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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...
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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.

Still, the institute remains a relatively low-budget affair. Although its budget soared by nearly $80,000 between 1993 and 1994, the $300,000 the Independence Institute spends each year is dwarfed by the multimillion-dollar budgets of national think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institute. And the title "senior fellow" it confers upon its researchers generally means only that the institute has published that person's writings--money rarely changes hands.

Tancredo has followed Andrews's advice about marketing, and the institute has increased its public exposure, recruiting research fellows who already have public voices. Charles King, a columnist for the Colorado Daily, surprised readers earlier this year when the casual photo accompanying his "Old Fogey Says" column suddenly was replaced by a new picture of King with a dark suit and tie--and an accompanying note that he is now a senior fellow for the Independence Institute.

The think tank has been hitting the airwaves, too. For the past eight months Independence has run ninety-second spots called "Independent Thought" on eight Colorado radio stations. About five times a month it tapes a two-minute commentary on KUVO, during National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." And, according to Tancredo, the institute soon hopes to get a talk show called "Colorado in the Balance" on KBDI-TV/Channel 12 and on cable-access channels in Littleton, Aurora, Thornton and Pueblo.

Others affiliated with the institute spread the conservative gospel in different ways. Mike Rosen, a former senior fellow, enjoys a huge radio audience on KOA. Penn Pfiffner, a Republican state representative from Jefferson County, is a member of the institute. The views of senior fellow Jack McCroskey will no doubt become more public as his campaign for city auditor picks up steam. And, beginning next month, the institute will begin hosting a half-hour talk show on a Denver cable-access channel.

Jim Gibson denies that the Democrats' planned think tank has anything to do with the Independence Institute's growing profile. But he does concede that local progressives and Democrats have been left behind in the ideas department. "I believe strongly that there's a policy vacuum," he says.

Gibson says he is working with several legislators to write a sort of blueprint for local government (much like the Independence Institute's "Colorado in the Balance" position paper, released last month, which outlined 87 reforms for state legislators).

Unlike the recommendations of the government-distrusting Independence Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council's positions "will stress our philosophy that government has a role in providing people with economic opportunity," says Gibson. "We're going to appear a lot closer to the political center than they are."

Then again, maybe not. Gibson declines to say who he has lined up to contribute money to the tank. But he says he already has found a person willing to write policy papers for it: former Democratic governor Richard Lamm.

That's the same Dick Lamm who three weeks ago appeared in a video tribute to the Independence Institute at the think tank's tenth-anniversary gala.

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