RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is the conservative organization behind a proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws in the country. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, ALEC is now feeling the heat from a campaign by civil rights organizations. Those groups are putting pressure on companies to end their support of ALEC, which mostly promotes pro-business legislation. In recent days, seven major corporations say they have severed ties to the group.

As NPR's Peter Overby reports, ALEC is pushing back.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The corporations are almost all household names: Coca Cola and Pepsi, Mars, Kraft Foods, McDonalds and Wendy's, and the software maker Intuit. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said it won't give ALEC any more grants, although one already underway will continue.

Facing petition drives and phone calls generated by the Anti-ALEC Coalition, the organizations all took pains to say they belonged to ALEC only to work on their own specific issues.

Rashad Robinson is director of ColorofChange.org, a civil rights organization in the coalition. He says they're trying to put the council's corporate members on the spot.

RASHAD ROBINSON: They'll be making a choice that they're going to stand with an organization that works to suppress the vote and to support shoot-first legislation. And they won't be able to do that in private.

OVERBY: Stringent voter-identification laws have been one of ALEC's priorities. And so have Stand Your Ground laws, patterned after the Florida statute invoked in the Trayvon Martin murder case. The Legislative Exchange Council developed these bills and others by having state legislators team up with corporate lobbyists.

The lawmakers take the model legislation home to introduce at their state capitals. A company can join ALEC for as little as $7,000 a year. But overall, corporate and foundation money covers nearly the entire $7 million budget. ALEC says it's being targeted because of its free enterprise agenda. Kaitlyn Buss is the council's spokeswoman.

KAITLYN BUSS: The groups attacking ALEC and its members are the same activists who have always pushed for big government solutions. And those groups will use any excuse to intimidate and bully.

OVERBY: She said ALEC's allies are rallying round.

BUSS: And we are committed to coming up with more solutions that increase jobs, that promote economic growth, and that is something that all Americans need right now.

OVERBY: The coalition campaign is based partly on an archive of ALEC-drafted legislation, documents leaked last spring to the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group in Wisconsin. Lisa Graves is head of the center.

LISA GRAVES: People for the first time could really connect the dots between which corporations were involved in ALEC and which - what the legislative agenda was of ALEC. And people could look in their statehouses and see that agenda moving.

OVERBY: But if leaked documents provide the information, something else helps to raise the stakes - Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations spend freely in political campaigns. Legally speaking, Citizens United has absolutely nothing to do with ALEC.

But corporate CEOs remember what happened soon after Citizens United came down. The retail chain Target gave $100,000 in support of a Minnesota state candidate who opposed gay marriage. The move was at odds with Target's hip urban image. And the blow-back from customers was fierce. Ken Gross is a lawyer who advises corporate clients on campaign finance issues.

KEN GROSS: The sensitivity level in corporate America went up, particularly among retail corporations, appreciably. It set off alarm bells in many quarters.

OVERBY: David Primo says the corporations are boxed in. He teaches political science and business administration at the University of Rochester. He says it's not fair to hold the ALEC corporate members responsible for everything the council does. But with tinderbox issues such as voter ID and Stand Your Ground, he says the corporations can't afford to have a debate.

DAVID PRIMO: What gets picked up on that is race, money, politics. And you need to try to deal with that message and not have that message tarnish your brand.

OVERBY: The coalition is pressing ahead. Now it's challenging AT&T, State Farm Insurance, drug makers Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, and health care company Johnson and Johnson. Johnson and Johnson says it doesn't support every position taken by the council. GlaxoSmithKline declined to comment. And the others didn't respond to our requests.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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