Will the Center Hold?

Red State, Blue State, Old State, New State

May 25, 2006: General Tommy Franks is wrapping up a relatively rote speech before a crowd of 950 of Minnesota’s conservative champions, a talk in which—even at this late date—the retired Army commander once again conflates Saddam Hussein and 9/11. “Saddam had been sittin’ in Iraq, plottin’ and plannin’ and shootin’ up our troops for a decade,” the Texan drawls, “just as bin Laden had been sittin’ in Afghanistan, doin’…the…same…thing.”

Franks is the headliner at the annual fundraising dinner for the Center of the American Experiment (CAE), Minnesota’s first conservative think tank. Even among this crowd of Bush backers, though, the general’s message seems to fall a bit flat, failing to uniformly rouse the ranks. Still, he sprinkles in a couple of laugh lines and some fun anecdotes about riding around the Crawford ranch in the president’s pickup, and once he leaves the stage and the dinner is a wrap, a kind of warm glow prevails.

Into that glow marches Mitch Pearlstein, the founder and newly reinstated president of the 16-year-old CAE. He makes the rounds of those still loitering among the tables at St. Paul’s RiverCentre, pressing the flesh and talking smart with a cadre of friends, colleagues, and potential donors. After about 20 minutes, he stops to sit and chat with a waiting writer. Pearlstein, 58, is graying and stout—and, at the moment, sweaty, winded, and a bit dazed-looking, as though several months’ worth of pent-up anxiety is being spontaneously released.

Part of this, no doubt, is the result of having pulled off a major fundraising event—albeit one that drew less than half of the attendees, and brought in less money, than previous CAE dinners featuring such speakers as Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, tonight’s $150,000 haul is nothing to sneeze at. Particularly now, when the Center of the American Experiment is in such deep trouble.

Recent months have been tumultuous at the organization that is Pearlstein’s brainchild. This past spring, the CAE board of directors stunned Minnesota political observers when it abruptly fired most of the center’s staff, including president and CEO Annette Meeks. Her ouster prompted the resignation of a key longtime supporter and board member, former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber; in the wake of his departure, several high-profile conservatives who had been poised to sign on as directors begged off to avoid the chaos. As CAE struggles to maintain its base of donors in the midst of mounting long-term debt, its very mission, which had lurched rightward during Meeks’s tenure, is now in question. Many observers wonder if the Experiment can even continue.

“There is a very definite threat to [CAE’s] future,” says Weber, who credits the organization with establishing the “intellectual infrastructure” of Minnesota’s conservative movement. “They’ve lost a majority of their employees, they’ve lost their president—people have taken sides. The supportive community of activists and donors is divided now. They are going to have a hard time bouncing back.”

Asked at the RiverCentre dinner whether, given all the turmoil, Tommy Franks’s appearance represents a “big moment” for CAE, Pearlstein responds, “Sure—but I don’t want to overstate that.” Already, at CAE’s first major post-purge public event, Pearlstein is practicing the art of spin. It’s something he’s prone to; another is quoting himself (he frequently begins sentences with “As I’m fond of saying…”).

But set these typical politico quirks aside, and grant the man this: it would be hard to overstate the role Pearlstein has played in bringing conservative ideas into the mainstream in the traditionally liberal bastion of Minnesota. Coincidentally or not—and many think it is not purely coincidence—the emergence and ascendance of the Center of the American Experiment occurred just as Minnesotans began showing their conservative stripes.

“Whether [Pearlstein] sensed it or not, the reality was that, in America, people were moving from left of center to center,” says former U.S. Senator David Durenberger, one of CAE’s earliest supporters. “And they were looking for better and newer ideas on how to change government and government systems and policies. They sure weren’t getting it from Democrats, and they weren’t getting it from the Star Tribune.” Pearlstein and his think tank stepped into that void, says University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs, who is collaborating with Pearlstein on a proposed Humphrey Institute journal that would be called Civil Left, Right & Center. He dubs CAE a conservative “explanation factory”—an enterprise that “generates explanations for conservative politicians to use.”

A Timely Idea

A think tank. It sounds like a place where brains go to bathe, and maybe there is something to that. In some sense, a think tank is a free-floating academic department, untethered to a university. Think tanks raise money by direct solicitation and by having dinners featuring celebrity speakers. They hire writers to pen newspaper editorials. Their leaders work hard to land high-priority slots on the Rolodexes of editors, reporters, and business leaders. Whenever possible, they trot their spokespeople around the political-talk-show circuit. They produce policy papers and scholarly journals that, quite frankly, the public ignores—which is okay, as long as elected officials, legislative aides, and politically connected donors pay attention.

Mitch Pearlstein spawned the idea for this think tank at a time when his brain was awash in the bureaucratic frustrations of Washington, D.C. It was 1988. Pearlstein was an official in the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary William Bennett, having already served as a speechwriter for Minnesota Governor Al Quie, an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and a speechwriter for University of Minnesota president C. Peter Magrath. But his experience in Washington wasn’t wholly satisfying. Shortly after he arrived, he wanted to leave. But he also needed an income. He had his PhD, he was a proficient writer and a decent speaker, and he knew his way around a political debate. Moreover, he had seen what the conservative Heritage Foundation had achieved for Republicans nationally. Adding it all up, Pearlstein decided to form his own conservative Minnesota think tank.

“Generally, the response I got was, ‘You want to start a what? Where?’” he says. “But in my view, no state is the cliché it is made out to be, and I simply assumed there were a significant number of people here who liked to read the kinds of things I liked to read and hear from the kinds of speakers I liked to listen to. I thought we could make a go of it.”

Durenberger was one of the first to hear Pearlstein’s pitch, and he was so amused that he called in his press spokesman, Steve Moore, as a witness. “‘You’ve got to listen to this—this is really great!’” Durenberger recalls saying. “And so Steve came in, and Mitch gives him the pitch. I just sort of sat back and roared, ‘Can you imagine a thing like this is possible?’” But Durenberger, in fact, was soon won over; he provided a critical link to big-name donors and eventually served on CAE’s board of advisers.

Pearlstein made 17 trips from Washington to Minnesota, mostly at his own expense, before he raised enough money to quit his government job and throw his energy into the think-tank project. Among the important initial donors was Marvin Schwan, founder of the Schwan Food Company, who wrote checks totaling $250,000 within CAE’s first three years of operation. Dean Riesen, the former head of Carlson Real Estate, provided free office space. Other wealthy Republicans soon opened their checkbooks. The Center of the American Experiment finally opened in 1990.

By then, Pearlstein had two key collaborators: Peter Bell and Katherine Kersten. Bell, cofounder of the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse and one of the state’s few high-profile African American Republicans, met Pearlstein at a two-day conference on conservatism in the late 1980s. It was the start of a long, productive friendship. In addition to their shared Vietnam-era antiwar activism—Pearlstein takes care to describe himself as a moderate protester—the men share the belief that government often does more harm than good when attacking social problems such as preventing out-of-wedlock births, strengthening families, and promoting education for the disadvantaged.

With those concepts in mind, Bell and Pearlstein staged CAE’s first public forum, which they called “The New War On Poverty: Advancing Forward This Time.” The daylong program was the first step toward “an expansion of what we mean by conservatism” in Minnesota, Pearlstein says. “[At] our very first event…the objective was not to beat up on welfare mothers, and not just to save money, but rather to save a whole generation of kids,” he says. That event established a template for the programs that followed. “It was a structure people could hang their hats on,” says Bell, who later became CAE board chairman. “The Center was the rational right…. It provided a vehicle for conservative ideas to get heard and tested.”

Kersten (who declined to be interviewed for this article), an erstwhile Chicago financial analyst, university budget planner, and attorney, helped Pearlstein start CAE and later served as its chairwoman and senior fellow. Her role often was to provide the intellectual underpinnings for CAE’s positions. Perhaps her most notable achievement in this regard was marshaling the arguments that, in June 2003, helped kill off the Profile of Learning, Minnesota’s first attempt at statewide education standards. According to Pearlstein, her research skills also proved instrumental in winning the debate that derailed a 1994 school desegregation plan the Center argued was untenable.

As a writer and activist, Kersten would parlay the exposure CAE afforded her into dozens of local and national media appearances. She also found an unlikely soapbox from which to rail at liberals: the op-ed page of the Star Tribune, where she had a weekly column from 1995 to 2003. The paper offered her a community columnist position in 2005—something of a media coup both for Kersten and her cause. “The Star Tribune was browbeaten into acknowledging the legitimacy of conservative thought and the conservative movement in Minnesota,” says Jacobs.

Despite the stars in his midst, however, Pearlstein remained the Center’s focal point, standing at the helm as the loquacious, quotable explainer of all things conservative. In public, he has always played the jovial, insistently civil, erudite conservative, possessing a rare talent for making a center-right message palatable for Minnesotans, many of whom had never before confronted their inner Republican.

Pearlstein and his nascent Center immediately drew plaudits from most corners, including favorable early press from the Star Tribune. But the good vibes extended beyond the newspaper pages. “In the mid-1990s, I used to teach a class in welfare policy at Minneapolis Community College, and there was no question, of the 50 students in my class, 49 were on welfare,” says David Schultz, now a professor in the Hamline University Graduate School of Management. One day, Pearlstein addressed that class. “This would have been a hostile audience for anybody,” Schultz says. “But he was gracious, and even though my students disagreed with him, they felt he listened to them.”

Schultz, a former president of the liberal group Common Cause Minnesota, believes the seeds of CAE’s success rest with Pearlstein. “I don’t really agree with him on everything,” he says, “but the success of the Center is largely attributable to him because he is an engaging, decent person.”

Seeing Red

Whether CAE played the role of chicken or egg in repainting Minnesota from a liberal blue to a decidedly-in-play purple, many people consider its impact vital. “What the Center did was to serve more as an accelerant than anything else,” says Norm Ornstein, the Minnesota-reared resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “They were bringing in speakers. They were establishing ties and networks, nationally and internationally, for political figures in Minnesota, which gave them a kind of brain trust. It showed that conservatives were onto something, that this was not just some fringe movement anymore.”

Pearlstein credits his Center with helping pave the way for Governor Arne Carlson to win tax credits for low-income families who send their children to private schools (the credits apply to ancillary educational expenses, not tuition—a sort of “voucher lite” program). Carlson acknowledges the importance of CAE’s support, both for that tax break and for his welfare reform initiative.

In the late 1990s, CAE launched its biggest effort yet, the $400,000 Minnesota Policy Blueprint project, which in 1998 produced a 400-page playbook for a conservative, free-market government. Based on the work of 19 committees, it offered 250 policy recommendations to state agency heads and lawmakers, urging the state to strengthen some gubernatorial powers, eliminate the lieutenant governor’s position, undo HMOs’ monopoly power over health care, and replace state employees’ defined-benefit retirement plans with defined-contribution plans, among many others.

It was released with the expectation that a new Republican governor would be elected in 1998, but its arrival actually coincided with the beginning of Jesse Ventura’s single term. In 2002, 60 copies of the Blueprint were hand-delivered to governor-elect Tim Pawlenty’s transition team. While few would contend that the Blueprint has served as a template for the Pawlenty years, the Star Tribune has reported that a half-dozen of its ideas helped shape such Pawlenty policies as tax-rate reductions and cuts in Local Government Aid.

Chris Georgacas, who spearheaded the Blueprint project, suggests that the manual actually wielded more legislative clout during the year following its release. “There was no systematic effort by the leadership to push…the Blueprint,” he says. “But I think it actually had more of an impact on some of the bills and agenda items that were introduced in the House.”

Perhaps CAE’s most quantifiable influence, however, has been in populating the Metropolitan Council, the governor-appointed body that manages transit, water resources, sewage treatment, and land use in the seven-county metropolitan region. Two members of Pawlenty’s 2002 transition team—Georgacas and Meeks—were appointed to the council; Bell became its chairman. All had ties to the Center. CAE staff members also recommended Cheri Pierson Yecke to Pawlenty; he named her his state education commissioner. She led the charge for new academic standards until the DFL-led Senate declined to confirm her appointment—after she’d already served 15 months, unconfirmed, in the position. Yecke, whose promotion of social studies and history standards with a strongly conservative bent largely led to her downfall, went on to work briefly at CAE before moving on to a state education post in Florida.

Not surprisingly, CAE’s ties reach deep into the heart of the Minnesota GOP. Republican John Kline, now the state’s Second District congressman, was hired in 2001 as CAE’s executive vice president to help straighten out its flagging finances. Meeks once worked as deputy chief of staff to Newt Gingrich. Georgacas chaired the state GOP. Nearly every major Minnesota Republican, from Norm Coleman to Vin Weber, has some association with CAE. More than 400 people—the overwhelming majority of them Republicans—have either participated in the Center’s events or written for its publications.

For some, those GOP ties are a source of contention. Chief among the critics is Rob Levine, publisher of the liberal media watchdog website Cursor.org, who has challenged CAE’s tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) “charity” status—as have some Democratic legislators and activists. “I think they have been effective on the political scene, which is their intent and which, being a [public] charity, should be illegal,” Levine says. “From all their actions and activities, you can tell their intent is political. It’s a charade that they’re tax-exempt—they’re basically an arm of the state Republican Party, and part of the national Republican Party.”

Pearlstein still bristles at this attack, half a decade after Levine first published his views in Minnesota Law & Politics. IRS rules permit limited lobbying by a public charity, he says, “and we’ve never come close to the line.” The regulations also allow a charitable organization to push policy positions—provided its published research includes enough balance that readers can make up their own minds. The only ban is on direct participation in electoral politics—supporting candidates—and that’s something CAE avoids. “Levine is just wrong,” Pearlstein says.

Mayday in March

For all its political success, CAE has been in a financial hole since at least 1998, according to its annual IRS filings. In 1999, the organization seemed to have turned a corner, garnering more than $1 million in public contributions and shrinking its accrued debt to $11,534. But it was downhill from there, particularly after 9/11. Matters reached a head in 2004, when CAE brought in $813,000 but spent almost $992,000. Its total accumulated debt that year grew to $312,000.

In 2001, as noted above, the board acquiesced to Pearlstein’s long-standing request for an executive vice president and hired Kline. The new arrangement was meant to allow Pearlstein to focus more on public outreach, writing, and fundraising, while Kline took care of administration and finance. After just a year, though, Kline left CAE to run for Congress, and the Center’s fiscal operations ended up back in Pearlstein’s purview. That’s when things started going awry. “Hindsight suggests that, after [Kline] left, I did not adequately re-seize the reins of management,” Pearlstein concedes.

By this time, Pearlstein says, he probably was spread too thin—and the pressures of running CAE were magnified by several years’ worth of family health problems. After 2002, he says, he was approaching burnout.

That was never clearer than during a board retreat in May 2004. “We [met] to talk about refocusing,” Pearlstein says. “I got up to start the program, and I got halfway through what I was saying, and the words didn’t come out any longer. It was very strange.” He reckons his mental whiteout lasted 20 or 30 seconds, and says that he was fine immediately afterward. But something was obviously wrong. “It was clear from the board that I should no longer have responsibility for the whole package,” he says, “so the managerial stuff went over to Annette [Meeks].”

Meeks, hired in 1997 as the Center’s director of governmental affairs and public programs, was promoted to CEO. But tensions quickly surfaced as she took over Pearlstein’s operational responsibilities. According to current board chairman Tom Stauber, Meeks began encroaching on what was understood to be Pearlstein’s turf by involving herself deeply in CAE’s programming. Meanwhile, Pearlstein, who had long prided himself on the Center’s civil tone, became chagrined, Stauber says, as the Center’s public presentations under Meeks began taking on a more strident tenor.

While introducing Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer during a January 2006 event, Meeks struck a chord right out of the Ann Coulter songbook.

For example, while introducing Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer during a January 2006 event, Meeks struck a chord right out of the Ann Coulter songbook. “Peter does a great job of pointing out not only the great hypocrisy of the left,” Meeks said during her brief speech, “but also what will be its inevitable demise—the fact that to survive, liberals have to tell us, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ And this hypocrisy will ultimately doom liberals to what the great president Ronald Reagan called the ‘great ash heap of history.’” It was a very un-Pearlsteinian performance.

“Mitch is a thoughtful, provocative thinker,” says Joel Kramer, the former Star Tribune publisher who now serves as executive director of the liberal Growth & Justice think tank. “Under Annette Meeks, the Center was far more partisan than under Mitch, when it was much more about what a think tank should be—a debate over how to run the government.”

According to board chair Stauber, one indication that CAE might have been sailing off course was its undertaking a “media bias study” earlier this year. Staffers counter that the board had twice approved the project. But Stauber says that approval was reconsidered after the Center started getting “pushback” from supporters, who complained that the money could be better spent studying more relevant issues, such as health care.

Meeks says she thought she was doing what the board had asked her to do when it promoted her—make the Center more politically engaged. “They wanted less pontification and thinking lofty thoughts,” she says. “They wanted us to engage in the debate, not just put out books.”

It’s unclear exactly what happened next, but in late February, to her surprise, Meeks was given her walking papers by the CAE board. Pearlstein took back the president’s chair, with Tom Kordonowy standing in as interim CEO. Several days later, five program officers—who led some of the institution’s most important ongoing initiatives, including public relations, development, and the media bias study—also departed. All five had signed an angry letter supporting Meeks and declaring that “the board’s decision to let Annette go and replace her with Mitch is beyond comprehension.”

Written by Corey Miltimore, a former executive director of the Minnesota GOP and the CAE staffer who had been in charge of the media study, the letter says, “It is unfathomable to those of us who have watched Annette rebuild the American Experiment why such a decision could even be seriously entertained, much less acted upon.” (Other staffers say that Pearlstein himself had become an issue, alienating employees and some key contributors with his arrogant demeanor. For his part, Pearlstein calls those allegations “ridiculous.”)

Despite the turmoil, Meeks’s term had its successes. Under her leadership, CAE conducted three high-profile programs. The Kersten-inspired “Intellectual Takeout” Internet project gave conservative college students arguments with which to challenge liberal professors, while “Minnesota Votes” was a nonpartisan program that tracked politicians’ votes during the legislative session; finally, there was a legislative reform study led by Georgacas and former DFL Senate majority leader Roger Moe; it was so carefully bipartisan, in Pearlstein’s view, that he jokingly calls it the “Kumbaya Report.”

If it seems ironic to hear Pearlstein, that champion of the civil tone, making a crack about bipartisanship, well, it may just be a sign of the times. Brian Sullivan, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate who recently declined a spot on the CAE board, says times have changed, and the Center’s traditional coalition-building approach may no longer appeal to today’s conservative base. “What’s happened is that the parties’ differences have sharpened,” he says. “It is not as easy to find those issues that really bridge the gap.”

Programming is one thing; keeping the ship afloat financially is quite another. And in this respect, Meeks’s term was more problematic. According to figures provided by CAE, Meeks brought in $969,000 in donations in 2005—about $150,000 more than the previous year. But the Center spent more than $1 million that year, bulking its cumulative debt up to $360,000—$50,000 deeper into the red than in 2004.

That’s being addressed, Stauber says, adding, “The whole situation is not much different than a corporate setting that overextends itself.” Stauber also maintains that CAE is planning to rediscover its more civil-tongued roots. “The intention is that the Center will return to a more intellectual basis, where we will offer up different sides to existing arguments,” he says.

Pearlstein now faces perhaps the biggest hurdle of his professional life. He has a new, young, unseasoned staff. His organization is saddled with a large amount of long-term debt. And CAE is competing for money and mindshare with a host of other locally grown conservative groups, including the media-savvy Taxpayers League. Meanwhile, the appeal of CAE’s traditional center-right platform may be on the wane among today’s Republicans. “The conservative movement is being sliced up,” Bell says.

And may be sliced even thinner. Meeks is telling people she intends to form her own conservative think tank. If her tenure at the head of CAE is any indication, the new organization is likely to strike a more polemical, partisan posture than a Pearlstein operation ever would.

Vin Weber insists that a conservative think tank—whether run by Pearlstein, Meeks, or someone else—is imperative for Minnesota’s conservative movement. “The Republican Party is not going to be as competitive long-term without an intellectual infrastructure, and the Center represented an important part of that,” he says. But with the Center’s future up in the air, he adds, “we don’t know the future of the intellectual wing of the conservative movement of Minnesota.”

Still, even Pearlstein’s harshest critic, Cursor.org’s Rob Levine, thinks his nemesis has at least one more comeback left in him. “[CAE has] a pretty empty den now,” Levine says. “But they’ve always been able to find some local rich guy to bail them out. I very much doubt they’d go out of business.” MM

Kevin Featherly and Frank Jossi are freelance writers based in Bloomington and St. Paul, respectively.