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Independence Day

The Independence Institute got a jolt from its Italian leaders.

Tom Tancredo may seem to be the most prominent public figure to have graduated from the Independence Institute, but there's no shortage of competition for the top spot among the think tank's alumni. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is a former senior fellow and boardmember at the institute. Donald Hodel, who held the Interior cabinet post from 1985 to 1989, was once the chairman of the institute's board of trustees. John Andrews, its founder, is majority leader of the Colorado Senate, and he's joined in the state legislature by Rob Fairbank, Shawn Mitchell and Ted Harvey, all of whom once had institute connections. Even KOA talker/Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Rosen served on the institute's board.

These grads represent a ton of influence all by themselves, as witnessed by the recent passage of school-voucher legislation and concealed-carry laws -- measures the Independence Institute has been backing for years. As a result of such successes, says president Jon Caldara, the organization has spawned both imitators and opponents. "We were the first think tank around here, and after we established ourselves, up popped all these other think tanks. There was the Center for the New West and the Bell Policy Center, and vanity think tanks like the Bighorn Center. Even Bill Owens realized the power of this idea and decided to start the Center for the New American Century."

The same trend can be seen nationally, Caldara allows. "When the Independence Institute started in 1985, it was one of just a few state-based, free-market think tanks. Now there are around forty such organizations nationwide working on a state and local level."

Whether this is a happy development or a hideous one is open to question, but there's no doubt the institute has left its mark on Colorado's political landscape. Not only does it serve as something of a farm team for the Republican party, but its acerbic approach to the issues has undermined the image of political researchers as tedious academics who offer position papers, not sound bites. As demonstrated by last weekend's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Day, which was pimped on its Web site, www.i2i.org, with the tagline "Come learn to shoot, smoke and drink in style!," the Independence Institute is anything but boring.

It wasn't always so, as Andrews acknowledges. "I like to say that a dull WASP founded the institute and ran it for eight years, when the leadership passed to a series of mad Italians." He adds, "Tom would be the first to tell you that he's not a policy wonk. He's an agent of change, a get-it-done guy who wants to see government move in the direction of the ideas and values that are important to him. My approach to running the institute was to put a lot of 'think' in the tank; his approach was to put in more action."

Before Andrews birthed the institute, this onetime speechwriter for Richard Nixon headed up the Golden-based Shavano Institute, which he describes as "an executive seminar program for Hillsdale College," a Michigan school with a conservative bent. "We would do three-day retreats at mountain resorts like Keystone, bring in speakers and invite men and women who ranked high in their corporations and other organizations to be the conferees. In a way, it was modeled after what the Aspen Institute does, but they do it from a liberal perspective."

Andrews oversaw symposiums starring the likes of United Nations representative Jeane Kirkpatrick from 1981 to 1985, when Hillsdale decided to transplant the program to Detroit in a cost-saving move. After turning down an offer to relocate to Michigan, Andrews says, "My livelihood went away. But I had learned from observing the Heritage Foundation in Washington and seeing the terrific influence they had developed as an idea factory for the Reagan administration, and I thought we could do something similar on the state level."

This concept was in the air beyond Golden; Chicago's Heartland Institute, Seattle's Washington Institute for Public Policy and the South Carolina Policy Council all came into being within a year or so of the Independence Institute's debut. For Andrews, "It was the next logical development to come out of the national policy institutes on the right, because conservatives attach such importance to decentralization and seeing that state functions don't all gravitate to Washington, D.C."

From the beginning, Andrews was inundated with requests from conservatives in other states wanting his advice on how to start think tanks of their own, and in 1993, he moved to San Antonio to run a big one, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. On the TPPF board back then was George W. Bush, who "was just starting to think about running for governor," Andrews says, although at least one major GOP backer "didn't think he was ready for prime time."

In contrast, Tancredo, whom Andrews has known since the early '80s, was thoroughly prepared for the spotlight, making him a logical candidate to fill the void atop the Institute. After twelve years in the Department of Education under Republican presidents, he'd recently been handed his head by a Democratic one (Bill Clinton) and was looking for another way to impact the public discourse. According to Dave Kopel, the Institute's research director, the change in tone once Tancredo came aboard was immediate.

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