By Craig Outhier, "Best of the Valley," Phoenix Magazine, November 2012
One does not walk into Darcy Olsen’s office at the Goldwater Institute expecting to find a full-size likeness of Darth Vader. Olsen is bright, friendly and cultivated in that New Hampshire-prep-school kind of way. Darth Vader is a trachea-crushing sci-fi boogie man. So why is he loitering near the door?
Olsen, 40, explains that the Star Wars heavy was an ironic gift from Goldwater staffers shortly after she took control of the conservative think tank in 2001 – an occasion she marked in Vader-esque fashion by eliminating the institute’s academic advisory board. She also changed her title from “director” to the less benign-sounding “president and CEO.”
“The idea was to shift from a traditional nonprofit into more of a business model,” Olsen explains. “A CEO is expected to make strategic decisions. If they don’t like it, they let you go. But they let you execute that vision.”
And execute she has. In the old days, Goldwater would publish a policy paper and hope for the best. No longer. With a budget that she tripled to $3.5 million through canny fundraising efforts, Olsen armed Goldwater with its first in-house legal team in 2007, allowing it to aggressively litigate against perceived government overreach. Goldwater lawyers blocked taxpayer-subsidized deals involving the Phoenix Coyotes and the CityNorth development, and even sued Tempe on behalf of a tattoo shop owner whom the city zoned out of business. “We’ve done things to make our organization unique,” Olsen says. “Lots of [think tanks] do research, but few have the tools to make policymakers take their ideas and turn them into laws.”
Olsen is a Libertarian to the core, but she also presents an intriguing duality. The daughter of a single mom, Olsen spent a year of her childhood on a Utah farm without running water. As a teen, she donated her first allowance to Sally Struthers’ Christian Children’s Fund, and wrote a letter to President Reagan pleading for government-housing in the Great Plains. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she worked as a counselor in a halfway house for the homeless. Today, the unmarried Mormon CEO is adoptive mom to two infant girls.
Still, don’t expect compassion if you’re a cash-slinging bureaucrat. “We’re not here to win a popularity contest,” Olsen says. “We’re here to effect greater justice and freedom.”