Wednesday, October 22, 2014 · 5:37 a.m.

Nine questions with Drew Johnson

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This past summer, a few weeks after replacing the retired Lee Anderson as opinion editor of the Free Press’ editorial page, Drew Johnson told the Nightside Pachyderm Club that he saw his role as “making liberals really mad” and “calling out Republicans who aren’t acting conservatively.”

The role is nothing new for Johnson, who created a firestorm in 2007 when a watchdog group he started, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, called out Al Gore for using 20 times more energy than the typical American at his home at the same time he was promoting the Oscar-winning anti-global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." Johnson created another, albeit smaller, firestorm when, less than two months into his new gig at the TFP, he withdrew his endorsement of Republican state Senate candidate Greg Vital on the eve of the primary election.

Johnson’s willingness to be a lightning rod has served him well, earning him appearances on CNN, NPR, Fox News, Showtime and the BBC, as well as in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Newsmax and dozens of other publications.

Drew Johnson. (Photo: Contributed)

In what is probably Nooga.com’s most exhaustive “Nine Questions” yet, Johnson talks about his new gig, his desire to shine a light on government waste, and what Chattanooga should look for in its next mayor.

Nooga (N): You've created quite the buzz since joining the TFP. What do you think about the reaction to your work so far?

Drew Johnson (DJ): I’m just glad there is a reaction. Love me or hate me, I’m gratified that people seem to be reading, thinking about and discussing the Free Press editorial page.

Going in, I expected to ruffle feathers. I knew that, from day one, I would place an emphasis on holding government officials and local leaders accountable, as well as exposing and criticizing abuses of power and wasted tax dollars. That’s not the best course of action if your goal is to be loved by people in power. But I don’t mind. I’m more interested in protecting the average Joe from the people in power than I am singing false praises of the powerful to make a few more friends in high places, anyway.

(N): Have you gotten any particularly memorable pieces of hate mail?

(DJ): In one letter, a reader told me he was canceling his subscription because of me and he hoped to find me and stick his newspaper box “where the sun don’t shine.” That sounded more like he was letting me in on his kinky fetish than really threatening me, though.

The ones from Republicans who call me a liberal or a socialist because I criticize GOP lawmakers for not being conservative enough are funny because they’re so counterintuitive and dopey.

(N): What's your overall goal for the Free Press opinion page?

(DJ): I have only one personal goal for the Free Press page, and that is to advance and defend liberty every day.

That said, editorial pages across America have become so boring and predictable. I wrote opinion columns and guest op-eds for years, but I always detested most of the editorial pages they ran on because they just weren’t entertaining. I knew that if I were ever in a position to decide what goes on an editorial page, I’d do all I could to make it fun to read.

The Times Free Press gave me such an amazing opportunity. I have a blank canvas and, by and large, I can do what I want with it. Free Press readers will soon see more graphics, more local voices and more social media features that reach the print edition, and several new regular features that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

I’m pleased with where the page is now, but I believe what we have in store will make the Free Press editorial page the best—and most entertaining—free market/conservative/center-right editorial page in America. I also love that the Times Free Press is the only daily paper in the country with two distinct, separate editorial pages—the Times and the Free Press. With left and right, conservative and liberal, free market and statist viewpoints explained and defended well, I believe we have a very unique and compelling editorial section.

(N): How do you think your approach compares to that of your predecessor, Lee Anderson?

(DJ): It’s an honor to follow Lee as the Free Press editorial page editor. I see three areas where differences are obvious.

First, I’m literally 55 years younger than Lee. I’m reflective of a modern breed of conservatism. It seems that many conservatives and Republicans under 35 or 40—me included—are more concerned with the $16 trillion debt and the looming fiscal cliff than what people chose to do in the privacy of their own homes. They also see America’s role on the international stage as one that should be less aggressive and more responsible and restrained. My writing reflects the growing notion that government should be more limited in all areas.

Second, Lee is a newspaper man. I’m a policy analyst and an economist. Lee wrote three or four short, pithy editorials a day about different issues. I’m more interested in researching issues—really digging in and unpacking ideas. Because of that, I tend to write five or six longer editorials a week. My talent is also a shortfall, because sometimes my pieces can run longer than I’d like. That’s where the Friday “Drew’s Views” feature came from—I wanted to give readers bite-sized commentaries about lots of different topics.

Finally, and most obviously, Lee and his family are part of the fabric of this community. I’m an outsider. That makes me less knowledgeable about Chattanooga, but it also means that I don’t play favorites or protect friends. Community and political leaders are all fair game in my eyes. I can hold people accountable and point out their misdeeds without worrying about how they’ll treat me on the golf course or at the next fundraiser. This city, with its political dynamic so rooted in cronyism, nepotism and making deals in smoke-filled back rooms, really needs someone who will let the sunlight in. I’m glad to do that, regardless of who gets mad at me.

(N): How did the Tennessee Center for Policy Research come about?

(DJ): When I was 24, I was working at a think tank/government watchdog organization in Washington. I was frustrated because there are 20 good, conservative, libertarian and free market policy organizations in D.C., all doing more or less the same thing. So I started thinking of ways that I could be more useful to the cause of promoting individual liberty and limited government.

About that time, I spoke to a Tennessee state lawmaker who told me that he got all of his bills and public policy information from lobbyists. Naturally, these lobbyists all want something from the government. There was no one watching out for taxpayers or producing unbiased research about the cost and impact of laws and proposed legislation. At that time, Tennessee was one of the only states without a free market think tank filling that need.

I left my job, moved back home to Tennessee, spent a lot of nights in my car and on friends’ couches, and built a think tank. I can’t think of an organization that has been more effective or successful at promoting free market, limited government ideas in state and, to a lesser extent, local government in Tennessee. For folks familiar with the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research—it’s now called the Beacon Center—is essentially a state-focused version of organizations like those.

I’m very proud of the organization’s accomplishments. It has prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, was responsible for the sales tax holiday, cut or eliminated several taxes, improved charter school laws, enhanced government transparency, protected private property rights and led the fight for tort reform.

Trent Seibert, an award-winning reporter who is now doing some investigative journalism for the great nonprofit state news site TNReport.com, and I invented the idea of using investigative reporters in think tanks to expose government waste, fraud and corruption, and uncover wrongdoing. About 50 think tanks throughout the world have replicated our model. I’m very proud of all of the jobs we ultimately created for good journalists.

(N): Which local agencies or organizations strike you as being particularly good stewards of the public's money? Which could do a better job?

(DJ): I can’t think of one that doesn’t have room for improvement.

Generally speaking, any government agency or organization that either could be better-handled by private enterprise or private nonprofits shouldn’t be a function of government, so they could do a better job by closing down or being privatized. Naturally, things like the golf courses, the marina, the Chattanoogan Hotel, the private plane service facility at the airport and public arts organizations come to mind.

Two government agencies stand out as abject failures. First, it’s no secret that the more I research EPB’s fiber system, the more disgusted I am by it. Building the smart grid in a way that allowed the electric company to get in the cable and Internet business cost taxpayers and electric customers $552 million. EPB forced the public to build its infrastructure to compete with private companies. That, in itself, is outrageous.

Chattanoogans were sold on the half-billion dollar scheme based on the promise that businesses would flock to the city because EPB would be able to provide this magical 1-gig Internet service. Now, either EPB’s fiber service can’t actually provide a gig, or it’s so expensive to provide that no one will ever use it. The thing has been a total bust. Despite the promises that the gig would be a boon to economic development, not a single business has come to Chattanooga because of the gig. Not one. It’s one of the biggest debacles I’ve ever seen.

Because EPB is such a big advertiser and spends so much money with local media outlets, few local news organizations are willing to take them on, so they get a free ride even though the gig has turned into a huge boondoggle. I’m fortunate that I’ve never been asked to back off my criticism of EPB as long as my facts are well-researched, which they always are.

The other organization that is really failing taxpayers is Hamilton County schools. The school district has hundreds of amazing teachers and a bunch of great facilities. Despite what the tax and spend crowd says, the district has plenty of money, if that money were better spent. Still, Hamilton County schools is among the worst performing districts in the state.

A lot of the issue is related to what’s going on when students aren’t at school. But that’s not the only problem.

I blame federal and state regulations and bureaucracy, standardized testing, the poor treatment of teachers and the unwillingness to replicate things that work well for a lot of the district’s problems.

I also think state and local leaders’ fear of vouchers and other opportunities for competition, led by the teachers union, is extremely damaging to the local educational system.

(N): How can the public help government do a better job?

(DJ): I think one of the easiest things that the public can do to inject accountability into government agencies in general is to request open records.

Under state law, it’s your right to request public records like budget documents, canceled checks, phone bills, emails, written correspondence, reimbursement records, annual reports and audit from city and county agencies, police departments, school districts, utility companies and all other government-run organizations.

Knowing that the public cares enough to see how their organization operates and is willing to take a few minutes to make sure things are running well is a strong incentive to ensure service quality is high, tax dollars are being spent well and procedures are being followed.

(N): What should Chattanoogans want from their next mayor?

(DJ): Chattanoogans should want a mayor who will work to lower taxes and regulatory burdens, a mayor who would get the local government out of businesses it shouldn’t be in, like running golf courses, owning hotels, and offering cable and Internet service would be nice. I’d also like to see a mayor who would stop bribing chosen businesses with handouts and tax incentives to come here at the expense of other businesses in the city. The mayor should work to treat all businesses equally and fairly and create a business climate that draws entrepreneurs to Chattanooga, even without the giveaways.

Residents also deserve a mayor who views them as hard-working folks who deserve to keep more of their money in their pockets, rather than seeing Chattanoogans as 170,000 walking, talking ATMs from which the city can extract money for whatever dumb idea they have. 

But that won’t happen.

The best Chattanoogans can realistically hope for is someone with a commitment to government transparency and accountability—and someone who doesn’t want to take over Tennessee American Water would be nice, too.

(N): So, who's going to win on Nov. 6?

(DJ): Who’s going to win, or who would I prefer to win? Despite his recent surge, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Romney. Thankfully, he’s closing the gap, which makes it more fun to follow and write about. I’m having a hard time making the Electoral College numbers work for Romney—he’ll have to win one or two states I just don’t see him winning.

I know who’s going to lose, regardless of who wins the election: People who want smaller government, reduced federal spending, more control over their own lives and fewer people killed in military operations. Those folks are pretty much screwed either way.

(N): Thanks for your time, Drew.

(DJ): Word. Next time, ask me about music. I know a lot more about music than I do what I write about every day. Also, make sure to follow me on Twitter.

Bill Colrus writes about local news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at billcolrus@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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