation is being pushed in several states by ALEC.
Many more groups were regularly in Tallahassee sitting in on committee meetings and lobbying legislators. Much of the ALEC sponsored legislation either did not make it out of committee or was voted down on the Senate floor. Court challenges also downed other legislation. People, ordinary everyday people made this happen. Two years ago all of the Republicans, including Governor Rick Scott were campaigning on job creation and economic growth. Once elected nothing resembling their campaign platforms happened and in fact the state has lost close to a million jobs due to their lack of planning and vision and concentration on restrictive legislation. Last year I wrote two columns about Awake the State’s efforts and how hard it is to wake some people up. Once awake, though, they can be a formidable force. Yes, people, ordinary everyday people are going to change the face of politics in this state and it is happening now.
Awake Orlando was born in January of this year when a loosely knit group of people from the unions, civic groups, the occupy movement and civic activists in general said “Let’s get together and do something.” The working title was called Orlando Unity and the purpose of the group was to create civic actions that would bring public awareness to non accountability in government policy. The first official action of the group was to focus on voter suppression associated with HB 1355. The focus was not only on the bill itself but also on the legislators who both sponsored it and voted for it and a special Jim Crow award was fashioned to give to supporters of the bill. It was scheduled for Friday, March 30 at 12:00 PM.
At 12:00 precisely a group of activists assembled outside of Rep. Eric Eisnaugle’s (Fla. 40) office at 2212 Curry Ford Rd. to present him with the award. Speakers Valerie Cepero, a student, Lorraine Tuliano, President of AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, Phyllis Hancock of the Central Florida A. Phillip Randolph Institute and civic activist Doug Head, former chairman of the Orange Democrats all gave their different views on voter suppression before entering Eisnaugle’s office. Eisnaugle was nowhere to be found so they dealt with his District Secretary, Edgar Robinson. They presented Robinson with the Jim Crow Legislator Award and asked that he give it to Eisnaugle. When questioned why Eisnaugle supported the bill or even if he knew what was in it Robinson evaded by not giving any direct answers instead referring to staff analysis of all legislation.
As a result of the hearings held by Senator Durbin the Justice Dept is now looking into HB1355 and there is much speculation that the law will be overturned by the courts. The lesson learned here is that we must constantly be vigilant. We need to stop this kind of legislation in its tracks before it gets to the courts. That requires civic involvement by everyone. Had Florida Democrats not been so afraid of the NRA perhaps the ALEC sponsored “Stand Your Ground” legislation would not have passed. Paul Weyrich is dead but you can bet that somebody either has replaced him or will replace him and carry on his work. We need to be ready.