There was no black-tie soiree trumpeting the arrival of the Barry Goldwater Institute when it opened its doors to relative anonymity in 1988.
It began humbly in a one-room, rented apartment off Beaver Street near the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff. Founder Michael Sanera needed two tries to persuade the former senator to lend his name to a conservative think tank, originally called the Arizona Policy Institute.
"There's a tie between the intellectual groundwork that the institute has provided and some of the ideas that have permeated the legislative process and into the public," Sanera said. "Some of our ideas have ended up becoming legislation."
This Saturday, the Goldwater Institute celebrates its 15th birthday with a star-studded party at the Arizona Biltmore that includes a live orchestra and best-selling author Christopher Buckley. And although 15 years have passed, there's a certain deja-vu to the current political climate in Arizona. Much like 1988, there's a Democratic governor, the state is mired in a nasty fiscal crisis and a blue ribbon commission of citizens is examining Arizona's tax structure.
The institute's original calling card was tax cuts and school choice. Its influence is evident. Led by former Gov. Fife Symington, Arizona had 10 straight years of tax cuts.
"The budget is the main game," Symington said. "We really valued their input on tax cuts. They have produced some thorough, thoughtful and provocative position papers."
In the late 1980s, some conservative legislators introduced bills for school choice, which were easily defeated. The Goldwater Institute helped change the debate, shifting it from school vouchers (using tax dollars for private tuition) to charter schools.
There are now 464 charter schools in Arizona serving 64,000 students.
Today, the Barry Goldwater Institute has broadened its scope to include private property rights, Clean Elections, urban sprawl and mass transit. It recently weighed in on the fire department debate in Scottsdale, writing in favor of retaining Rural/Metro instead of establishing a city-run operation.
The Phoenix headquarters at 500 E. Coronado Road features 15-foot, vaulted ceilings, specially lighted hallways and mementos, photographs and letters of the late senator. A Norman Rockwell portrait of Goldwater stares at visitors as they enter the lobby. The group's annual budget has grown to $1.5 million from $20,000.
Darcy Olsen, the institute's president and CEO, heads a team of six scholars and 12 board members. A self-professed liberal growing up, Olsen is now a true believer in "Goldwater conservatism."
"If you could pick one thing, the most important is that the Goldwater Institute helped change the parameters of the public policy debate in this state," Olsen said. "You can count on the Goldwater Institute to stand for principles, regardless of the political or financial implications."
But some political veterans charge that the institute has not stayed true to Goldwater's vision. "They are radically libertarian. They've diverted from his philosophy of common-sense conservatism. Sometimes they talk about things that fly in the face of common sense," said Alan Stephens, a former Democratic state senator and now a top aide to Gov. Janet Napolitano.
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