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Utah think tank remaking itself

But some say ‘new’ Sutherland Institute is still too conservative

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Paul Mero says his "new" 9-year-old Sutherland Institute now stresses civility and reaching out to find solutions to problems.

Paul Mero says his “new” 9-year-old Sutherland Institute now stresses civility and reaching out to find solutions to problems.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

It hasn't been business as usual at the Sutherland Institute in hopes of upending politics as usual in Utah.

In three years on the job, President Paul T. Mero has almost completely turned over the staff and the boards of trustees and scholars at the conservative, free-market think tank. And in ridding Sutherland of its stubborn ideologues, he has brought a new ethic to the obscure organization.

Its core belief that families, private initiatives, voluntary associations, churches and businesses are better problem-solvers than government has not changed. But how Sutherland goes about influencing public policy in Utah has.

Flush with "millions of dollars over the next several years" from an in-state donor Mero won't identify, Sutherland is poised to extricate itself from the political fringe and become more vocal.

"There's nothing more dangerous to the status quo and politics as usual than good people with good ideas with money in their pockets. We are good people. And I'm sure we have good ideas."

The "new" Sutherland Institute will share some of its thoughts at a coming-out party of sorts Wednesday at the Grand America Hotel. Invited are 2,700 politicians, civic leaders and investors to what the 9-year-old institute is calling its "inaugural" event. A couple hundred are expected to attend.

"I'm rolling the dice and betting we will have broad buy-in," Mero said.

Civility and solutions

Local pols, especially left-leaning ones, are skeptical.

"The proof is in the pudding," said Sen. Ron Allen, D—Stansbury Park. "It's going to take a little while to see where they're coming from."

Sutherland's revised mantra centers on rising above the muck of politics. Mero said he is disturbed by how people treat each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game of winners and losers. He's looking for people who not only play nice but play nice while making good public policy.

"Civility is a lot more than being polite. Civility is a lot more than agreeing to disagree. Civility is finding lasting solutions," he said.

That doesn't mean Sutherland intends to abandon its more-family- less-government agenda.

It recently distributed its new family policy handbook to legislators and public officials. "Favoring the Family" outlines public policies to strengthen families and calls for a "family impact statement" for every piece of legislation.

But in a departure from business as usual, the group intends to publish an election year policy guide that contains its view on issues along with contrasting views as well.

"For us now, understanding is more important than persuasion," Mero said.

Orem resident Gaylord Swim, a wealthy investment manager with a lifelong love and study of the U.S. Constitution, founded the institute in 1995 and has been its primary benefactor.

"Our goal is to make good ideas popular and show that bad ideas don't work," he said.

The think tank takes its name from Utahn George Sutherland, a U.S. congressman, senator and U.S. Supreme Court justice who was one of the "Four Horsemen" who, on the high court, bucked President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal government expansion in the 1930s.

Friends and enemies

Prior to Mero taking the helm in December 2000, the group's brain trust kept to itself, huddling in cramped quarters to write lowly regarded, right-wing position papers mostly about economic issues. It influenced few people and won even fewer friends.

Which explains why the heads of private Utah social service organizations were instantly suspicious of Mero's attempt to survey their efficacy for a study on poverty. None cooperated, even refusing to make available public tax documents.

Since that fiasco, a new day has dawned at Sutherland, Mero says. He has taken to going out and meeting people of all political stripes face to face.

"I wake up every morning wondering what new friend I'm going to make today," said Mero, a member of the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial advisory committee. "Before, Sutherland woke up every morning wondering what new enemy it was going to make."

Nevertheless, it continues to make both.

Mero, a 46-year-old thinkaholic who worked as vice president of the conservative Howard Center For Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill., found an unlikely friend in Utah Issues director Bill Crim.

Though both have an interest in ending poverty, they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. They have been able to put aside political differences to discuss solutions. Crim described Mero's approach as "pretty thoughtful."

"What's unique about the Sutherland Institute is that I have not perceived them to come out of the same cookie-cutter mold as other national and state think tanks," Crim said.

Environment, education

Utah Issues, Sutherland, the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Utah Foundation, a politically neutral public policy research group, sponsored a conference in November 2002 called Dialogue Utah. It was supposed to be a daylong forum where people with diverse opinions on hot-button issues such as taxes, education and environment could carry on a civil debate.

But Mero's speech titled "Why I'm Not an Environmentalist" alienated environmentalists from the get-go. Some walked out after he called the preservationist ethic anti-Christian because it places intrinsic value on nature and that environmentalists rely on junk science.

Conference invitee Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he felt "sucker punched."

"For me it was an extraordinarily negative experience," he said, describing the speech as insensitive and uneducated. "It sounded just like I was listening to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. It was anything but dialogue."

For Young, the Sutherland Institute lacks credibility. "They're going to have to earn some respect."

Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens considers himself a Sutherland fan.

"I admire organizations that continually try to find solutions to different problems in our society," said the Farr West Republican, noting Mero's attempts to reach out. "Those are the kinds of people and organizations we need more of in Utah."

Sutherland's last proposal apparently didn't go over very well. The institute distributed 1,000 copies of its "Saving Education & Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education" to legislators and educators last fall.

The treatise basically says parents must assume full responsibility for their children's education and compulsory attendance in public school should be eliminated, as should school districts. School financing should be reconfigured to reward home schoolers, it proposes.

The Utah Education Association has found Sutherland "very narrow in its thinking," said spokesman Mark Mickelsen. The two organizations have disagreed on a number of education issues including tuition tax credits and school vouchers.

But if the group is making "an honest effort" to be more open-minded, he said, that's healthy.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon says he doesn't expect Sutherland will be trying to find middle ground on issues but trying to take different views all together. It won't be "just defending a fixed position but fixing the problems."

New tack and new digs

In addition to changing its tack to exert greater influence in Utah, Sutherland changed its address. It moved last weekend from Murray's Independence Hall — "we'll take its spirit with us," Mero said — to larger offices on Social Hall Avenue in downtown Salt Lake City.

Although the move puts it close to the Capitol, Mero said the institute does not intend to spend more time on the Hill lobbying.

Sutherland will focus on mentoring a "handful of the best and the brightest" regardless of whether they are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, Mero said. It will help lawmakers craft legislation, review bills and provide research.

"So, they'll be called SLUs," said Allen, the Democratic state senator. "Smart Like Us."

Lorna Vogt, director of the Utah Progressive Network, says she doesn't see anything new and different coming out of the group. "It's a training ground for conservative Republican legislators," she said.

Those in the social justice community, she said, "hope (it) will go away."

But Mero said if the Sutherland Institute succeeds in the next several years, it will be around for a long time. Either way, Mero, who worked for Republican congressmen William Dannemeyer and Robert Dornan, says Utah is his last stop.

"This is a homogenous society. If we can't do good things here and be leaders in good public policy, it can't be done anywhere."

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com