Independence Day

The Independence Institute got a jolt from its Italian leaders.

"When it came to being an intellectual, a scholar, John had vastly superior skills," Kopel says. "But Tom was more effective than John was at taking the Independence message to a broader audience. In the Andrews era, we were always very good at producing twenty-page issue papers on a subject that a legislative aide could read, but Tom was good at getting things to many more people and was better able to convey emotional energy and excitement. John has a lot of emotion on issues like school reform, but it comes across in a much drier way."

In addition, Tancredo took pleasure in stirring the pot. "There was a Hiroshima anniversary coming up," Kopel recalls, "and Tom got the idea for us to take out a newspaper ad saying that dropping the atomic bomb was justified because, among other things, we dropped leaflets on the city warning people to get out of town -- and on top of that, it saved lots of American and Japanese lives. At a stodgier think thank, I think there might have been someone who said, 'Look, you may be right, but all this is going to do is annoy people. No one will give you more money on this, so why cause trouble? Why spend political capital on this?' But that's not Tom's style."

The result of this transformation went beyond greater public attention for institute initiatives like a public school report-card system that predated one adopted by the state years later. It could also be seen at the bank. As Andrews notes, Tancredo "multiplied the annual budget several times over" -- and even after he departed in 1998 to enter Congress, the cash kept flowing. Caldara estimates the current budget at "around $700,000 a year, and it's increased steadily; we grow a little bit every year." Approximately eight people get regular paychecks, with others receiving recompense on a contract basis. Caldara won't name specific contributors, but he says most of the donated dollars "come from foundations and individuals, which is why other think tanks have a lot more money to spend than we do. We get very little from corporations. In fact, we don't get nearly enough. Corporations can be very nearsighted."

Perhaps American industry would open its wallet more readily if the Institute wasn't so quirky. Certainly the majority of its positions can be identified as classically conservative, but its interests shift over time. Since Tancredo left, Kopel says, "Independence doesn't really do immigration one way or the other." Furthermore, it sporadically takes on topics most commonly associated with rival ideologies. Kopel has long supported reform of asset-forfeiture legislation that could be used to seize the property of drug dealers and other accused lawbreakers before they are actually convicted of a crime. The passage of such a bill in Colorado last year can be credited in part to the improbable coalition of the Independence Institute and the inveterately liberal Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.

"They were the focal point," Kopel says, "but our participation showed conservative Republican legislators who hate drug users that this was a property-rights issue, a constitutional issue, rather than just a culture-wars issue."

Kopel also has problems with the Patriot Act, which is intended to give law-enforcement agencies more latitude to investigate terrorists post-9/11. Limbaugh-lovers in general are foursquare behind the Act, but in Kopel's opinion, "It's a terrible law. There are some parts of it that are okay, but I think there are a lot of other things in there that aren't terrorism-related and that were snuck through in a real bait-and-switch on the American public."

To give such views greater circulation, the institute uses the media with an aplomb that probably gives political opponents think-tank envy. Kopel has a bi-weekly column in the Rocky Mountain News and serves as a regular panelist on Channel 12's weekly roundtable, Colorado Inside Out, while Caldara pens a column for the Boulder Daily Camera and hosts another Channel 12 program, Independent Thinking. And institute senior fellow Penn Pfiffner emcees Independence on the Air, a program heard Sunday mornings on KNRC radio. Even Andrews now understands how effective such outreach can be. After leaving the Texas Public Policy Foundation and returning to Colorado, he launched Head On, a debate series on Channel 12 that recently earned headlines when Andrews showed on-air partner Dani Newsum the door ("Public Row," June 26).

"At the institute, our job is not only to do scholarly work, which I think we do better than anyone," Caldara says, "but also to engage those ideas. We are not your father's think tank."

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