Caldara: Independence Institute works to build ‘Freedom Embassy’

Author: Ernest Luning - August 11, 2016 - Updated: August 24, 2016

Independence Institute President Jon Caldara discusses how the 31-year-old think tank has evolved from an idea factory into a nexus of conservative organizations in Colorado at the nonprofit's Denver headquarters. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Independence Institute President Jon Caldara discusses how the 31-year-old think tank has evolved from an idea factory into a nexus of conservative organizations in Colorado at the nonprofit’s Denver headquarters. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

More than three decades after its founding, the Independence Institute has grown from a free-market think tank into what Jon Caldara, its president of 17 years, calls Colorado’s “Freedom Embassy,” bringing together the state’s disparate right-leaning organizations — including those representing wings of the movement that aren’t natural allies — into a place where he says they can find common ground and build the foundation for conservative principles.

Drawing a crude Venn diagram of overlapping circles during a recent interview at the institute’s Uptown headquarters, Caldara sketches out the hard-core conservatives, the libertarian-leaning folks — a group that includes Caldara, he notes — and then off to the side but still with some overlap what he calls “the establishment types, the ones who can actually afford a lobbyist,” and then over there are the grassroots conservatives, the tea party and other groups.

“It really hit us,” he says, “that there’s only one group in the middle that talks to all of them — not that we’re loved by all of them, or any of them. We needed a place where they can come and be safe. Everyone can come here and be safe here. If the Republican Party tried to hold center-right meetings, I don’t know if some of them would come. If somebody else did it …” he says, trailing off with a skeptical smile.

“It’s not that we always agree on things. The left does that beautifully, because they all have a common interest in growing spending, growing taxation and destroying TABOR.”

But the Independence Institute, he says, stands athwart those impulses, even when they’re found in nominally conservative politicians and organizations.

“It’s one of the reasons we do our center-right coalition meetings,” he says. “The idea is just so that different folks in all these factions can actually look at each other and know if they’re going to have a fight, they can come here and do it.”

It wasn’t always thus.

John Andrews, who went on to serve as Colorado’s Senate president and recently stepped down as director of Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, spun off the Independence Institute in 1985 after the Shavano Institute, a think tank and speakers’ bureau sponsored by Michigan’s Hillsdale College, decided to close its doors.

“I don’t think he had any idea what he was going to give birth to,” Caldara says with the knowing smile that’s only ever a few moments away.

Tom Tancredo ran it for six years after Andrews departed for the Legislature, and then he turned it over to Caldara when he won a seat in Congress in 1998.

“They offered me a job, and I snatched it up, because I’m not very employable,” Caldara says. “I can’t lose this job,” he adds, brandishing a grin that’s mostly in his eyes. “I’d be off flipping hamburgers.”

If there’s a local equivalent of Hubert Humphrey’s “happy warrior” on the right, it would be Caldara, whose remarks are peppered with self-deprecating and dry takes, one of his eyebrows or the other never far from a knowing arch.

“The Independence Institute started out as an idea factory,” he says. “The idea was to do what Cato and Heritage (institutes) did but do it for Colorado, to hold a light up and say ‘Here’s the goal.’” Right away, the institute spawned a flat tax rate for the state, although it was set slightly higher than its economist, Barry Paulson, had suggested.

“We’ve always been pushing those ideas, and we still do, but I think Independence has grown into much more of creating a freedom infrastructure, is our terminology for it.” Caldara points to the Complete Colorado news aggregation and investigative reporting site run by Todd Shepherd, as well as litigation spearheaded by the institute, including lawsuits helmed by Second Amendment legal expert David Kopel.

“We do something here that only Independence can really do, and that’s try to be a place where coalitions can be built,” Caldara says.

Two-time Super Bowl champion Dave Butz lets Independence Institute President Jon Caldara try on one of his Superbowl rings at last year's annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms party at the Kiowa Creek Shooting Club in Bennett. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Two-time Super Bowl champion Dave Butz lets Independence Institute President Jon Caldara try on one of his Superbowl rings at last year’s annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms party at the Kiowa Creek Shooting Club in Bennett. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

He speaks with an ambling, lighthearted ease across numerous topics, a style perhaps cultivated in his years as a talk radio host, although he doesn’t gets behind the microphone nearly as often as he used to. “I’m actually more like radio herpes — you don’t know when I’m going to show up or where, but you know I’m always coming back,” he says.

Caldara says he misses doing daily radio, noting he hosted a nightly call-in show both sides of the midnight hour on KOA for years. “At night, a 50,000-watt station blows everywhere. I’d get calls from Canada, I’d get calls from 38 different states, it was just amazing. Talk radio is a wonderful medium. People can call you instantly. It is the editorial pages without a censor.”

It’s where he honed his quick wit and encyclopedic knowledge, as well as what even political opponents acknowledge is an ability to engage in no-holds-barred discussion, rather than simply hewing fast to a position.

“I love the instant challenge (on talk radio), when somebody challenges you — not the, ‘You’re an idiot,’ but ,‘Here’s where you’re wrong, and here’s why.’ That’s one of the reasons liberal talk radio never caught on, because if you said something, any truck driver with a cell phone could instantly challenge you and prove you wrong. I’ve been proven wrong many times. But that instant feedback, that’s why left-leaning radio and television is always one direction. Talk radio is two-way, and that makes it much more conservative.”

The need for the Independence Institute hasn’t gone away since it first started prodding the debate in the 1980s, he says. Not by a long shot.

“The left has had the ‘Blueprint,’” he says, referring to the infrastructure-heavy organization and funding operation undertaken by wealthy Colorado Democrats more than a decade ago. “People walk across the street from the Capitol to the (Colorado Education Association) building, and the left is all over. You take a map, and you start putting pins around the Capitol where the left has permanent infrastructure, people in buildings,” he says, placing imaginary pins chock-a-block on a map in the air.

“There’s the CEA and there’s (the Colorado Association of School Boards), and there’s the ACLU and there’s Environment Colorado, there’s the trial lawyers and (Service Employees International Union). You keep putting in all these pins and you realize there’s nothing on the other side. That Capitol, when you do that on a map, looks like an old castle under siege. It’s no wonder why good people go to the Capitol to do public service and, over time, are swallowed up by the left or start moving toward the left.”

The density of organizations supporting the left — or at least bigger government — creates its own reality for lawmakers and other public officials, Caldara argues.

“No matter how often they go back home, or how often they talk to their constituents, this is the world in which they live, where they’ve got paid machinery around them full time,” he says. “That’s why we decided to invest in this building, to be not just a headquarters for us to be closer to the Capitol but for center-right organizations to be able to use our meeting spaces and get together and talk.”

The institute left behind offices in the Denver West office park in Lakewood and moved into its stone-clad headquarters on East 16th Avenue in early 2012.

“Our movement is very dysfunctional, because we don’t all make money in the same direction — that is, when government grows, the enviros are happy and the unions are happy and the trial lawyers are happy. But when the right wins, people lose jobs,” he says, explaining why it can be like herding cats to foster agreement among conservative factions. “So the pull between social conservatives and libertarian conservatives, and the pull between the establishment folks and the grassroots folks, the tea party folks and Colorado Union of Taxpayers and others — you look around and there’s only one place that they all feel — not that they love us, but they all have contact with us.”

He says some traditionally Republican organizations, such as chambers of commerce and other business groups, are often most out of synch with the coalitions Independence works to build.

“Over time,” Caldara says, “you’ll find that the chamber is where tax increases are always cooked up. Any public works project comes from the Denver Chamber. Cronyism is cronyism: tax increment financing, special treatment and special tax breaks. That’s not freedom stuff, that’s just another special interest. Certainly we’ll agree with (the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry) on some things and with the chamber on some things — but to think they’re an ideological group that wants smaller government and less corporate welfare, less tax increment financing, less debt? The chamber of commerce is where debt is born, and there’s a separate circle of hell for bond dealers. We’re in the freedom business, we’re not in the corporate welfare business.”

Still, Caldara says, the coalitions come together — at least some of the time.

Independence Institute President Jon Caldara strikes a pose during a recent interview at the conservative think tank's Denver offices. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Independence Institute President Jon Caldara strikes a pose during a recent interview at the conservative think tank’s Denver offices. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

“It was frustrating watching the left’s ‘Blueprint’ play out,” he says. “We had a front row seat for that. We saw it happening. We tried to alert people, but our cries fell on deaf ears.”

Former state Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Evergreen, who co-authored the book The Blueprint with former Colorado television reporter Adam Schrager — he’s since moved on to Wisconsin — told Caldara that when he talked to people on the left about how they put together what amounted to a take-over of Colorado politics, they said they’d tried to do what the Independence Institute had been doing, only on a much greater scale.

“That’s flattering,” Caldara says with a brief smile that can only be described as rueful. “But the real difference politically is the left understood the power of building their infrastructure, not putting their money into politicians so much. I think the right is starting to change after being bludgeoned so much. Politicians come and go, but investing in infrastructure is what makes the difference. Republicans have always played a game of betting on horses — I’m going to back this guy, some other group of people is going to back that guy. Tim Gill said, why are we betting on horses, let’s just buy the racetrack.”

Bringing together conservatives, he says, has at least resulted in better communication, and that might lead to better results at the ballot box.

“Our last gubernatorial primary was the first one that I saw where Republicans didn’t savage each other to the point of automatic defeat in the general election,” Caldara says, crediting Independence in part. “We did that with Dan Maes, we did that with Bob Beauprez and Marc Holtzman — it’s what we do. And I think some of that has to do with the communications that have gone through this building so those different factions know at least they’ll be seeing each other, so if you’re going to have a fight, at least let’s do it honestly and not make it personal, not make it ugly.”

Despite what he jokes must be “a provision inside TABOR that apparently says the Colorado Supreme Court shall always rule against TABOR,” Caldara maintains, those coalitions have worked to protect the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which has been under constant attack from all directions by the left and others who value big government.

“The beautiful thing about TABOR — and I can understand why Democrats and Republicans in office despise it — is that it requires them to do the thing they don’t want to do, which is to do their job, which is either prioritize spending or ask to keep the change. In order to keep the change, they have to make the case that they’ve been spending wisely before,” he says.

Then Caldara appears to shed his lighthearted attitude, and his gaze turns darker.

“This mythos of TABOR squeezing government — what a falsehood. Government can grow as large as anybody wants. They can tax their kids into oblivion. All they have to do is ask first. And what we have is a situation where they want to change TABOR so we don’t ask first. They want Colorado government to become the Bill Cosby of economic growth. They don’t want to have to ask first, they just want to be able to do it whenever they want. That’s where we really draw the line.”

He throws up his hands and shakes his head, saying politicians are afraid of defending their spending.

“What I think people are scared of is that there might be uncomfortable questions, like, if you’re underfunding education, how is it you’re spending millions of dollars in corporate welfare subsidies to folks like Quentin Tarantino to make movies? How is it if we’re underfunding education that we’re the last state in the entire union that has an old age retirement fund? Every other state got rid of theirs when Social Security came around. There’s scores of these questions that are uncomfortable because they don’t want to anger any one constituency group. It’s no wonder why people are so angry right now,” Caldara says.

Seventeen years after taking the job, Caldara says, he loves the work more every day.

“I see more of what we’re missing, I see more of the influence we have. I’m seeing more and more people are understanding the importance of what we call the permanent freedom infrastructure,” he says. “When Republicans get back in control of everything, we’ll be fighting with them again when they start spending too much, as they always do. Politicians are politicians. That’s why principles count, and having an organization like Independence, which is outside the politicians, is so critical.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.