Think Tank Warfare
Nearly a year after his death, Senator Barry Goldwater's legacy lives on, continuing to affect his beloved state and its contentious politics through the Goldwater Institute, a think tank to which he gave his name in 1988.
Founded on the legendary conservative's well-known agenda of advancing individual freedom and limiting government, the institute holds great sway over conservative state lawmakers. The institute's views on issues, particularly education reform, appear regularly in the opinion pages of the state's newspapers and get debated on the floor of the Legislature. The local dailies have lauded the institute and its executive director, Jeffry Flake, for the institute's ability to set the political agenda of a state that still reveres the Goldwater name.
But the institute also has its detractors. Deriding the think tank's output as more propaganda than real research, critics say the institute calls its members "research fellows" to produce the illusion that the organization is quasi-academic in nature, and that it painstakingly gathers empirical evidence for studies aimed at educating leaders and the public.
The reality, they say, is much less austere: Working on behalf of big-business contributors, the institute's members are really lobbyists churning out right-wing agitprop.
One of those critics was reportedly so unhappy with the institute's direction that he sought to rein it in and change its very nature.
The critic's name?
Susan Goldwater says the Goldwater Institute's advocacy for education reform--in the form of vouchers and charter schools--made her late husband nervous.
So nervous, she says, that in 1996 he invited several members of the institute's board to his house to discuss his concerns.
"He didn't see innovative ideas coming out of the institute," she says. "He just didn't see much coming out of there. It made him nervous. This goes back three or four years."
Goldwater told her that he had lent his name to the institute in 1988 because he believed its founder, former Northern Arizona University political science professor Michael Sanera, intended it to be an academically oriented policy research organ similar to ASU's Morrison Institute.
"He liked the idea of academics doing this thinking. What he didn't like was seeing it turn into a special-interest, big-business lobbying group," she says.
The former senator had given his name away, and he didn't want to have to monitor or censor the institute. "The board knew he was unhappy. And they cajoled him so he wouldn't yank his name," his widow says.
Despite reassurances from the board members that they were just following the senator's own principles, Goldwater wanted to make real changes to the body that carried his name, she says.
Susan remembers Goldwater saying that he was curious about merging the institute with the chair he had endowed at ASU to make the institute more academic and less political. She says the former senator met with ASU president Lattie Coor to discuss the plan. "Barry met with Lattie Coor. He wanted to have some checks and balances that would protect his name."
Before Goldwater could pursue the matter further, she says, the senator suffered a debilitating stroke. "That was right before Barry's stroke. I was eager to see something happen, and I'm sorry I didn't do more to help make things happen. But then it was too late," she says.
Coor didn't return calls for this story. Neither did Goldwater Institute executive director Jeffry Flake.
Scott Alexander, a former state senator, was a member of the institute's board of directors until six months ago. He says he was not among the board members with whom Goldwater met, but he "peripherally heard about Goldwater's concerns . . . I somewhat joined that concern. There's been some good research regarding the deregulation of our utilities that I think were worthwhile. But I think I might have shared some of the senator's concerns on charter schools. I think that Jeff Flake has done an admirable job, but I'm not certain that charter schools are going to end up being the panacea that he envisions."
Former legislator Tom Patterson is currently on the institute's executive committee, which he joined in the last year. Patterson says he heard about Goldwater asking board members to come hear his concerns. "I can tell you that Jeff Flake, I'm pretty sure, was one of them. I want to say maybe [vice chairman] John Norton, but I don't know that." (Norton could not be reached for comment.)
Patterson says the meeting was a productive one, and the senator's concerns were alleviated by Flake and others.
"What was related to me was that when they were able to explain to Barry the issues involved, he was happy with it all and said, 'Go get 'em.' So, I don't know. I'm giving you poorly remembered hearsay, but you can quote me," he says with a laugh.
Susan Goldwater says her husband's concerns weren't erased by the institute's board members. She says he continued to express his concerns to the board on several other occasions.
She remembers another time Goldwater had disliked the way his name had been used. Doug Wead, an evangelical Christian candidate in the 1992 campaign for congressional District 6, had won the Republican nomination by appealing to the Religious Right while calling himself a "Goldwater Republican." In the general election, Goldwater, to the surprise of many, endorsed Wead's Democratic opponent, Karan English, who won the seat.
"He endorsed the Democrat to show how displeased he was with how Wead was abusing his name. I think if he'd lived long enough, he would have done something similar with the Goldwater Institute," Susan says.
The institute's focus on vouchers and charter schools in particular worried Goldwater, she claims.
"Barry Goldwater was an absolute believer in public education," his widow says. "I think he was nervous about charter schools. Was he against them? I don't know. He was nervous about what they would do to the public schools. He didn't favor religious education."
Susan complains that Jeffry Flake's push for vouchers, a system that would allow parents to spend tax dollars on private school tuition, is advancing an agenda that would promote religious schools at the expense of public education.
"They're wanting to promote their religious agenda, and Barry would have gone down with the ship fighting that one," she says.
She repeatedly complains that Flake and his colleagues don't deserve the attention they receive from the press--that it's her husband's name that has lent the institute's members a legitimacy they haven't earned.
"Let's not give power to people who don't deserve it, who are just attaching themselves to a name. They're selling the name Goldwater," she says.
"If they were called the XYZ Think Tank, who would listen to them?"
Mary Hartley met Barry Goldwater in 1996, and the Democratic state senator was surprised that the conservative icon knew who she was.
Goldwater knew that Hartley had been working in the Legislature to make changes to Arizona's new charter schools law. The most lenient in the nation, the law allowed just about anyone with decent credit and a business plan to open a school, and allowed for little oversight of how state money was used. Hartley wanted to increase that oversight so abuses wouldn't tarnish the entire program.
"He told me to keep up the good work. He said that charter schools need to be made accountable. So I got Barry Goldwater's blessing," she says with a laugh, sounding like she's still surprised.
Three years later, Hartley continues to try, without success, to bring that accountability to the charter school movement. Most recently, she was disappointed when Governor Jane Hull went back on a promise to bolster charter school oversight by signing a bill into law that shifts responsibility for auditing charter schools from the state auditor general to the state charter school board and the state board of education--a move Hartley believes will decrease charter school accountability.
Hartley can't help thinking that Senator Goldwater would have been disappointed that Hull signed the bill.
Even more frustrating, Hartley says, is that each time she attempts to pass common-sense reforms, such as requiring charter school governing bodies to follow open-meeting laws, she's rebuffed by a coordinated phalanx of conservative lawmakers and a group of free-marketeers from the Goldwater Institute.
"It's kind of like a tightly knit group," Hartley says.
And how does the Goldwater Institute exert its influence? "Through Jeffry Flake's written opinions to the opinion pages, through [institute fellow] Mary Gifford being on the [state] charter school board and influencing their legislative agenda. [Institute board member Steve Twist also sits on the charter school board.] And some of the charter school operators which are held up by the institute are brought in to testify," Hartley says.
Hartley says conservative lawmakers then do the institute's bidding, impressed by the institute's multipronged effort and its close ties to powerful business interests.
The institute also has a healthy budget that fuels four separate research "centers" that put out a constant stream of opinions and analyses.
Former state senator Scott Alexander says he gave up his seat on the Goldwater Institute board because he couldn't come up with the cash the organization needs. "Members of the board are expected to raise some significant money for the institute," he says. As a busy lobbyist, Alexander says he just doesn't have the time to devote to fund-raising. "I just respectfully said I can't do it. So they said okay."
That burden will fall on the board's 64 current members, which reads like a who's who of conservative, powerful Arizonans, including Senator Jon Kyl and Congressmen John Shadegg and Matt Salmon. There's former Symington aide Jay Heiler, public relations man Bob Robb, former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary John R. Norton, Shamrock Foods' Norman McClelland, SRP's Michael Rappaport, the Bank of America's James Alessandri and Viad's Steve Twist.
In November, executive director Flake told the Arizona Republic that the institute's main contributors include Shamrock Foods, Viad Corporation, Phelps Dodge, Bank of America, Bank One and the University of Phoenix. In its last available disclosure to the Internal Revenue Service, the tax-exempt organization reported total revenue in 1997 of nearly $1 million. That's up significantly from the $650,000 the group raised the year before, and from the $450,000 taken in during 1995. The filing listed Flake's salary at $101,250. Other employee salaries weren't indicated.
Despite such ties to Arizona's most powerful corporations--the institute's office is housed in the Bank One tower--Flake told the Republic that the institute is nonpartisan and functions only to gather independent research.
Flake and the institute are also careful to avoid any suggestion that in their activities they try to influence the doings of the state Legislature.
"Has the organization attempted to influence national, state or local legislation, including any attempt to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum?" asks the 1997 tax form, and there's an "X" under the answer "No."
Several state legislators contacted for this story were stunned to learn that the Goldwater Institute claims not to influence legislation or public opinion about pending bills. But institute board member Steve Twist says the organization assiduously avoids lobbying, a practice that could threaten the institute's tax-exempt status.
"In all the discussions I've been involved in, our counsel is very clear about the need to avoid any sort of lobbying. I don't know anyone who lobbies on behalf of the Goldwater Institute," says Twist.
"There is no lobbying function of the Goldwater Institute," says board member and former state senator Tom Patterson. "When you're a legislator, nobody comes to you and says the Goldwater Institute is advocating this bill or that bill. It's a think tank that puts out public policy to mold public opinion, to shed light on public policy issues. But there's no lobbying budget to report."
"That's a misrepresentation of what they do. Clearly a misrepresentation," says Senator Ruth Solomon, a Tucson Democrat. "They not only attempt to influence legislation through their reports, they testify before committees, they testify before hearings, they testify in any circumstance where . . . charter school or voucher issues are being discussed. There is very seldom a time when these people don't present themselves to testify. It is lobbying, clearly and simply. And it has a chilling effect on those of us who don't agree with them. They are very strong in their opinions, sometimes to the point that they are confrontational."
"How can they say they aren't attempting to affect public policy?" asks Senator Hartley. "He [Flake] has been writing to influence public policy almost on a weekly basis. And I'll tell you, the Republic prints far more of his epistles than anybody else's. In fact, there have been a couple that I've tried to respond to and the Republic has not printed them."
Keven Willey denies that the Republic opinion pages she edits hold back criticism of Goldwater Institute articles. "The Goldwater Institute is in fact published on occasion on our pages and we give opposing points of view just as much access," Willey says. "Senator Hartley is irritated with our pages for other reasons, and she may be using this as part of her problem.
"Every time we publish anything they write, it generates a great deal of response. And part of the role of our pages is to stimulate a dialogue in the community. . . . The research they do backs up their point of view. And it's a valid point of view to be in the mix of discussion. We're not endorsing that point of view, necessarily, but we think it's worthy of discussion."
Yet Flake's essays often appear on the Republic's Editorial Page itself, not the independent op-ed page. And the strong link between the institute and the Republic's opinion writers was evident when longtime Republic and Gazette editorial writer Mark Genrich went to work for the institute's "Warne Center for Regulatory Accountability."
Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat, says there's no question that Flake and his colleagues attempt to influence legislation.
"They spend a lot of time in the halls here. Particularly Jeff Flake," Cummiskey says. "And individuals who I'm sure represent some of their corporate sponsorship all have lobbyists here at the Capitol. Of late they're using Patterson as their front man for this stuff. They're using his former experience here as kind of putting a face on some of these more conservative messages."
If the institute's output dazzles many conservative lawmakers, however, Cummiskey says other members aren't impressed.
"They call themselves an institute and they have these research papers that they put out, but most people who are real researchers are often suspect of the methodology," Cummiskey says. "It's often said that the quality of the research is suspect. But that doesn't stop them from pointing to these studies as the definitive word."
The Goldwater Institute's genesis reflected a nationwide trend in the late 1980s: State-level think tanks were popping up all over the place because of the success of the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C.
In earlier times, think tanks conservative and liberal were usually the repositories of professional researchers and other academics who were paid to ruminate on the weighty matters of the day, then publish books on their findings.
But the Heritage Foundation struck on another model: Rather than academics, hire effective communicators and influence peddlers and devote resources to putting out short articles and op-ed pieces quickly, then get those messages out with savvy media methods. Dismissed in its early years as a haven for right-wing cranks, xenophobic eugenicists and neo-Nazis, the Foundation eventually became so successful at getting media attention, it could claim to be considered mainstream.
"The Heritage Foundation has shown how big money and corporate alliances can make enormous gains in manipulating the nation's main organs of mass media," writes media critic Norman Solomon.
The Heritage Foundation has had a lasting effect on Congress, and in the 1980s mini-Heritage Foundations sprung up to exert their own influence on state legislatures.
In the early 1980s in Arizona, a group of conservatives that included Richard Morrison, Steve Twist and John Shadegg talked about forming a state think tank. With a grant from Richard Morrison's parents, Marvin and June, the Morrison Institute was founded at Arizona State University.
But under ASU's control, the think tank eschews the propagandistic model of the Heritage Foundation. Nonpartisan and academically oriented, the Morrison Institute does legitimate research, gathering data about public policy issues. It recently completed a nonpartisan study of charter school success, for example, and found that charter school students are performing at about the same level of students in traditional public schools.
Only a few years after the founding of the Morrison Institute in 1981, some of its original benefactors began looking into forming another, less academically oriented think tank. Shadegg says the Heritage Foundation was definitely a model.
Shadegg says that's when he became aware of the work of Michael Sanera, a political science professor who had left Northern Arizona University to work in the Reagan administration. When he came back, Sanera says, he wanted to establish something in Arizona to equal what he had seen at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. His Arizona Policy Institute began issuing opinions to the state legislature.
"We stumbled around for a while," Sanera says.
Sanera made several attempts to interest Barry Goldwater in his nascent think tank, to which he hoped the senator would lend his name because of its focus on limiting taxes and growth of government. In 1988, Goldwater agreed.
"In his letter, he said you can use my name but don't take up a lot of my time," Sanera says. "We would talk to him just once a year in those days." Although he's no longer involved with it, Sanera says the institute continues to do the kind of work he had founded it to do.
Sanera says the institute's early studies on Arizona's tax structure had a huge impact on the state. Before that time, Arizona was considered a low-tax state. But Sanera says a 1989 institute study showed that Arizona's taxes and government growth were actually quite high. The study changed the nature of debate in the Legislature, he says. Afterward, legislators weren't debating whether to cut taxes, but argued instead over which taxes to cut.
"The politics of conservatism was spreading across the country at that time. For them to claim a causal relationship is a bit immodest, to say the least," counters former state legislator Alfredo Gutierrez.
Susan Goldwater says her husband wasn't impressed by the institute's success. He was disappointed that the organization didn't operate more like the Morrison Institute at ASU.
"I guess I really don't know how to comment on that," says Congressman Shadegg. "She would have had a better chance to talk to the senator than I would have. I think the Goldwater Institute would tell you that it is still an academic-oriented institution, but again my knowledge here is in the founding, and I'm not sure I'm in the best position to comment about either how it has changed and how it changed in the senator's perception or hers."
Susan Goldwater complains that the institute's narrow, one-note philosophy about unfettered privatization conflicts with Barry Goldwater's pragmatism.
Goldwater was a "nuts and bolts" problem-solver who had no patience for "parlor conservatism," Susan says, adding that the senator was repelled by the free-market utopianism of the institute.
"I don't know that those ideas are really in conflict," counters the institute's Steve Twist. "The truth is, in all of Goldwater's books, where he promotes free-market solutions, in the long run they are the most practical solutions."
Some wonder if the senator's perception of the institute changed because the senator himself had changed. Much was made of Goldwater's perceived shift to the left in his later years.
"There was a lot of talk, those last years after Peggy, his wife of five decades, died and he married Susan, about Goldwater's newly heretical positions," wrote William F. Buckley after Goldwater's death last May. Buckley asked Susan Goldwater who her heroes were, and Susan answered, "Adlai Stevenson and Mrs. Roosevelt." Some, Buckley wrote, pointed fingers at Susan for Barry's apparent shift away from conservatism. "On the other hand, as early as 1981, when Peggy was still alive, Goldwater had chastised the Moral Majority. . . . Later, he came out strenuously for gay rights, and that, of course, was consistent with the libertarianism of his planks over the years."
Susan bristles at the suggestion that Barry Goldwater had changed his views late in his life.
"The world took a right turn," she says, "but Barry Goldwater didn't move."
Michael Sanera stepped down from his post as executive director of the Goldwater Institute in 1992. He was replaced by a 28-year-old fifth-generation Arizona Mormon who had just helped shape the new constitution of Namibia.
Jeffry Flake has written several newspaper articles about his idyllic upbringing in the town his family helped found, Snowflake. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in political science at Brigham Young University, then went to South Africa to work in a PR firm and then Namibia to work at a public policy think tank. None of those qualifications seem to make Flake an expert in researching education. But that's been the focus of much of his, and the institute's, work as the institute has led the movement for vouchers and charter schools in Arizona.
Should Flake's studies be given the same credibility as that by credentialed, experienced education researchers? Richard Morrison says it's obvious the Goldwater Institute doesn't attempt to do unbiased investigations.
"When you pick a researcher in advance knowing what his or her findings are likely to be, that just tells you they have a perspective and an agenda. And I suspect they're proud of it," says Richard Morrison.
For the most part, the Goldwater Institute does little data gathering of its own, but there have been exceptions.
In 1995, Flake announced that the institute had conducted a survey of local school districts and that the data led him to a stunning conclusion: Conventional wisdom about class size was wrong. Putting fewer students in a classroom, he wrote, had no bearing on student success.
At the time, Robin Shaw, a Republican state representative, was attempting to convince the Legislature that class size for the first four years of public school should be limited to 15 students. She had been rebuffed in the 1995 legislative session but planned to introduce her bill again the following year.
In the interim, Flake conducted his study in July 1995 and announced its findings the next month. His data, he claimed, showed that not only did small class size not translate to higher scores on standardized tests, but that districts that spent less money per pupil actually produced better students.
The Arizona Republic dutifully trumpeted Flake's findings in an editorial on August 27, 1995, which ridiculed "well-orchestrated more-money campaigns by teachers' unions and other educrats." Spending more money to decrease class size, said the editorial, would reverse Arizona's trend toward "more autonomous schools" and away from the "thoroughly debunked theories of state educrats."
A year later, it was Flake who would be thoroughly debunked.
Shaw asked researcher Chuck Achilles to take a detailed look at the Goldwater study. Achilles is one of four principal researchers on the nation's largest and most comprehensive study of class-size effects ever attempted. Just recently completed, the Project STAR study in Tennessee followed 11,600 students for 13 years as they moved from kindergarten to high school graduation. Achilles and his colleagues say their study shows conclusively that small class sizes in early primary years benefit students in nearly every area, from grades to test scores to behavior.
Flake had come to an opposite conclusion, Achilles says, because his methods were flawed and unscientific. Flake had confused class size with pupil/teacher ratio, a number calculated by dividing the number of students in a school by the total number of certified staff--which includes administrators, librarians, special-ed teachers and other staff. More telling, Achilles says, Flake had conducted his study in July, when school administrators were on vacation. When Achilles attempted to verify the data Flake had gathered, not a single administrator could verify the accuracy of Flake's numbers. Achilles realized that Flake had gathered numbers from secretarial staffers, and when Achilles went to the same districts and gathered the same data from administrators whose job it was to compile such statistics, he found that nearly every district had originally reported incorrect information to Flake. Achilles also criticized Flake's review of previous studies, and says that Flake made errors in judgment that no experienced education researcher would make.
Shaw put Achilles' findings into a booklet for her fellow legislators to show how the Republic and others opposing her proposals had been misled by the Goldwater Institute study. Despite evidence that small class size did matter, the Legislature rebuffed Shaw again.
Carol Kamin, director of Children's Action Alliance, says the Goldwater Institute's application of free-market ideas to programs affecting children--and the effect it has had on conservative legislators--has been detrimental for the state.
"No matter what the issue is, they have one answer. And their one answer is leave it to the market," Kamin says. "As a result, I think they do a lot of preaching, but they offer very few practical solutions to any problem. And it defies common sense that every problem we face has the same solution.
"They use a lot of provocative phrases and labels that get people into corners, and they categorize people with no depth behind their phrases. You know, they use the phrase 'nanny state.' That's the one they like when they're criticizing the kinds of programs that truly help struggling families. Or they use the term 'social engineering.' That immediately raises the wrath of people. No one wants to be socially engineered.
"Their observations on Arizona's specific programs in our opinion aren't very meaningful because they don't do the kind of research I think is necessary," says Kamin.
Lisa Graham Keegan, state superintendent for public instruction, says she has more use for the institute's work.
"The Goldwater Institute for me is extremely helpful and influential. Mostly because of Jeff Flake, and Jeff's ability to write," Keegan says. "We share a philosophical belief that market-based programs and pursuit of least restrictive society is a good thing. . . . Obviously, people like me who are favorable to those kind of ideas are going to think that the institute has a lot more influence. How much influence they have with people who don't believe that, I don't know. With people who are neutral, I think they have a huge influence."
Former state legislator Alfredo Gutierrez disagrees, saying that the institute is too predictable to be influential. "The Goldwater Institute is the preacher preaching to the choir. It is a misnomer to refer to it as academic or an institute. It doesn't do original research.
"Take an issue and give it to an ideologue and you know what answer you'll get. That's why they're so boring. People look forward to the annual report from the Morrison Institute. No one looks forward to a Goldwater Institute report because we all know what the hell it's going to say long before it's ever published."
Whether his research is shoddy or not, Flake has constantly hammered at the public school system, which he characterizes as hopelessly inefficient and ruled by trenchant teachers' unions.
Brad Barrett, superintendent of the Kyrene School District and a frequent target of Flake's pen, says that despite Flake's constant harangue, he was pleasant to work with.
"He's got a very nice personality. So it's hard to be mad at the guy, personally," Barrett says. "I would try to provide data to show that what he was saying in articles wasn't true. He was always gracious."
But Barrett is surprised that Flake, despite years of complaining about waste and mismanagement at the Kyrene district, kept his children in the district two years after the opening of Arizona's charter schools that he had promoted so heavily.
Flake didn't return several attempts to reach him. Political observers tell New Times that Flake may be avoiding questions as he prepares for a run at the District 1 congressional seat currently held by Matt Salmon.
He's certainly come a long way in the seven years since he took the lead post at the think tank.
Susan Goldwater, however, makes a look of distaste when Flake's visibility as executive director of the Goldwater Institute is mentioned.
"Don't make the assumption that he has power," she says. "The power is the name Goldwater."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.