Imagine turning 25 again and being toasted by a party packed with family and friends. Imagine there’s an older brother there you’ve looked up to for years, who spends the night telling everyone that, while you might have had some growing pains, the neighborhood’s a better place because you’re around. You’re doing all right, he says. ??Doesn’t that feel good?
It’s about how a recent Wednesday night shaped up for the Tallahassee-based think tank James Madison Institute, which celebrated a quarter-century of existence with a gala that packed the University Center Club at Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium.JMI was the birthday boy. The “family and friends” were some of Florida’s top Republicans, institute donors and supporters. The “older brother” was the Heritage Foundation. “The neighborhood” he talked about? That was the whole country.Among the speakers toasting JMI’s silver anniversary were Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater – guests you’d almost expect to be at a gathering of top Sunshine State conservatives.But also joining the party was former Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who became a national force in American politics when he recognized early on the potential power of the tea party phenomenon and – like it or not – helped build it into a lasting electoral presence while the inchoate Occupy movement sputtered into oblivion.DeMint decided to leave the Senate late last year to take over as president of the Heritage Foundation, the patriarch of conservative think tanks. He said JMI is continuing the family tradition – as well as the tradition of its Founding Father namesake.“What you’re talking about is freedom and what it does for people,” DeMint said. “You’re cultivating soil … You’re planting seeds.” Plus, DeMint told the assembly, JMI is “a showcase of freedom.”Heady words for anybody in politics. And for a Florida conservative group that’s had its share of financial problems in the past, they must have been particularly sweet coming from a man who helped take Marco Rubio from the Florida Legislature to the national stage.No family gathering lacks a feud, though. While Scott’s speech didn’t mention a word about his decision to accept the Medicaid expansion funding that’s a big part of the Obamacare health reform most Florida Republicans despise, Weatherford’s did. He pointedly noted the “United States government is trying to buy off states one by one.”“I am not buying into it,” Weatherford said. “And we will not buy into it.” It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night.The rest of the evening continued the celebration, a combination of humor and relief, when looking back on some of JMI’s darker moments when the doors might have closed, mixed with optimism and pride.Allan Bense, JMI Board chairman and (Weatherford’s father-in-law), recalled some of JMI’s fiscal struggles compared to its current budget of about $2 million. Things are looking up, he said.“Heritage, we’re on the way. We’ll catch up to you, just give us a few years,” Bense said during warm-ups to DeMint’s keynote speech. “Heritage, watch out!”Heritage probably isn’t too worried. The connection it has with the James Madison Institute is all in the family.Joe Saunders, a 25-year newspaper veteran, is a freelance writer and editor who coordinates Topical Breezes roundtables for Florida Voices. He lives in Tallahassee.http://www.floridavoices.com/myturn/james-madison-institute-getting-kudos-beyond-florida© Florida Voices