Friendly Fire

Back in charge: Center of the American Experiment founder and president Mitch Pearlstein
Courtesy of the Center of the American Experiment

In a recent essay about the history of the conservative movement in Minnesota, Mitch Pearlstein, the founder of the Minneapolis-based think tank Center of the American Experiment, noted that "profound" differences exist on the right side of the political spectrum. Obvious? Maybe. Yet this basic truth eludes a lot of leftist critics, who tend to view the conservative movement as a vast monolithic entity. Infighting, betrayal, and rancor, of course, know no ideological boundaries. Consider, for instance, the recent melodrama at the Center of the American Experiment.

In its 15 years, the center--whose staff, directors, and donors have made up a virtual who's who of Republican politics in Minnesota--has managed to maintain a stately public posture. At its biannual fundraisers (up to $2,500 a plate for a spot at the "chairman's table"), the organization has lured big-name speakers like George H.W. Bush, Ken Starr, and Henry Kissinger. In between, the center's staff and fellows have produced a stodgy quarterly, cranked out numerous public-policy papers, and penned newspaper op-eds by the gross. Throughout it all, the organization has deftly avoided the sort of public squabbles and infighting that might stain its reputation.

Until February 20, that is.

That's when the center's board of directors voted to oust Annette Meeks, a longtime Republican Party activist (and former Newt Gingrich aide) who had served as the organization's CEO and president for the past 20 months. Viewed in isolation, the incident--though unexpected--wouldn't merit much notice. Then Mitch Pearlstein, who had been "kicked upstairs" and given the title of president emeritus when Meeks was moved into the center's top spot, was tapped as her replacement.

But the real stunner came when five center employees--half the staff--signed a letter protesting the decision to can Meeks. According to several well-placed sources contacted by City Pages, four of the signatories were summarily fired in the wake of their display of loyalty to the ex-boss; the other departed staffer, former GOP executive director Corey Miltimore, probably would have been dismissed too had he not already resigned in disgust.

"I consider this tantamount to organizational suicide," says one former staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The individuals were some of the best in the conservative policy arena here in Minnesota. Annette had worked very hard to recruit a team of effective conservative-action people. I think it will be shown very quickly what a mistake this was."

Most affiliates and supporters of the center are dismissive of blog-fueled speculations that the shakeup means "the Experiment" is over. But the mass defenestration at the center does raise questions about long-term viability and continued relevance.

"It's a tragedy what's occurred at the American Experiment," offers Chris Georgacas, a lobbyist and former state GOP chair who has a long history of involvement with the center. "The actions by the board, in my estimation, cast the future reputation and influence of center in grave doubt."

Georgacas, who recently co-chaired the center's task force on legislative reform, was so incensed by Meeks's forced exit that he turned down an invitation to serve on the board of directors. Like others who spoke with City Pages, Georgacas expresses bafflement at the motivation behind the ouster. Echoes one ex-staffer: "Up until that board meeting, the board had only expressed delight in the direction of the center. When I say there was not a single sign of concern or dismay, I mean not a single one."

Former Congressman Tim Penny--one of the few non-Republicans listed on the center's board of advisors--speculates that directors had pushed Meeks to engage the center in a more overtly political approach. "I thought Annette was trying to be more accommodative of the board's desires," Penny says. While the center is technically nonpartisan so as to maintain its status as a nonprofit, the IRS typically provides for considerable latitude within the gray areas. "I think the [board] wanted to be a little darker shade of gray and I think that's what happened over the last year," Penny observes.

So why then was Meeks shown the door?

Perhaps, one center affiliate speculates, Meeks had alienated some board members with her very public opposition to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's gaming expansion proposal last year. Another more mundane explanation is money. In filings for fiscal year 2004--the last year for which such information is available--the center listed itself some $311,745 in the red. That would certainly provide rationale for staff reductions.

But, contends one former employee, the organization's finances have rebounded somewhat under Meeks. And one longtime benefactor blames the center's money troubles on Pearlstein, who he claims alienated several major donors over the years. "To people he holds in high intellectual regard, Mitch will be very generous," the supporter observes. "But he can be extremely condescending to those who he does not regard as his intellectual equals."

The board of directors has offered no substantial public pronouncements. Vin Weber, the former U.S. congressman and director, refuses comment, as does former state Supreme Court justice and board member A.M. Keith. Board chair Tom Stauber has issued only perfunctory remarks. Meeks did not return repeated phone calls.

Mitch Pearlstein, the once and future king at the center, is not interested in discussing the shakeup in detail. "The board is very much interested in returning to basics, to focus once again on the kinds of issues that we used to emphasize more than we have in the past couple of years," he says, referring to what he calls "cultural issues."

Asked about the financial status of the organization, Pearlstein offers only a terse response: "I choose not to discuss that."

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