The Goldwater Institute is among the most powerful public policy organizations in the Southwest, and behind all of its decisions is Darcy Olsen.
Whether a journalist seeks an analysis on the state budget, a lawmaker needs advice on crafting legislation or a free-spending government finds itself on the wrong side of its litigation, the 38-year-old president and CEO is there.
Since 2001, Olsen has led the conservative think tank’s myriad functions, from policy research and litigation to fundraising and public outreach. Before that, she was the education policy director at the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank.
Three years ago, Olsen made the decision to create the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, which transformed the Goldwater Institute from an intellectual heavyweight to a legal powerhouse.
It has since won major cases that will change the political landscape both locally and nationally, including the CityNorth case in which the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that government subsidies for private development violate the Constitution, unless the developer offers benefits of equal value in return.
The institute next will showcase its legal chops in front of the U.S. Supreme Court involving its challenge to the matching-funds provision of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act.
But the group isn’t satisfied to stop there.
Olsen has a special interest in education reform and is eyeing next legislative session to unveil a new initiative. And in a recent interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, Olsen hinted the group may even jump into the fray over whether the state has the right to enforce immigration law.
How did you become so involved in public policy?
Helping people is in my blood. From the time I was really young, I was already on this path. I didn’t know the name of it, but I knew what was important to me.
For instance, I used my first 50-cent allowance to start sending my donations to adopt one of Sally Struthers’ children. A couple years after that, Greenpeace was big and I walked around my neighborhood and I created on my typewriter my own petition to stop the clubbing of seals. I was maybe 11 or 12 at the most.
My parents instilled in me a really strong sense of justice and fairness and how important it is to defend people who are unable to defend or care for themselves.
Like most children, I was a bleeding heart. I think it was Churchill who reportedly said, “If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. And if you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no head.” Over time I learned about economics and of course refined my concept of justice and what is right. This is what I love and what I will always do in some way.
Why was it important to start a litigation center?
When you are fighting every day to expand freedom, you take a look around you at the landscape and you assess what is helping spread these ideas and turn these ideas into law and what are the obstacles.
It was pretty easy for me to look around at the time before we added in litigation to see that we had a great Constitution in the state, we had great ideas, we had some great legislators, but what we didn’t have was enforcement. If the attorney general doesn’t take a city to court, or a private taxpayer — and nobody has the resources for that — they can go on making unconstitutional decisions and behaving in unconstitutional ways every day. Nobody stops them. You have to take them into court to get things done.
What has been the biggest success on the legal end of your organization’s work?
We have had a lot of successes and that is in part due to the fact that we have, really, an all-star team of litigators, but it also speaks to the fact that governments in Arizona are running absolutely wild and that they have been up to so much unconstitutional activity that for us, it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.
When you are protecting constitutional freedoms, it’s really difficult to choose. I think the CityNorth victory, where the lawsuit led to the Arizona Supreme Court restoring the Arizona Constitution’s gift clause and prohibited corporate subsidies unfairly to just one company over another.
What has the state Legislature done well?
The Legislature did an extraordinary job thinking about school children in the state: They passed four very important education-reform measures that will bring more accountability into schools and at the end of the day improve graduation rates for students and continue giving choice and options so they can individualize learning for students.
They also did a great job helping to bring more accountability to the budgeting process. Not only at the state level but at the cities and towns because they passed some important transparency measures. You remember that situation in Bell, California, where they found one of their city officials was making $800,000 a year and then the next guy was making $700,000 a year, and this is a tiny little town. Well that thing occurs in Arizona, too. By requiring these cities to put that information online, it becomes a lot more difficult for those scoundrels to hide out.
What did the Legislature do poorly?
We were disappointed and they disappointed many taxpayers by passing the buck and referring the sales tax increase to the ballot during a low-turnout period. That’s the same thing in our estimation as voting for a tax increase, and so I think they took the easy road instead of the high road.
Even though it passed overwhelmingly by Arizona voters?
Well, it wasn’t an overwhelming majority of voters because, what was the turnout,
25 percent, maybe? So what happens is that it’s a special-interest election, so all of the people with something at stake in the budget show up to the polls but most voters were not even aware there was an election going on.
So I don’t think it’s fair to say a majority of Arizonans wanted tax increases.
So if the Goldwater Institute was in charge of the state budget, how would it solve the fiscal crisis?
Arizona needs to get back to basics, get back to core services. We should stop funding things like massages for state employees through the wellness program. Same thing on the city level — we shouldn’t have city-owned golf courses.
I think first going after some of this egregious waste. Once you get through that, then you need to go into structural reform of some of the programs that you know are threatening to overload the budget. One of those things is pension reform, so there won’t be a looming liability over taxpayers’ heads.
We have talked about the importance of putting a spending limit in place — it was just a few years ago when we were having double-digit economic growth in Arizona and legislators took that, started new programs and once the economy went south, there was all this new spending to pay for but no money to pay for it.
Has the Goldwater Institute been affected by the poor economy?
Last year we had an 18 percent increase in our total number of donors. I think the reason for that is because even though times are tight for Arizonans, they are more concerned than ever about the erosion of their freedoms. I think they feel supporting the Goldwater Institute is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.
You mentioned an increase in the number of donors, but have total donations gone up or down?
We had a little bit of a drop last year in our total amount of funding, but I think we’ll be back on track this year.
Is there a great story happening that has so far gone untold?
I think one of the biggest stories in Arizona that is not being told is the depth of success of school-choice programs.
The tax-credit scholarship. That is a life-saver for these kids who are stuck in the Roosevelt School District. You couldn’t find a teacher in Scottsdale who would send their child into the Roosevelt School District, and for good reason.
Those programs are a life-line for those kids. But they have also, in highly concentrated areas, started to improve the schools around them, so as they’re losing students they get concerned and say, “What can we do better?” And they start improving programs. That’s important.
Beyond tax credits, where would you like to take it next in terms of schools?
We are working on education savings accounts right now. We would like every child to have an account opened. The money put in there could be used for tuition at schools, computers, tutoring and what wasn’t spent in a given year could be saved up and used for college.
Where would the money come from?
You could take a portion of the funds that would be given to them through the state and be put into their account.
Did the Goldwater Institute take a position on SB1070?
We haven’t focused on immigration reform, but if the federal government and the state government are unwilling or unable to resolve this soon then we might dive in.
In what capacity?
That’s all I would say right now. We haven’t made a decision that it’s time to get involved.
Do you believe the state has a right to enforce its own immigration laws?
Absolutely it does. And I think the state can do a lot more about border security than we have done. Not only that the state can, but should do, about border security. Just because the federal government has the primary responsibility does not abdicate local responsibility, too.
If we see problems that we can solve, we should. I think that is very important and exciting to see Arizona not waiting any more to get the jobs done.
And that seemed to be a theme in the last session: Arizona picking a fight with the feds over state sovereignty and 10th Amendment issues. Did you see that as a positive?
Absolutely. One of the things that is so interesting about the structure of federalism that we have in this country is that the founders fully intended the states to stand up against the federal government.
Alexander Hamilton said that the rival of power is power. He expected our best protection against federal over-reach to be the states themselves. So Arizona’s response on immigration is long overdue.
What were some of the biggest victories last session from the Goldwater Institute’s perspective?
One of the most important contributions the Goldwater Institute made was developing the idea of the Healthcare Freedom Act, which today is the basis of a lawsuit against the Obama administration we contend is an unconstitutional health care law.
Not only should it serve to protect the rights of Arizonans to make their own health care decisions and to have the ability to opt out of health care programs, but we’ve had nearly 40 states copy that initiative. So in terms of freedom, the Healthcare Freedom Act may be one of the most important things we do, not just in the past couple of years, but ever.
What do you do to unwind?
I turn up my iPod and go for a run. Sometimes, a few re-runs of “The Cosby Show” will also turn my day around.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in public policy?
I’ve always thought it would be great to help build up neighborhoods in other parts of the world, I mean everything from constructing homes to creating the infrastructure for business.
You’ve been on “The O’Reilly Factor” and the “Dennis Miller Show.” Which one did you enjoy more, and why?
Dennis Miller’s show was as fun as it looks! Dennis is just as smart and funny in person as he is on TV. Behind the scenes, you get the bonus of hanging out in a make-up room playing dress up and a green room packed with food—I couldn’t decide which one of those things I enjoyed more.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the East Coast and in D.C., both for school and your career. Do you miss it?
Washington and New York provided me with terrific learning opportunities, and I was grateful for the chance to experience a wide variety of cultures, communities, and ideas. But my heart has always been in the West. I love our down-to-earth genuineness, our open spaces, our desert downpours, our culture of independence, and practically speaking, the fact that you can live smack in the middle of the city and be at the top of Squaw Peak in under an hour.