FRANKFORT, Ky. – There’s a new kid on Kentucky’s expanding block of nonprofit groups that believe state and local government policy ought to be guided more by conservative “free market” principles.
It’s called the Pegasus Institute. And, from the perspective of most folks in an aging state with the median age of nearly 39, its co-executive directors could be considered kids.
Jordan Harris, 27, and Josh Crawford, 26, believe that their Pegasus Institute is the first public policy research organization in the country founded and operated by millennials.
“We believe that Kentucky has the potential to emerge as a national leader and a beacon of the New South,” the Pegasus Institute website says. “That potential can be unlocked with data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility and effective, limited, and accountable government.”
That pronouncement and other details on the website (Harris and Crawford each were Young Republican chairs as undergrads at Penn State University, and Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese is listed as an academic adviser for the institute) indicate the new group’s research will tilt toward Kentucky’s prevailing Republican winds.
Harris said not so. “We don’t shy away from the fact that we believe the market works. But we aren’t anarchists. We believe that government has a role,” Harris said. “… When some of our research comes out, I don’t think there’ll be any confusion about whether or not we’re just sort of a Republican front because it’s really bipartisan stuff.”
He said both he and Crawford changed their voter registrations from Republican to independent a few years ago. And he emphasized much of the research they will do will be on issues like criminal justice where Democrats and Republicans have proved they can come together.
The Pegasus Institute’s website says its research areas will be education, the economy, criminal justice and state government.
For now, Harris declined to release the names of those who are bankrolling the venture. “I don’t want to say right now just because we haven’t launched officially.” But he said the group is committed to transparency and that it will “make all of our donors public” when it releases its first annual report next fall.
Pegasus Institute was incorporated this summer and for now is operating out of Harris’ apartment in downtown Louisville. But he said it plans to open offices in January, probably in Louisville.
Harris is a graduate of Breckinridge County High School who got his undergraduate degree from Penn State, and then a master’s in government at Harvard. He later was a fellow at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research in Boston and for the Charles Koch Institute in Washington.
He met Crawford, who is from Boston, at Penn State. Crawford went on to get a law degree at Suffolk University. He has been a fellow at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and most recently worked in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office in California.
Harris said he believes that being millennials gives the organization advantages. “It allows us to have a fresh perspective on policy issues without sort of being encumbered by the sort of prevailing ideas that existed before,” he said.
And he said a younger researcher’s work is motivated by the realization he’ll have to live many decades under any policies he might influence. “We’re not able to say this won’t bother us, we’ll be dead,” he said.
Pegasus Institute will differ from existing conservative nonprofits active in Kentucky, he said.
Harris said Pegasus will not get involved in campaigns as Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers, did extensively this fall attacking Democrats running for the Kentucky House of Representatives. And he said it will not stray beyond research to do things like asking state lawmakers to sign a “transparency pledge,” which the Kentucky free market think tank Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions has done.
Trey Grayson, former Kentucky secretary of state and now president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said he encouraged Harris’ interest in creating Pegasus Institute.
Grayson met Harris at Harvard just before Grayson left there as director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 2014. “He was trying to get back home to Kentucky and said he wanted to start this,” Grayson said. “I’ve been having conversations with him about the fact that it would be helpful to have state-based think tanks that have kind of a center-right orientation that are grounded in good policy and would be helpful for the dialogue.”
State Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said the extensive political activities of Americans for Prosperity make him skeptical. “But the people obviously made a judgment in this last election and I think you’ll see a whole host of ultra-conservative legislation coming … that the voters will be able to weigh-in again on in a couple years,” Rand said. “So I would say if a group like this can’t have influence now, they’ll never have influence.”
But Rand said, “The most important thing the people ought to know about these groups, whether conservative or liberal, is who funds them.”
Reporter Tom Loftus can be reached at (502) 875-5136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.