Jon Caldara is the president of the Independence Institute in Colorado. In last November’s elections, Colorado Democrats captured all of the state’s constitutional offices and both legislative chambers—the first time that has happened since 1936. Since then, a blitz of leftist lawmaking is turning Colorado into a progressive laboratory. We talk with Caldara about the challenge of running a free-market think tank in a state where progressives hold all the power.
The Insider: You have described the work of the Left since the election as an effort to turn Colorado into Venezuela. What have Colorado lawmakers been up to?
Jon Caldara: They have been fulfilling their mission of turning Colorado into Venezuela. They have put restrictions on oil and gas development that will slowly choke off the industry here in Colorado. They have committed the state to the National Popular Vote plan, under which we pledge our electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide. In other words, they have given our electoral votes to the voters in California and New York.
They passed a so-called “red flag” law on guns, but it isn’t really a red flag law. It’s more of a gun-ban law that takes away a gun owner’s presumption of innocence. They’ve put price caps on pharmaceutical drugs. They’ve given cities the green light for raising minimum wages. They’ve passed a new sex-ed law that mandates students be taught about the transsexual lifestyle. They’ve created more corporate welfare for feel-good green energy. I grew up in Colorado, and I’ve never seen such a lurch to the Left in my life.
TI: How do the new the oil and gas restrictions work? How are those going to affect Colorado’s economy?
JC: It’s important to know the background. In the last election, there was a fracking ban put on the ballot. They called it a set-back; it would have set back how far you could go in developing oil and gas resources. It would have put oil and gas development out of reach of nearly 80 percent of Colorado. The people defeated that by about a 10-point margin.
So instead the legislature passed what they call local control of oil and gas, which means that all the city councils that hate oil and gas will run them out of business. But if a locality supports oil and gas development, then that does not necessarily mean it will be allowed, because now the state has changed the regulatory structure and the oversight committee. Basically, the new law says: If the locals don’t shut down your oil and gas development, the state will.
TI: Is that an overreach for legislators then if the people didn’t want it?
JC: It is, without a doubt, an overreach. But beyond that, it is hurting the very people about whom progressives claim they care. Much of Colorado’s workforce, particularly up north, are working-class families who make a decent living and keep their communities going through oil and gas development. Up in Weld County, where most of the oil in development is located, hundreds of millions of dollars per year go to education thanks to tax revenues generated by oil and gas extraction. So, it’s not just a betrayal of what the people voted on last fall; it is going to hurt working families the most.
Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, discusses how tax increases would hurt the Colorado economy. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
TI: Are there going to be electoral consequences of that policy?
JC: Well, we will find out next year in 2020, but I will say that there has already been a consequence. Rochelle Galindo, the representative in House District 50, a large part of Weld County, was on her way to being recalled when she read the tea leaves and resigned. According to the polling we had, the voters were going to remove her from office, and it only makes sense. Like the representative of a ski town voting to make skiing illegal, she voted directly against the interests of her constituents.
TI: State lawmakers are not the only ones pushing new gun control initiatives, right?
JC: I’ve taken a personal stand on a law that my hometown of Boulder passed. They call it an assault weapon ban. Not only does it outlaw the purchase and ownership of lots of different types of semi-automatic weapons, but it also outlaws any magazine more than 10 rounds. I announced that I would not comply with this law. They had a grandfathering period. If I self-identified as a gun owner, brought myself to the police for an investigation, opened up my guns for inspection, ran through another background check, and paid for it again, and then paid for another fee, they would give me a permission slip to keep what I already own.
I don’t see that the tolerant people of Boulder would treat any other group of people this way. My hometown of Boulder is kind of the Berkeley of the Rockies, and they pride themselves on their diversity and their tolerance. But in fact they are the most undiverse and most intolerant town in all of Colorado. They will bend over backwards to help certain people with lifestyles that they like or people with different religious views or different ethnic groups, but when it comes to people whose lifestyle includes gun ownership, the message is pretty clear: We don’t want you ugly people in our lily white town, so we’re going to make it illegal for you to live the lifestyle you have, and hopefully you’ll just leave.
So, I’m in open defiance of that. Through the Mountain State’s Legal Foundation, I’ve filed a federal complaint about it, which is tied up in the courts right now. But, at any point, my house could be raided, and I could be arrested.
TI: But you’re not in jail yet, right?
JC: I’m not in jail yet, but it is a difficult thing, particularly for my family. My daughter, who was a sophomore in high school, got bullied by her fellow students for my actions. She came home crying after they berated her for it. Mind you, this happened in a school that puts up posters urging diversity and tolerance on students.
TI: And those restrictions are a burden above and beyond the state’s red flag law, right?
JC: The state passed a red flag law, which in concept is not necessarily a bad idea, but in the details it is a gun grab idea. It creates a process in which gun rights can be denied to those who are deemed a danger to others, but in so doing it rips away the presumption of innocence, and puts the burden of proof on the accused. Former roommates or old girlfriends can make an accusation and have you disarmed, and then you have to fight to get your rights back after you’ve been disarmed.
TI: You’ve written that policy changes are only part of the story—that liberals’ attitudes about how political battles are fought have also changed. How so?
JC: I grew up in the ’70s, and I remember good liberals. They were very principled people who fought for inclusion of all sorts of people, but they would always say things like: The ends don’t justify the means. You’re innocent until proven guilty. The process matters. Now the Left is promoting changes in law that rip away process and the rights of dissenters in order to get what they consider the right result. The oil and gas bill is a perfect example. The red flag bill is a perfect example. In the past, ACLU-type liberals would have come out against these things, but not today. It’s disturbing to see. At least in Colorado, the progressive movement is hardcore intolerant, and what they want is what they want, and they’ll get it any way they can, and getting what they want includes ending gun ownership, ending fossil fuel development, and ending educational choice.
TI: I’m going to be like a sideline reporter asking an athlete to tell us about the game he just lost, but would you care to diagnose what’s gone wrong for the liberty-loving movement in Colorado?
JC: It’s an easy thing to diagnose. The Left, some 15 years ago, looked at the Independence Institute and realized that if they did the kind of work that we do, but added a couple zeros to the end of the budget, they could build a political infrastructure. So, the difference is quite simply on the donor level. You have people on the Left who are willing to invest a lot more money into politics to get their goals. There is a hardcore group we call the “gang of four” that funded a plan that has been come to be known as The Blueprint, which was originally about getting civil unions and then gay marriage approved.
So you have donors who not only put up the money, but they put the money into political infrastructure before they put it into candidates.
Colorado Republicans (who are the conservatives) have been using the same playbook for the past half a century. They give money to their candidates. That candidate rents an office, he rents a phone system, he rents computers, he rents databases, and he rents people (i.e., workers) for maybe four to six months. Win or lose, at the end of the campaign, all that infrastructure comes crashing down.
The Left instead built an infrastructure that built the databases, that built the think tanks, that built the legal firms, that built the voter registration firms, that built the polling outfits, that built the investigative reporting outlets to push a narrative. They invested in those activities first, and over time that built up a movement that allowed them to win. To put it another way, conservatives in Colorado traditionally bet on horses. The progressives in Colorado were rich, and they bought the racetrack.
TI: We know that the business community is happy to donate to whoever has power. How has the current dominance of the Left affected your ability to raise funds? Has it changed your strategy?
JC: It’s good and bad. There are many Colorado conservatives who have donor fatigue, because they’ve been using the old playbook of giving their money to candidates. Since we were focused on building long-term political infrastructure, we never really received much of their money to begin with. Those donors are burnt out, and I can’t blame them, because their political investments haven’t paid off.
However, there seems to be a growing realization that our work here at the Independence Institute to build what we call a permanent freedom infrastructure is the right strategy. That work includes coalition building, journalism—including investigative reporting—legal work, market research, and talent-building. All these things are necessary, but so many on our team want to just skip over them. There is a growing realization that these activities need to be funded if we’re going to ever win back our state.
So, I’m very optimistic that people are waking up to this fact. They don’t want to see Colorado turn into California. They are aware that our demographics are changing, that people are rushing to Colorado from the failed big government states of California, and Illinois, and New York. That’s changing the political system here. It’s not too late, but we must get moving on it right away.
TI: Many of our readers run state-based policy organizations. For those who are thinking about broadening their work from policy to these other areas, what’s the first step?
JC: The very first step is an admission. I think it’s almost like an alcoholic admitting he has a problem. For too long, liberty-minded policy organizations have been willing to be right at the expense of winning, but they’re not mutually exclusive.
The first part of any political movement is to have the right policies and the right intellectual ammunition, and that’s what our policy groups do so very well. But then you have to figure out how to engage so that your ideas become politically relevant, so that they are actually part of the political fight.
We have four steps. The first step is doing the intellectual work—that is, policy think tank work. The next part is the distribution work, which requires realizing that people don’t come to you. You have to sell it to them. We do that through our news aggregator Complete Colorado. We do that through our television program on Colorado Public Television. I write a column in the Denver Post. We do talk radio programs. We have podcasts. We’re a media force, and we have five ways to distribute our work.
The next part is the coalition building, because winning politically is a game of addition. Or, as we say, freedom is a team sport. So we work quite a bit on coalition building, trying to get our dysfunctional center-right team to communicate better with one another, to work together for common causes, and to try to do it smartly so that we can have victories, even if they are incremental victories.
And then the last step of the process is actually going into political battle. That means lobbying on legislation, putting measures on the ballot, submitting public-interest comments, and working with 501c(4)s
and other organizations to get the punch going. We even get involved in recall campaigns.
We think about freedom. That’s the think tank stuff. We talk about freedom. That’s the distribution of our ideas. Then we work to build a team, the coalition. So we try to act about freedom. And then finally we try to make change, which is when we create freedom. That is our four-step process.
TI: Is it fair to say that right now you’re focusing on steps one, two and three, because step four requires more people who agree with you holding power?
JC: No. You would be wrong.
For instance, our investigative reporting played a key role in getting the recall of Rochelle Galinda started. Our reporting built the narrative that put the pressure on her to resign. We put things on the ballot that we think will bring voters to the polls. A few years ago we put a measure on the ballot to open up negotiations between unions and school districts to the public, so that taxpayers, students, and teachers could see what was happening. We lobby down at the capital on bills. So we are very involved in all four of those categories.
TI: Your outreach work takes a variety of forms. You’ve launched a fundraising platform for liberty-promoting projects, and you are training teachers how to use guns to defend their schools. How are those efforts going?
JC: Both of those projects help us build a coalition for liberty. The idea with FreedomFy is to have a GoFundMe or Act Blue for conservatives and libertarians, a place where people can put up their projects, get funding, and meet other people who are like-minded.
A case-in-point of how this works: Rob Natelson did a tremendous amount of research and writing on the National Popular Vote Compact, which now Colorado has sadly joined. Because of that work, activists had the ammunition to try to refer the measure to the people—that is, to overturn what the legislature did. We’re the only state whose legislature approved the compact without even a single token Republican vote. The group who organized the opposition is a citizen group. They needed money to print their petitions. They went to FreedomFy. They wanted to get $15,000 to help offset printing costs. They were able to raise $22,000. More importantly, they raised it from about 400 people. Those 400 people then have a connection and can be asked to carry those petitions. So they’ve got 400 potential foot soldiers in their battle, and that’s the addition part.
We keep hearing that platforms like GoFundMe, and YouTube, and Facebook are squelching free speech and pulling the rug out from conservatives and libertarians. The idea of FreedomFy is to have a safe space where the center-right can come together for common interests.
The other thing you mentioned is our FASTER training. It stands for Faculty and Staff Training in Emergency Response. While many people talk about school shootings, we’re one of the few groups that is actually doing something about the danger. We train school administrators and teachers how to defend their schools with firearms, and how to provide tactical emergency triage after a shooting. There are 178 school districts in Colorado. Over 30 of them now allow trained teachers to carry a concealed weapon. There are now many schools in Colorado where a would-be shooter knows he will face armed resistance from adults who have been trained to protect our children.
My daughter, for instance, goes to a school that does not allow armed teachers. There’s a proud sign posted outside that says nobody here really has a gun, so it will take a long time to stop you. We want to send the opposite message.
Also, it breaks the false narrative that educators, and particularly women, don’t support guns. It reminds me quite a bit of the air marshal program created after 9/11. About 10 percent of all federal pilots carry a concealed weapon, and they’ve been trained by the air marshals on how to respond if somebody tries to take over their plane. We haven’t seen a hijacking since 9/11. I wish we could say the same thing about school shootings.
TI: Why should we pay attention to what’s going on in Colorado?
JC: I grew up in Colorado. Colorado was always the place where people came to unleash their talents, to write their own biographies, to take risk, and to be free to make their own decisions. That’s always been the Colorado culture. That culture of longing to be free to make your own decisions is being replaced with a California culture, where we demand to make decisions for other people. That battle is now playing out in Colorado, and our goal is to celebrate and return to the true Colorado culture.
There was a reason why Ayn Rand put her mythical Galt’s Gulch in Colorado. This was a place that drew people who loved liberty like a magnet. Now it draws people who like the comparatively lower house prices, and the skiing, and the ability to coerce other people.
We are in a battle for Colorado’s soul, and if we fail, it’s not just Colorado that’s at risk. The same plan, The Blueprint, is being deployed in other states, including in Texas. People say it can’t happen in Texas. Well, people used to say it couldn’t happen in Colorado. If Texas goes, game over, the nation goes. That’s why our job is to build and create the antidote to this blueprint, and bring Colorado back, so that we can inoculate other states from this terrible experiment.
That’s why Colorado has outsized importance. If you care about preserving a free country, then you should have your eye on Colorado—and hopefully your resources helping out in Colorado. We must find the antidote, and we will, if we can get the resources to do it.