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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.
"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."