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Conservative ALEC Conference Opens In San Diego Amid Protests

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Protesters gather downtown during the American Legislative Exchange Council, July 22, 2015.

Mickey Kasparian, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 135, talks about plans to protest ALEC conference, seated in his office. July 22, 2015.

Conservative state lawmakers from throughout the United States are in San Diego this week for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC, which will hold its 42nd annual conference at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, brings together legislators with corporate donors who meet behind closed doors to draft model legislation on everything from limiting collective bargaining and expanding gun rights to blunting federal efforts to tackle climate change.

Republican presidential hopefuls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are scheduled to speak Thursday and Friday. Sen. Ted Cruz canceled his scheduled appearance, according to Times of San Diego.

More than 1,000 people, from organized labor to environmentalists, protested the conference on Wednesday. The protest also attracted elected leaders.

"They want to increase corporate profits, while speed up the devastating effects of climate change," Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins told the protesters.

Mickey Kasparian, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said he didn't want ALEC in San Diego.

“This is a no ALEC zone. I mean, we don’t want ALEC in our city or, quite frankly, in our state,” Kasparian said. “This is California. We fight for workers’ rights. We fight for affordable healthcare.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer spoke at the conference Wednesday despite calls from activists asking the mayor to not attend the event. Faulconer’s office issued a statement saying the mayor offers welcoming remarks at several conferences that come to the city.

“He represents that he is not far to the right, and I think him speaking today is definitely a disappointment,” Kasparian said.

ALEC gained prominence since the 2012 midterm elections when Republicans seized control of a record number of state legislative bodies. Republicans now control 69 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers around the country. The group is also known for crafting legislation that has sometimes been introduced, word for word, into legislatures in different parts of the country, and for advocating for the "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida, which became the centerpiece of the 2012 Trayvon Martin case.

Aside from the weather, ALEC organizers may have also been attracted to the city’s political climate. Last year, the San Diego City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. It joined Los Angeles and Boston as one of the communities to raise the minimum wage at the local level. Detractors were able to put the measure to a referendum scheduled in 2016. Businessweek labeled San Diego a “bulwark against minimum wage hikes” in headline, talking the referendum.

“It’s one of the few that is going on the ballot. We think it definitely has something to do with that,” Kasparian said.

Several corporations and foundations have withdrew funding amid negative publicity, including General Motors, the Gates Foundation, Google and Facebook. The media has also criticized the event's organizers for denying coverage.

The conference is supported by the libertarian Koch brothers, along with several major corporations, but the group has been criticized for not releasing a full list of its funders or how much goes to individual lawmakers to attend its events.

Last year, ALEC branched out to local government, forming the American City County Exchange, which looks a drafting model ordinances, such as placing limits on collective bargaining at the local level.

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