Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Matthew Cardinale is not a typical policymaker. He’s not steered by corporate lobbyists, and he believes in the power of grass-roots movements to propel legislation one city at a time. At just 34, Cardinale has developed a nonprofit designed to facilitate just that. “We want to bring ordinary people back into the public policy process,” he said in an interview with Truthdig.
Cardinale is the founder of SMART ALEC, an organization devoted to helping cities across the country implement progressive, environmentally friendly, affordable housing policies. SMART ALEC—an acronym for State and Municipal Action for Results Today / Agenda for Legislative Empowerment and Collaboration—provides a model ordinance, drafted by Cardinale, designed to “keep track of the impact of lawmakers’ public policy decisions on their respective cities’ housing stocks.”
Last November, Atlanta formally implemented Cardinale’s model, and it’s being monitored in several large cities across the nation, including Pittsburgh and New Orleans. In the meantime, the organization is in the process of creating a national board of directors to oversee affordable housing policy.
Cardinale, who was homeless as a teenager, spent years promoting affordable housing policies in Atlanta. He has always been a proponent of transparency, and he won a lawsuit in which Georgia’s Supreme Court “struck down a secret vote taken by the City Council of Atlanta.”
Now, as a third-year law student and board president of SMART ALEC, Cardinale’s goal is simple: Get people involved in deciding public policy for their cities. He realizes that money alone is not an answer to America’s housing crisis. “There’s no end to the amount of money you’re going to throw at this problem if you’re trying to build your way out of it,” he says.
Despite his accomplishments, not everyone is a fan of his program. ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council—is a conservative think tank that has existed for decades, and some of its members don’t appreciate SMART ALEC’s tongue-in-cheek name.
ALEC helps to implement conservative policies, such as voter ID restrictions, privatized prisons and education, and drug testing of welfare recipients on a state-by-state basis. It’s also “financially supported by Charles and David Koch and corporate members.” In 2013, it reported $7.3 million in revenue. Lance Simmens at The Huffington Post elaborates:
ALEC is to legislation what McDonald’s is to fast food, but even better because they also deliver. Looking for a way to advance your conservative agenda? Why not dial up ALEC and have a ready-made, packaged, quick and inexpensive set of legislative proposals delivered to your door that has already been sampled in other jurisdictions of like-minded conservatives. Join the club and create what appears to be a movement garnering national attention.
Cardinale developed SMART ALEC as an antithesis to the big-money-fueled ALEC. “We want to do it in a completely different way than ALEC, which is to say, transparent and participatory,” he says.
He adds that he couldn’t resist riffing on the longtime lobbying group’s name. ALEC didn’t appreciate the joke, however, and recently demanded that SMART ALEC change its name or risk a trademark infringement lawsuit. Monday was the deadline for SMART ALEC to cease and desist. “We neither ceased nor desisted,” Cardinale says, laughing off the threat of a lawsuit. “We’re so appreciative that they are thinking about us,” he said of ALEC’s strongly worded letter. “It was just really great to hear from them, and we are thankful that we are in their thoughts and prayers.”
SMART ALEC board members even visited the ALEC legal team's offices last week, armed with bundles of yellow roses—“for friendship,” Cardinale explains. He jokes that he was thinking of having his parents sign an affidavit “in which they testify that I’ve been a smart aleck since childhood.”
Dr. Dwanda Farmer, the SMART ALEC board secretary, delivers yellow roses to the offices of Foley & Lardner LP.
Jokes aside, Cardinale relishes the idea of a lawsuit because he would then be able to request hidden information about ALEC, such as donor names. “I’ll bring Trayvon Martin’s mother to court,” he says in referring to action against ALEC-initiated “stand your ground” laws that may have helped the boy's killer, George Zimmerman, avoid conviction.
Cardinale’s dislike of ALEC goes beyond the possible trademark lawsuit. “ALEC is a bunch of corporations fighting for the agenda for the country,” he says. “It has a monopoly that has really turned people off from Congress altogether.” Echoing growing sentiments of distaste for corrupt corporate politics, Cardinale wants average people to take control of policy, one city at a time. “People don’t necessarily think about housing as a public policy issue—they tend to think of it as a private market issue,” he says. “So part of this is reminding people that this is a public policy issue.”
SMART ALEC is raising money via the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to help implement affordable housing impact statements adopted in 10 U.S. cities. Cardinale is enthusiastic about the support he has received since launching the initiative. “People are fired up about the very issues that we are addressing,” he says. “Given the fact that our launch has only occurred a month ago, the response has been amazing.”
And when it comes to fighting ALEC, Cardinale is not deterred. “They don’t want ordinary people to take back their government,” he says. “With ALEC, this is the beginning of a long relationship. They want to squash us now, but the truth is, the real battle is going to be played out in Salem and Atlanta and other cities [across the nation].”
For his commitment to empowering citizens to implement progressive, effective affordable housing policy, as well as his strong stance against wealthy lobbyists, Matthew Cardinale is our Truthdigger of the Week.