Jay Hein helped Sagamore Institute for Policy Research find its footing after Indianapolis-based researchers created it in
2004, following the Hudson Institute's departure for Washington, D.C.
Now Sagamore is turning to a former U.S. attorney and self-proclaimed "policy wonk" to grow the think tank's Midwestern roots and replace Hein, who headed to Washington himself as director of President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Krieg DeVault LLP lawyer Deborah Daniels became Sagamore's second president last month. Daniels, 55, brings to the job a lengthy resume and an appreciation for the institute's emphasis on locally focused research that can be applied nationally.
"Having a think tank in the middle of the country, where things are happening on the ground, is far better than being in Washington," said Daniels, sister of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
The institute, which collected $2 million in revenue last year, will pay Daniels $180,000 annually. She also will keep her position with Krieg DeVault.
"We're very excited [about Daniels]," said Jerry Semler, former CEO of American United Life Insurance Co., who co-chairs Sagamore with former Indiana senator and U.S. ambassador Dan Coats. "We think she'll be able to take us to another level."
Daniels' career path has kept her close to policy research. She served as an adjunct fellow with Hudson and was an executive director of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, a not-for-profit focused on community improvement.
From 2001 to 2005, she was assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, the research and grant-making arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"People think lawyers are lawyers," she said. "I'm one of those more eclectic people. I'm a policy wonk."
Daniels saw how policy and research blended when she studied domestic violence as chief counsel for former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in the mid-1980s.
She learned that, despite conventional thinking, women who have the option of dropping charges against an abusive spouse wind up feeling more empowered and are less likely to be victimized later.
"That was probably my first experience with challenging the prevailing wisdom, and that's what Sagamore does," she said.
Sagamore formed in 2004 after the Hudson Institute, which had called Indianapolis home since 1984, moved closer to the power center of Washington, D.C., to focus on foreign policy. A couple of dozen researchers stayed behind to work with the new think tank.
Hudson now operates a few blocks from the White House and has seen its endowment grow from $9 million to $14 million, CEO Ken Weinstein said.
"Leaving Indianapolis was the most painful decision our board ever had to make, but it clarified our mission, clarified our purpose, and unified our operations," he said.
Sagamore, in turn, has been able to focus mostly on domestic issues and topics like foreign trade. Its Web site notes that the institute has "a heart for the Heartland and a vision for the world."
That's the path Daniels wants to stay on.
Her research priorities include working with Indianapolis officials on criminal justice and educational-reform studies. That might include examining questions like whether charter schools improve the education system as a whole.
"Part of what we want to do is the applied research that looks at innovative areas to see if they're moving the needle," she said.
The institute has studied Mexico-Indiana trade. It also received a $226,800 grant from The Lumina Foundation for Education to study the impact of immigration on Indiana's higher-education system.
Midwest-centered research is exactly where Sagamore should focus its efforts, said John Mutz, a former Hudson board member and state lieutenant governor. He also works with the new institute.
The East and West coasts contain plenty of think tanks, and Texas has several emerging ones, too, Mutz noted. But many issues playing out in the Heartland, like the privatization of government services or worker retraining, deserve study as well.
"The Middle West, I think, is an area that's ripe for consideration from a policy standpoint," he said.
Even though Sagamore has the backing of powerful conservatives like Mutz, Daniels said it steers clear of politics when researching an issue, preferring instead to look at a topic objectively and "let the chips fall where they may."
Daniels said she wants Sagamore to help state and local governments make policy. But she said it won't show bias toward the governor or other political leaders.
"We will not do what some people call research for a conclusion already reached," she said. "We think research should drive policy and not the other way around."
Sagamore's new president hopes to strengthen the institute's financial support. It receives funding from several charitable trusts, but most comes designated for a specific research project.
Daniels would like to develop more sources like Lilly Endowment Inc., which last month awarded a $300,000 undesignated grant. Grants with no funding designation allow the institute to react better with timely research on current topics, Daniels noted.
"I think [research] should not be driven by the fact that there's money available for certain things," she said. "It should be driven by the need for information in certain audiences and what our capabilities are."
Daniels noted there are many foundations willing to support research institutes with a strong vision.
"The vision should come first," she said.