Twenty years ago I became “Freedom’s PR Man.” I walked into the Institute for Justice wanting to escape the drudgery of working at a PR firm. I wanted to find a place and a cause I believed in . . . somewhere I could thrive and put my free-market values into action. I could not have found a better fit than the fledgling IJ, which at that point was all of nine months old.
After 20 years at the Institute for Justice, now seems like an opportune time to look back and consider some of my highlights as a salesman for the Merry Band of Libertarian Litigators.
Working with our brilliant attorneys, dedicated staff and committed clients, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of simplifying the stories we have to tell and ensuring that the media—and, through the media, the public—hears what we have to say. Together, we helped curb the scourge of eminent domain abuse and have saved countless homes and small businesses from the wrecking ball; we opened schoolhouse doors for kids who otherwise would have lacked the power to escape failing public schools and get into better private schools; we toppled government-imposed monopolies and freed the way for would-be entrepreneurs to support themselves and put others to work; and we routed those who think government (in the guise of campaign finance restrictions) should limit free speech. Combining the best of public interest law and public relations, my colleagues and I at IJ have freed our fellow countrymen and women to pursue their own destiny as they envision, not as some bureaucrat demands.
In addition to working for great causes, I also worked with some great people. Reagan was fond of saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” That’s how IJ operates. There is tremendous pride in the work, but coupled with that is great and sincere humility among each and every IJ staffer. There is a lot of finger-pointing that goes on around here, but what makes that so unusual is that this happens after each victory, and never after a defeat. That’s just the IJ culture; everyone around here is quick to point to others when things go well and personally shoulder any setbacks with a commitment to make things better the next time around. That culture of professionalism, humility and accountability is part of what makes IJ such a great place to work and a big reason why IJ has won more than 70 percent of the cases we have launched since our founding, despite the steep odds we face going up against the government with each and every case.
There have been so many highlights during my time so far here at IJ, but if I had to pick the two that stood out the most, the first would be working with legendary 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, along with his equally distinguished producer Bob Anderson, on a feature about the abuse of eminent domain across the nation. 60 Minutes crisscrossed the nation meeting with IJ clients, attorneys and foes. The result was a piece that Wallace himself said was one of the most memorable of his career. In the wake of that feature, politicians lost their jobs, politically connected businesses were checked in their land grabs, IJ won a historic court victory, and our clients got to keep the properties that remain theirs to this day.
The other highlight also involved eminent domain, but it took that fight to new heights—literally. IJ created six different billboard themes and placed them across Pittsburgh to help small businesses fight against a city plan to drive them out and hand over their land to a Chicago developer for his private gain. Some billboards targeted potential tenants, like former NFL great Dan Marino, which read, “Dan Marino: You were a Dolphin. Don’t be a stealer.” Other billboards went after Mayor Murphy, who was driving the takings. My personal favorite read, “Murphy’s Law: Take from Pittsburgh Families; Give to a Chicago Developer.” We made sure those billboards carried huge smiling photos of the mayor and were located between his home and city hall. He got the message; the city backed down and the property owners’ rights were respected.
When I started at IJ, I never would have guessed the people I would meet or the experiences I would have in a career spent as a PR man for freedom. But after 20 years fighting for liberty with IJ, I have only one request: How about 20 more?
John E. Kramer is IJ’s vice president for communications.