When attorney John Hinderaker took the helm of the Center of the American Experiment last January, the Golden Valley-based think tank was spending most of its energy preaching to a small choir of Twin Cities conservatives already versed in its small-government, free-market mantra.
Hinderaker, founder of the nationally recognized conservative blog Power Line, began to remake CAE’s image from “thought leader” for a wonkish elite few to a force reaching millions of Minnesotans. His methods to amplify the message: Traditional and new media, and public events.
Those efforts have helped boost contributions to the nonprofit by about 50 percent this year to $2 million. New donors have been added and more support is coming from existing donors pleased with the changes.
“We can’t change this state by talking to 5,000 people. I don’t care how important someone thinks they are,” Hinderaker said.
The CAE counts more than 10 million engagements with the public in 2016, ranging from guest commentaries published in 64 newspapers, ad buys on local radio stations, Facebook and YouTube to its first-ever appearance at the Minnesota State Fair.
It has started publishing a quarterly magazine and branded itself on caps and T-shirts as “Minnesota’s Think Tank.” Hinderaker has added a series of popular luncheons and events to stir discussion.
“We are organizing in a much more populous way. People realize Minnesota is changing. The state is up for grabs,” he said.
Tom Horner, a former Republican who ran for governor as an independent in 2010, said that he doesn’t agree with many of the CAE’s positions but has noticed its change in tone and expanded public presence.
“They bring a very very thoughtful, substantive approach to important issues,” he said. “If you feel challenged or threatened by the Center, don’t complain. Bring the same level of thoughtfulness to the issues.”
On Thursday, the CAE will host “The War on Cops,” a luncheon at the Hilton in downtown Minneapolis. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute in New York City will present research from her book of the same name, and as many as 200 officers are expected to attend.
“The left never wants to debate anything. They want to make it impossible to talk about it,” Hinderaker said.
“We are not going to be intimidated. We talk about all issues but it will be inclusive, respectful and data driven.”
To the right
Although the center officially is nonpartisan, its decidedly conservative views — including support for school choice and conventional two-parent families, opposition to light-rail expansion and disdain for the Metropolitan Council — appeal mainly to Republicans.
Some say the center has taken a sharper edge on certain issues under Hinderaker, whose 14-year-old blog doesn’t shy away from provocative stances on the ties between terrorism and Islam, Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and accusations of liberal media bias. Hinderaker said the blog is a completely separate animal.
“I am used to keeping a sharp division between my hobby and job. I don’t mingle them,” he said.
Hinderaker said the center is researching the cost of refugees to Minnesota, a hot-button issue in a state where more than 20,000 refugees have been resettled in the past decade. But he said it’s not just stuck on issues that appeal to conservatives; this year the center’s fellows will focus on job training and alternatives to four-year colleges.
The center has “always been well-respected on both sides of the aisle as a research organization,” said Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey. Now, he added, “They have brought a spotlight to the issues.”
Susie Merthan, spokeswoman for the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota, called the center’s work “extremely conservative” and said that fresh marketing won’t make it any more appealing to large swaths of Minnesotans.
“It looks like a way to perpetuate the same old conservative tune. It’s just a new way to package it up,” she said.
A broader audience
Mitch Pearlstein, who founded the Center of the American Experiment in 1990, stepped down as president at the end of 2015 to make room for Hinderaker. “The whole idea of creating something is to have it continue.
What John is doing and others are doing is strengthening the institution further,” said Pearlstein, who remains with the center as a senior fellow.
Hinderaker, 66, grew up in small-town South Dakota and spent his 41-year legal career as a high-powered litigator at Faegre Baker Daniels. He handled more than 100 jury trials, pivoting between the corporate elite who hired him and the everyday folks he needed to win over in the jury box. That ability to connect those two worlds is at work in his new nonprofit role.
Hinderaker started to send commentaries to newspapers across the state ranging from the Star Tribune to the Moose Lake Star Gazette; in the past, the center had solicited just a handful of larger newspapers. He asked his staff to write shorter commentaries for the website and to write them more often. And staffers are holding town meeting across the state.
“We are reaching a much broader audience,” said senior policy fellow and vice president Peter Nelson.