Ron Russo first heard about the Caesar Rodney Institute about a year ago. He wasn’t quite sure what to think.
He met a retired CEO who was so fired up about the institute that he seemed like “a Looney Tune,” Russo said. Then the talk at a holiday party at a fire hall turned to the institute. Before the state legislator standing next to him even opened her mouth, Russo could guess her opinion.
“I could tell by the expression on her face that she didn’t like the idea at all,” he said. “And then she made a statement to that effect.”
Caesar Rodney Institute is segueing from a conservative nonprofit that published emotional appeals to a full-fledged nonpartisan think tank with support from CEOs, grant makers and, now, $175,000 from the Longwood Foundation.
Russo, former principal at St. Mark’s High School and founding president of The Charter School of Wilmington, recently became the institute’s senior fellow for educational excellence at $1,000 a month.
“They had people involved who were a little on the extreme side, and now they’re trying to correct that,” he said. “This appears to be a labor of love for a lot of these people. They’re not doing it to grease their own palms. They really care about the state of Delaware.”
They know it won’t be easy.
“We’re definitely on a hill,” said Bob Prybutok, CEO of Polymer Technologies in Newark, who gives the institute space in his building. “At the beginning, we got involved in some issues which we felt were nonpartisan issues, but, because of some of personal involvements and the perspective of the news media, we came across as being ultra-conservative and people didn’t really understand what our goals were.”
Prybutok, a registered Democrat, said he got involved with Caesar Rodney to impact the quality of life and help the state attract businesses. He supports the group financially and spends less than a dozen hours a month on board business.
“I looked at the direction our country was taking and I also looked at the state of Delaware, which has moved significantly to the left over the past 20-some years,” Prybutok said. “There seems to be a move toward less personal responsibility and more emphasis on communal responsibility with more people being offered safety nets. I’m trying to phrase this so I don’t sound like Attila the Hun. There needs to be safety nets, absolutely, but I want to use our resources to care of the people who really need to be taken care of. There needs to be a balance between the safety nets and establishing conditions that grow our economy and give people opportunity.”
For Prybutok, that means charter schools or vouchers to give low-income parents some choices for their children’s education and right-to-work zones to bring more companies to Delaware but still give legislators some cover by protecting unionism in other areas of the state.
The institute now has about 600 members, but its real engine room is a group of mostly baby boomers willing to donate their time and at least $5,000 toward the cause. They include CEOs like Prybutok, John Moore of Acorn Energy and Eric Levinson of Schagrin Gas. Their chairman is Jim Ursomarso, vice president of Union Park Automotive.
“You’ve got this pool of baby boomers out there who are very talented, and they want to leave a legacy,” said John Stapleford, the institute’s president. “They don’t want things to stay the way they are. They know you can’t tax your way to a healthy economy.”
Insiders say Ursomarso and economist John Stapleford are at the root of the center’s renewed focus on nonpartisan fact-based research.
As Prybutok puts it, “I believe that both legislators in Delaware and other organizations have realized we are truly a center-focused think tank. We’re not
right. We’re not left. We’re not political. We’re very issue-oriented.”
“Before they were a little bit more forceful in how they presented the research. It was much more passionate,” said Samuel D. Friedman, the institute’s communications director. “Under Jim Ursomarso, the idea is not to go into the more emotionally based arguments. We just say, ‘Look. This is the data. We stand by the data. If you don’t like it, you can fact-check it.’”
“Little by little, we’re gaining credibility with fact-based analyses,” said Stapleford, a former Moody’s economist, co-founder of the Delaware Small Business Development Center at UD and author of “Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves,” an Christian ethics book keyed to popular introductory economics textbooks that is in its third printing.
Stapleford said the institute should function only as long as it is effective. “An institution is like a shovel, “ he said. “If it’s not effective, throw it out.”
To make it effective, Stapleford narrowed the institute’s focus to include the issues that matter to businesses that might consider moving to Delaware – failing schools, energy costs, health care and economic policy.
For the directors, the institute is a way of addressing the systemic problems they see in Delaware.
“We have the second-highest enrollment in independent schools in the country. This is a fundamental issue for the families of Delaware because 25 percent of them are spending most of their disposable income on their children’s education because the public schools are so bad,” John Moore said, referring to Delaware’s private school enrollment, second only to Hawaii’s.
Referring to the state budget, which rose from $2.4 billion in 2004 to $3.7 billion last year, Ursomarso said, “The state operating budget has gone up $1 billion in 10 years, which is a 40 percent increase, and we have relatively little to show for it. We have an education system that is still not serving all students very well. State government is the largest employer in the state. The state shouldn’t be the driver of our economy. Many of our elected officials are former state employees or current state employees.”
“The spending of state government keeps growing,” he said. “We don’t believe at Caesar Rodney that the citizens of Delaware are getting their money’s worth.
His prescription: “We don’t need to cut anything. We can keep growing, but we need to limit the growth to a factor for population plus inflation. We don’t need to cut the budget. What we need to do is stop growing it so quickly.”
Ursomarso said his group’s goal is to be a think tank that examines issues without politics so policymakers can have facts not tinged by a particular viewpoint.
“It’s very difficult on some of these complex issues to get information,” he said. “They do the best they can, but they don’t have a lot of resources to get into complicated issues such as the Bloom Energy issue.” The institute correctly predicted in 2011 that the surcharge for Bloom would cost ratepayers more than Delmarva Power predicted.
The “just the facts” approach is working. David Stevens, a center director, cites a failed bill as proof that the institute is slowly making inroads in the state legislature. In April, the Senate labor committee buried a bill that would have created right-to-work zones– zones where workers would not be required to join unions as a condition of employment, “It was the first time a right-to-work-zone law made it to a committee in 30 years, Stevens said.
As a 501 C-3 nonprofit, the institute cannot politick and members say that, under Stapleford and Ursomarso, the mission is clearly nonpartisan.
“John has done a dramatic job in the last year that he’s been president and kind of pushed everybody along,” Eric Levinson said. “I think that’s what the organization needed – some fresh ideas and some momentum. It’s more of a common-sense approach. It’s, ‘Let’s get this done without worrying about who’s going to vote for whom.’”
“As long as they remain policy-driven and not overtly political, I think their influence is going to grow,” said Colin Bonini, the Republican state senator who has announced a run for governor. “There is a big gap in Delaware. We have some significant public policy problems that it’s hard to get data on. I think the Caesar Rodney Institute is beginning to solve that problem. They’re a valuable source.”
Donors got behind the new Caesar Rodney with $240,000 this year – including $175,000 from the Longwood Foundation, known for investing in groups that help solve community challenges. A call to Foundation Director There du Pont was not returned.
David Stevens, the institute’s energy director, listed several Democratic senators and state officials who he said are using Caesar Rodney’s data. Five did not return calls.
Janis Dillard, deputy executive director of Delaware Public Service Commission, said, “I’m not sure ‘using their data’ would be accurate, but they’ve been involved in cases, and I think he does a good job in his analysis and he comes about it from a little different perspective. He comes at it from a little more conservative perspective. What we do as an agency is balance. We look at the environmental effects of things, but we also look at the taxpayer rates. His efforts are toward ratepayer protection. He has provided some interesting analyses.”
With Delaware losing manufacturing jobs and the average wage in decline, institute directors say even some union members are beginning to talk with them on the Q.T., but the center’s push for right-to-work zones and prevailing wage is a red flag for union leadership.
Although Friedman, the center’s communications director said “a lot of unions and a lot of Democrats” are beginning to look at the center’s information, Sam Lathem, president of the AFL-CIO in Delaware, said, “We’re not using their statistics. They’re not reliable. Caesar Rodney is not one of our favorite research outfits. I think they’re biased. I think you and I both know what you can do with statistics. You can use them to say whatever you want.”
Inside Caesar Rodney, there’s a renewed optimism, but the institute is also facing a major change. John Stapleford, the economist who laid much of the groundwork for the think tank and helped attract major donors, plans to retire this summer.
Several insiders said Stapleford, who spent seven years at the institute and strongly pushed for the data-driven approach and supplied the data, will be a tough act for any president to follow.
As Levinson said, “CRI is a great conservative think tank with a lot of people who have the same ideals as far as furthering our state and creating some policy that makes sense, but John’s shoes are going to be tough shoes to fill. In a short period of time, he’s done a tremendous amount for the organization.”
“I’m excited that we’ve gotten support from some major organizations, and I feel that we have begun to be recognized as a legitimate think tank with some very, very good ideas relative to solving problems within Delaware, not just pointing them out as problems,” Prybutok said.
John Moore said the group has worked hard at being bipartisan with leadership from Stapleford and Ursomarso, but he realizes outsiders might not see it that way quite yet.
“I’ve heard people in the Democratic Party say, ‘How do we get our own Caesar Rodney Institute?’ and that’s really distressing to us, because we thinking we’re serving both parties.” Moore said.
“We’re trying to shine the light on problems,” he said. “They think we’re attacking them, and that’s not the case.”