Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

"Reporters look at us as a resource," explains Robert Wurmstedt, the center's director of communications. "They call us all the time looking for our views on what's happening in the West."

Media coverage of the center's work is not only as important as the work itself; in many ways, it is the center's work. A five-year tally of publications lists only seven books by authors associated with the think tank. Most of its published output consists of columns by Burgess and senior fellow William Charland for the Scripps Howard News Service, a prodigious stream of newspaper articles about Western economic and political issues by journalist (and recently departed fellow) Joel Kotkin, and the center's own quarterly newsletter, edited by Wurmstedt. Denver Post columnist and ex-editor Bill Hornby, a former member of the center's board of trustees, has also contributed a gaggle of op-ed pieces offering awkward cheers for the center's work. (Sample: "Admittedly much of the study is not new, but it is better and more hopefully expressed than in most previous such efforts.")

The blitz-the-media strategy reflects Burgess's impatience with what he calls the "turnaround time for conventional publication channels"--and, perhaps, his yearning to make a splash with policymakers. An Indiana native and former Fulbright scholar, Burgess grew restless with academic life in the mid-1970s and left a faculty position at Ohio State University for a policy job in Colorado. Before long he was running the Western Governors' Policy Office while setting up a doctoral program in public-policy administration at the University of Colorado.

In his seven years at WESTPO, Burgess says, "I never once had a governor call me up and say, 'I read an interesting book. Get hold of the guy and see if his ideas hold water.' But at least once a month a governor would send me a clipped op-ed piece. I'd just come out of an academic career, and that was a startling thing to me--that a newspaper op-ed piece really made the world go round."

After a stint as founder and executive di-rector of the Western Coal Export Council, in 1985 Burgess moved to Washington as director of staff for the Democrats' National Policy Commission. He might have stayed there, he says, sailing Chesapeake Bay and living in northern Virginia, if he hadn't received a call from US West.

At the time, Burgess says, "I didn't even know what US West was." Officials at the Baby Bell were looking for a policy guru to help them "get their arms around this region they'd inherited" from the breakup of AT&T--someone who could set up a brain trust inside the company that would study economic and demographic trends in its fourteen-state service area. "I told them I wasn't interested in that," Burgess says. "I wouldn't last two minutes in a big company."

Burgess proposed an independent, nonprofit organization that would study economic development across the entire West and would take its results public. "I decided early on that we were not going to invest a lot of money writing books," Burgess notes. "Most of what we do are op-ed pieces or reports that are easy for people to use."

Yet the Western States Strategy Center, later renamed the Center for the New West, was hardly an independent entity. In its start-up phase US West provided more than 90 percent of the center's funding. The chairman of its board of trustees was Gary Ames, then US West's president of operations. The current board is headed by US West Communications CEO Solomon Trujillo (elected unanimously to succeed Ames last fall) and also features Ames (now based in London) and US West public-policy veep James Stever. Former US West chairman Jack MacAllister is listed as the board's "counsellor."

"It's kind of hard to convince anybody you're independent if your board is populated by your funders," says Ronald Binz, former head of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel. "That's a recipe for the kind of influence you don't want to see."

Binz, who battled US West over rate and service issues for years, recently announced the formation of another think tank of sorts, the Washington-based Competition Policy Institute, bankrolled by MCI, AT&T and other telecom giants eager to compete with the Baby Bells in providing local phone service. But Binz says none of the funders will be sitting on his board of directors.

"I've got an advisory board of very strong consumer advocates from around the country," he says. "I also think it's appropriate to build a firewall with your funding sources. We have a charter that the funders endorsed, but that's the extent of their influence."

Burgess says the center's board is "self-recruited" and consists mostly of executives of companies that believe in the organization's mission and have donated accordingly. That includes not only US West but Arizona Public Service, the Western Fuels Association and the investment firm of Goldman, Sachs & Co. He points out that the center has broadened its membership in recent years and has attracted occasional grants from the Gates, El Pomar and Ford foundations--as well as two major government contracts from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Transportation.

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