"We hear you" is the theme of the new marketing campaign rolled out by AARP this year.
So the powerful advocacy group for seniors heard plenty from its members when a watchdog group reported it was a sponsor for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s recent conference in Indianapolis. The Center for Media and Democracy, which has relentlessly tracked ALEC’s influence on state-level legislation, also reported that AARP recently became a corporate member. It cited five examples in which ALEC had worked against the interests of retirees and AARP members, including the organization’s proposal to privatize elements of Social Security and its support of Big Pharma.
The Los Angeles Times picked up on the center’s report, and the outcry from AARP members was quick and harsh.
"No organization that claims to represent retirees should be anywhere near ALEC, let alone funding them," wrote one member on AARP’s Facebook page. "You should immediately end financial support of ALEC and repudiate the group."
"I was appalled to find out about AARP’s ties with ALEC," wrote another. "If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. I will drop my membership to AARP unless this situation is addressed quickly."
"I am HORRIFIED to learn that part of my dues are going to support the repulsive group ALEC," was posted by another member. "I will NOT renew my membership until I hear that you have decisively cut all ties with this organization that seeks to gut what little retirement benefits I have. SHAME ON YOU AARP!"
In keeping with its new slogan, AARP reacted quickly.
"After hearing from many of you, we’ve decided not to renew our membership to ALEC," the organization announced Friday. "We would never work against the interests of older Americans and our engagement with ALEC was NOT an endorsement of the organization’s policies, but an opportunity to engage with state legislators and advance our members’ priorities."
AARP joins Google, Microsoft and more than 100 other nonprofit groups and corporations withdrawing membership from ALEC in response to pressure from members and customers.
The pressure doesn’t extend, however, to the lawmakers whose influence ALEC’s corporate members seek. Rep. David Wolkins, R-Warsaw, attacked Indiana teacher unions and defended ALEC in an op-ed article published on these pagesJuly 27. An Indianapolis TV station, RTV6, reported that Rep. Dennis Zent, R-Angola, was spotted at the Indianapolis event at the JW Marriott, and that Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Goshen, recently requested $400 for conference registration for an ALEC meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.
ALEC will not disclose the names of its members, and its task force meetings are not open to the public. That leaves its critics to speculate that the closed-door sessions and the legislation that follows come not from collaboration, but from undue influence.