If being attacked by Mother Jones magazine, the U.K.'s left-favoring Guardian newspaper, and the New Yorker's fiercely ideological writer Jane Mayer, is a badge of honor, Tracie Sharp, President and CEO of the State Policy Network, is a highly decorated general of the freedom movement.
Sharp scans the nation for opportunities as the head of a powerhouse nonprofit that promotes a network of think tanks in all fifty states. You likely know some of the state-level think tanks that are associated or affiliated with SPN. Included on the list are such prestigious groups as Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas; Pioneer Institute in Boston, Mass.; Civitas Institute in Raleigh, N.C.; Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., and the delightfully named Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, Mo. (to name just a few members–the SPN network stretches from Anchorage, Alaska to Tallahassee, Florida. SPN is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, though Sharp, like many SPN staffers, works remotely. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area (more on that later).
Right now, one of the battles in which SPN is engaged is over the privacy of donors who chose to support a cause or movement. Progressives desire nothing more ardently than to strip away the privacy of donors (at least, of donors who support conservative or free-market ideas).
"We believe policy should be made closer to home, and this is why SPN focuses on the states primarily, not on a national level," Sharp tells IWF. "Because change does not happen at the hands of far removed politicians in Washington, DC. It happens state, by state, by state. We believe ideas and policies made closer to those who have to live under them will lead to more accountability, and we will also have more robust and relevant debates."
"We want freedom movements in each state anchored with these high performing, independent state think tanks," Sharp continues. "Everything we do here at State Policy Network concentrates on accelerating the growth of the state-based free market movement," Sharp explains. "We do whatever we can do to help state think tanks serve the people of their state better and faster."
"We do it by focusing a lot on developing leadership, because at the end of the day, we must have talented leaders on the ground, who are capable of making things happen," she says. "We incubate state-level think tanks and help them develop innovative strategies. We connect and convene the leaders so they can exchange ideas and sharpen each other’s strategies and skills."
And they have gotten enormous traction. Vice President Mike Pence is a past president of Indiana Policy Review, an affiliate of SPN. "In the war of ideas," theWall Street Journal wrote several years ago in an article highlighting SPN's work in the states, " a think tank is like a munitions factory, churning out the matériel to push the trench line a few miles forward." SPN bolsters state and local efforts with infrastructure and messaging expertise. A handful of state think tanks in the Network were key players, for example, in making the case for ending forced dues for public sector unions when Illinois state employee Mark Janus’s case against AFSCME came before the U.S. Supreme Court.
They might have been unsung heroes, but they were definitely eloquent: these citizens were able to speak with firsthand knowledge about how the unions did not represent them and address on a personal level the unfairness of being coerced into paying union dues anyway, even if they had opted out of membership.
Working alongside these state leaders on the ground, SPN helped to connect the independent state think tanks with one another to share strategies and messaging. As part of their efforts to support Janus and the Network, SPN encouraged citizens from all over the country (SPN calls them "unsung heroes") to gather on the steps of the Supreme Court as oral arguments in Janus were heard and talk about their own experiences with public sector unions. They might have been unsung, but they were definitely eloquent: these citizens were able to speak with firsthand knowledge about how the unions did not represent them and address on a personal level the unfairness of being coerced into paying union dues anyway, even if they had opted out of membership. In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of ending mandatory dues for public unions.
Right now, one of the battles in which SPN is engaged is over the privacy of donors who chose to support a cause or movement. Progressives desire nothing more ardently than to strip away the privacy of donors (at least, of donors who support conservative or free-market ideas). But isn't secrecy bad? SPN cuts through the self-serving verbiage on the progressive side of the aisle and boils down the issue a zinger motto: "Transparency is for government, privacy is for people."
"It is essential to protect donor privacy," says Sharp. "You've heard the opposition, and I am not going to say it is strictly on the left. I've heard people on the left and right talk about 'dark money.' The term has gotten into the vernacular. There needs to be a better response than just saying 'Well, you take dark money, too.' We must make the case that people have the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment. This country was founded on anonymous speech, starting with 'Publius' in the Federalist Papers, right?" ("Publius" was the pseudonym adopted collectively by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay when they wrote the 85 articles that make up the Federalist Papers.)
Donor privacy, it can be argued, has become even more rooted more recently. Sharp cited the 1958 case when the state of Alabama sought to impede the NAACP in the state by issuing a subpoena for its records, including membership lists. In a landmark opinion the U. S. Supreme Court held unanimously that the members had the right to privacy. "Now," says Sharp, "we've come full circle and we are seeing donor privacy challenged again. There is a "hand over the names of your donors" mentality. We need to protect the right to support causes we believe in without fear of harassment or humiliation."
Donor privacy doesn't just affect the rich who can write big checks. A classic case of loss of privacy is Margie Christopherson, a California waitress who was fired from her job after it became known that she had donated $100 to support traditional marriage. Nonprofits in several states must by law report the names of financial supporters. But SPN does not see this as a partisan issue. "What’s really going on is that people in power who don’t like being challenged—from the Left or the Right—are using the force of law and state agencies to target their dissenting opponents," SPN argues on its website.
SPN had its own brush with donor privacy in 2013. That is when the Guardiannewspaper, a stalwart of the British left, obtained and published 40 grant proposals submitted to SPN by member organizations. This can best be described as an exercise in attempted donor intimidation (Sharp says donors maintained an admirable calm). It can also be interpreted as implicit recognition of what a power player SPN is, as can savaging at the hands of leftist scribe Jane Mayer.
" At one time, about 22 states had donor disclosure legislation. A lot of it was dressed up with campaign finance reform as well,” says Sharp. “Those were bills moving through the legislature. And the state think tanks work to educate legislators on the dangers of ruining people’s privacy and explaining that transparency is for government, privacy is for individuals. "
Her hero was grandmother Kay Sharp. "She said to me, your grandpa and I were never able to get ahead until we could buy property. So they bought their first small orchard, and they worked double time to pay it off ahead of time. They sold it and they bought a bigger property. That’s how they started on the path to prosperity."
SPN was founded in 1992, legendarily "at the urging" of Ronald Reagan, by the late Thomas Roe, a South Carolina entrepreneur. Sharp joined in 1999 and SPN has grown significantly under her leadership. It consisted of 36 think tanks in 34 states when she came aboard, and now it serves more than 150 think tanks members in 50 states. Its revenue was a bit over $200,000 in 1999 but last year was $15.9 million. But Sharp says there is a right way and a wrong way to look at growth. "Well," she begins, "I want to make the point that we don’t grow for growth's sake. We’ve actually been reluctant to grow unless it is to directly benefit and serve the state-based groups. So, an example of that is in communication. We formerly didn't have anyone on communications on staff but we realized that we needed to help the movement learn to be better storytellers, better messengers of our ideas. So, we started building out and now we have a communications team that does messaging research, has a peer network where it gets all the communication directors together teaching, training, convening, equipping, so we strategically grew that capability within SPN. But we don’t foresee ourselves owning our own building, hiring a hundred people… That’s not the point. The point is how can we strategically do what's best for the state movement. "
A history major from the University of Washington, Sharp already had helped found Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Oregon before coming to SPN. But it was her family background–especially a much-admired grandmother—which instilled a belief in a work ethic and private property, which laid the groundwork for her future in the freedom movement.
Sharp grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, the county seat in an agricultural area. Her mother was an administrator and her father was in sales, but the center of the family was the apple orchard. "I was given a car in high school in part because it was my job to drive to the orchard at 6:00 a.m. to change the irrigation and then go to school and then afterschool go back and change the irrigation again. Just part of the plan to keep the place going. But I got a car–the awesome part of the deal for me."
Sharp's paternal grandparents lived on the orchard property, and Grandmother Kay Sharp became her hero. "I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with my grandmother, who came from nothing and left an amazing legacy. She ingrained in us the need to work and be self-sustaining. She arose from a lot of adversity before, during and after the Depression. She raised her younger brother and sister and then had three kids of her own, including my dad. And they did ok, but they really couldn’t get ahead. She said to me, when I was still in high school, your grandpa and I were never able to get ahead until we could buy property. So they bought their first property, a small orchard, and they worked double time to pay it off ahead of time. They sold it and they bought a bigger property. And then they got a bigger property. And that’s how they started to get traction. That’s how they started on the path to prosperity. They knew it was important that they could own something for themselves. She always worked hard, and she was very loving. She left behind tons of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and despite working her guts out, she lived to 92. It was ingrained in me, the power of working hard, standing up for yourself."
For Sharp, as for her movement, the key seems to be keeping it local. Sounds like a motto for a restaurant, but maybe it is on the menu for conservatives and libertarians who seek a new and better way to communicate their ideals with people and find that common ground.
Tracie briefly toyed with the idea of electoral politics but found that she was more attracted to the world of think tanks where she can promote the ideals she absorbed from her hard-working family. She also believes in community and civility.
And that has come in handy because Sharp and her husband, who have two college-aged sons, live in one of the bluest spots on the map: Berkeley, Ca. And here's the shocker: the Sharps love Berkeley. "The weather is beautiful and within three hours there are amazing things to do. You have Yosemite, you have Napa, you have Santa Cruz, you have Stanford and Tahoe."
Yes, but you also have the neighbors. You live in the belly of the blue beast. How does she cope?
"There’s a lot we have in common in our neighborhood. We want our neighborhood to be safe. Right? We
talk about holding politicians accountable. So, we find there is common ground. We care about our families. We don’t have to get into a high-level debate about what’s going on in Congress or the blue states or red states, because locally there’s just a lot we have in common."
Sharp quotes Arthur Brooks a lot (whose new book, meaningfully, is entitled Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from a Culture of Contempt) and talks about reaching out "beyond your tribe," meaning people who share your views. For Sharp, as for her movement, the key seems to be keeping it local. Sounds like a motto for a restaurant, but maybe it is on the menu for conservatives and libertarians who seek a new and better way to communicate their ideals with people and find that common ground.