When you book Dinesh D'Souza as your keynote speaker, you should expect to get a rise out of folks. His most recent book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11 , has been widely dismissed by anyone not on the far right; it's the seventh in a string of books that have blamed the media, gays, blacks and Democrats for all that's wrong with America.
A day before the controversial author's talk at the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla on Feb. 15, Donald Cohen, head of the left-leaning think-tank Center on Policy Initiatives, sent around an e-mail with excerpts from some of D'Souza's more controversial books.
"Amazingly awful stuff!" Cohen wrote. "It's hard to believe that people still say these things in the U.S."
From D'Souza's 2003 book, What's So Great About America : "Jesse Jackson is vastly better off because his ancestors were enslaved than he would have been if that had not happened. If not for slavery, Jackson and others like him would be living in Somalia or Ethiopia or Nigeria."
From 1996's The End of Racism : "The American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well" and "If America as a nation owes blacks as a group reparations for slavery, what do blacks as a group owe America for the abolition of slavery?"
D'Souza was invited to speak by Steve Francis, a 2005 candidate for mayor of San Diego, multimillionaire businessman and chairman of the upstart, self-described non-partisan think tank, San Diego Institute for Policy Research.
On the day of the event, representatives from blue-collar labor unions and social-justice advocacy organizations were at the hotel handing out flyers with the D'Souza book excerpts Cohen sent around.
None of the folks handing out flyers actually saw D'Souza speak-it was $50 a head to get in (lunch included), and San Diego Institute staff requested additional security around the conference room in order to keep malcontents away. D'Souza focused only on his book and even then kept it tame, mostly discussing Western society's misunderstanding of Islamic culture and how pulling out of Iraq now will only embolden insurgents.
"Brilliant," one attendee proclaimed on her way out.
Erik Bruvold, president of the San Diego Institute, said the D'Souza appearance wasn't meant to incite controversy but rather to generate dialogue. They'd be just as happy to have Mike Davis as a speaker, Bruvold said, if the UC Irvine history professor, social commentator and regular contributor to publications like New Left Review would accept the invitation.
And, Bruvold said, the think tank is looking for funding. "It was timed to touch some people who, down the road, might be supporters of San Diego Institute and the activities of the organization."
Politically, San Diego's a strange place, almost equally divided when it comes to voters' party affiliation, though the city's wrapped in a conservative county. If you follow local politics, two of the arguably biggest policy changes in the past couple of years have been, ideologically speaking, polar opposites: the so-called "living wage" ordinance that requires city contractors to pay their workers a certain amount and "managed competition," a way of doing business under which the private and public sector compete for government contracts based on the assumption that competition leads to efficiency. Managed competition is largely championed by conservative, small-government proponents.
Both of these issues were brought to the fore by local think tanks. Managed competition, while one of Mayor Jerry Sanders' campaign planks, has been a focus of the Performance Institute (PI), a think tank launched in 2000 by Carl DeMaio that has offices in Washington, D.C., and San Diego. As for living wage, though dozens of U.S. cities and counties had enacted the policy prior to the San Diego City Council passing it in 2005, it was largely the work of Cohen's think tank, CPI, that got it passed. Councilmember Donna Frye said it was "unlikely that the living wage would have been realized without the grassroots organizing efforts of CPI. It was a proactive action, based on ensuring a basic standard of living for workers."
CPI started in 1997 as a research and advocacy group that focused on educating policymakers about issues pertaining to San Diego's low-wage workforce. Among other things, it releases regular reports looking at housing affordability, land development and fair wages.
"Everything we put out is based on data," Cohen said. "In terms of the research we do, we talk about things we think people care about. We're not about the insiders; we're about making policy connect to real people's lives. And so, if 500,000 people don't have healthcare in this county, we think that's a discussion we ought to have, something we've got to try to solve, as opposed to let the free market do it. The market works phenomenally well in certain areas and it completely fails in others. And so you have to be able to address that objectively."
CPI derives its power, in part, through its affiliation with and support from organized labor-a boon when it comes to putting pressure on elected officials.
"I'm not sure that I would say their success has been based upon their research," said Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus in public administration and urban studies at San Diego State University. "It's been more based upon having five or six votes on the council.
"That's important to know-that labor's going to be in your court," Sparrow said, "that you're going to have the money and the personnel to assist you. There's a lot of stuff that goes on other than think-tank research and putting out reports. And that's what I don't think DeMaio and Francis have yet-they aren't able to contribute a lot of money to candidates. They certainly have like-minded candidates, but I don't think they have candidates who are as close to their ideological point of view as they would like. I think they are much further from the mainstream than CPI is from the mainstream."
"I think they get their authority by the endorsements and contributions labor unions make in political races," DeMaio said of CPI. "When people identify [Donald Cohen], I want to make sure they cite his stripes, which is he is labor-funded. These are people who are for bigger government and tax increases."
Cohen said CPI's funding comes solely from private foundations.
"We'd be happy to take union money, but we don't get any," he said. CPI's operating budget for 2005 was just under $1 million-half of what Francis spent on his run for mayor that year.
Cohen argues that DeMaio, with his focus on managed competition, is a one-trick pony.
"He's all media-that's all he does," Cohen said. "They don't do research studies. [Performance Institute] is a private company that makes their money by promoting outsourcing and teaching people how to do it. It's a company, not a think tank."
Cohen's not wrong about DeMaio being media savvy. The Performance Institute, which began with a national focus, started looking into San Diego government in 2003. At the time, San Diego was considered one of the "best managed" cities in the U.S. and DeMaio's group wanted the challenge of looking at whether the city could be run even more efficiently. Once the Performance Institute started looking at the data, DeMaio said, they found things to be quite different than what the public was being told.
"We found that the fiscal health of the city was not what the city was portraying," he said, with a deficit of between $80 million and $120 million. PI was analyzing only the city's operating budget, not its pension fund. DeMaio had organized a March 2003 forum to present PI's findings. "I got a call from [Dick Murphy's chief of staff] John Kern saying, 'Cancel this forum,' and I said, 'How now? We had a deal-March 18. You knew it ahead of time and we're not going to cancel.'
"And thus began the contention-basically us trying to drag the truth out kicking and screaming."
DeMaio runs a second company, American Strategic Management Institute, a business consulting firm. This has given him enough money to engage in significant public outreach. In the fall of 2004, shortly before the mayoral election, the Performance Institute spent $350,000 on a series of mailers and TV and radio ads pointing out the budget deficit they'd uncovered. The ads and mailers took aim at then Murphy for covering up the financial mess.
"I felt there was no other option but to take it right to the streets, take it right to the people," DeMaio said. "If we could get the public to understand what was going on, then a bunch of other things would start happening. A policy institute can perform two roles. One is to generate ideas and do research and another is to marshal public support."
DeMaio may not have had a friend in Murphy, but Mayor Sanders has been receptive to what DeMaio has to offer. When it came to Prop. C, Sanders may have been the ballot measure's most powerful proponent, but no one could touch DeMaio for ubiquity.
He first began pitching the idea through San Diego Citizens for Accountable Government, a political-action group, back in 2004 before the mayoral election. At the time, he proposed 10 points for fiscal reform, one of which was managed competition. In the election between Sanders and Frye in 2005, DeMaio persuaded Sanders to adopt managed competition as a major plank in his campaign, and when the time came for the 2006 statewide elections, Sanders backed the referendum to change the city's charter to include managed competition. During the summer and fall of 2006, DeMaio rarely left the political stump. He answered media queries, participated in forums, spoke on the radio and on television, and even participated in several debates with Cohen over the efficacy of the idea. Shortly before Election Day, he organized a forum in support of the proposition that featured Sanders and other proponents that was aimed directly at the press. In the end, the onslaught of publicity combined with the trust the public put in Sanders led to a resounding 55 percent to 35 percent victory.
Prop. C was a major loss for CPI and its labor unions.
"These guys want no government, they want no taxes, they want no regulation and they want no unions," Cohen said of Prop. C's backers, Francis among them. "They want nothing that gets in the way of private business and the so-called free market to operate, unless, of course, it's their free market, and in that case they'll take the subsidy.
"All unions do is force sharing," Cohen said. "When productivity goes up and profits go up, then everyone gets a piece of that because you have to negotiate at the table. It's a legal structure. With those legal structures evaporate, it means that as productivity has gone up, we can produce more stuff more efficiently. Wages have stayed flat in the last 40 years, and that's not the way it used to be. It used to be that everyone rose together."
Francis' San Diego Institute and DeMaio's Performance Institute share similar goals: low taxes, government outsourcing as a means of cost-savings. It's no wonder DeMaio's glad to see SDI on the scene.
"You don't get everything you want at the end of the day and so when I look at these policy institutes, when I see Steve Francis, I welcome it. I think it's a good thing. You may not agree with everything he says, you may not philosophically be in the same spectrum as he is, but at the end of the day, the public is served by having a multitude of voices."