The state chapter of the Democratic Leadership Council is about to announce that it's forming its own public-policy think tank. Not surprisingly, politics already is intruding.

Gleeful members of the right-thinking Independence Institute, a Golden-based tank that has enjoyed a recent flurry of publicity, are touting the Democrats' action as just one more sign of their own swelling influence. "I heard [the leadership council say] that the Independence Institute had too much influence," gloats Tom Tancredo, the institute's president.

Democratic Leadership Council president Jim Gibson responds that Tancredo is only half right. It is true the local Democrats are getting themselves tanked, Gibson confirms. But, he adds, "I have news for Mr. Tancredo. I want to be alternative to him, but this has nothing to do with the Independence Institute."

That said, Gibson grudgingly acknowledges that the Independence Institute has gained influence among the state's policy makers of late. How much, exactly, is difficult to measure. At the very least, the ten-year-old organization has been basking in the glow of unprecedented attention.

For that, thanks are due the Regional Transportation District. Late last year, RTD's newly elected boardmembers indicated that they were thinking about killing light rail and rejecting all the agency's federal funding--sentiments close to the heart of the free-market-loving and government-allergic Independence Institute.

The boardmembers also revealed that they had met twice--once as candidates and then again as elected officers--with fellows of the Independence Institute. The institute has published policy papers titled "Stop That Train!" and "Stop That Train II," and the boardmembers' attack on light rail caused much Manchurian Candidate-like speculation about how they had had their respective brains dipped in the Independence Institute's think tank.

But Tancredo says the institute's agenda has always been out in the open for everyone to see. "People can't think that we publish this stuff just because we believe it," he says. "Yes, we want to influence public policy. That's the purpose of a think tank. We're not just an ivy tower where people sit about smoking pipes and thinking about things."

The Independence Institute has its roots in Michigan's Hillsdale College, a private liberal-arts school of 1,100 students with an unabashed conservative philosophy. Hillsdale also has Colorado connections: Jeffrey Coors is on the college's board of directors, and Hillsdale president George Roche's parents once owned Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, near Buena Vista.

As part of its mission to bring free-market ideology to the public, Hillsdale runs the Shavano Institute, which hosts public-policy debates and discussions throughout the country. Despite its small size, it has gained a certain cachet over the years, and keynote speakers at its seminars have included Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett and other conservative standard-bearers.

In 1981 Shavano moved its offices to Golden and hired a former Nixon speechwriter named John Andrews to head the institute. Four years later, when the school decided to move Shavano back to Michigan, Andrews stayed in Colorado and started the Independence Institute.

Unlike Shavano, Independence was devoted to thinking on local policy issues. In a 1989 article for the conservative Heritage Foundation titled "So You Want to Start a Think Tank," Andrews explained that Independence focused on four themes: economic growth, educational reform, equal opportunity and local government effectiveness.

He also stressed that a think tank becomes effective only by staying within public eyesight. The key to that, he added, is relentless marketing. "You have to be driven by it, fanatical about it," he wrote in the article. "Be anything less, and you and your associates will wind up talking mainly to yourselves...Everything you do, every day, must involve marketing..."

Since the institute's founding, several of its positions have garnered support among Colorado's voters (although it is unclear whether the policy papers lit the state's ideological fire or simply pushed ideas that already appealed to the electorate). For instance, research fellows writing for the institute were early supporters of ending the state's tourism tax and allowing charter schools.

Other ideas pushed by the institute have yet to find enough public support to become policy, however. Independence's research fellows have long advocated school vouchers, for example, a notion that has been defeated soundly at Colorado's polls. And, of course, there was the mung-bean episode, in which Andrews advised an Oregon organization on a project to measure the effects of prayer on the growth of legumes.

Andrews, now a cable-television consultant, still defends the project, saying that "in my personal values, faith has always been at the center." And he stresses that the research had nothing to do with the Independence Institute. Nevertheless, the Golden institute took a publicity hit when the mung project was revealed, particularly during Andrews's unsuccessful run for governor in 1990.

In 1993 Andrews left to head the Texas Public Policy Institute in San Antonio. He was replaced by Tancredo, a former state senator who'd also been appointed by Ronald Reagan to a high-level position at the federal Department of Education.

Under Tancredo, the Independence Institute has achieved financial stability. Supported by grants and membership dues (Tancredo refuses to say who belongs to the group, claiming that members deserve not to be hit up by other conservative causes), the organization was running a budget deficit as recently as 1992. As of the end of 1993, however, it showed a $60,000 surplus. Tancredo says a contributor has pulled its support only once: the Broadmoor Hotel, in Colorado Springs, was displeased with the institute's position against renewing the tourism tax.

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