Long before Clint Bolick earned a living terrorizing bureaucrats and politicians in court, he was a teenager trying to figure out why he didn’t fit in with his high school Republican club.
Bolick, the director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Law, didn’t grow up in a political family. But he learned as he grew, taking his lessons from the inner-city schools where he taught, the political machine that ran his New Jersey hometown, and even the bullies who picked on him as a gradeschooler.
The Goldwater Institute is viewed by many Republicans as a holy grail of conservatism, but Bolick and his colleagues have been known to throw them a curve ball every once in a while. He’s lashed out against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, sued Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, fought with Republican mayors and stayed noticeably quiet amid the uproar over SB1070.
Bolick sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to discuss where he learned his mantra of principle over party, what he saw in America’s public schools that turned him into a champion of school choice, and how he would’ve voted on Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law.
What shaped your beliefs? Did your parents instill those values in you?
My parents were not political at all. My dad was a welder who had an eighth-grade education, and he passed away when I was 11. Even though he was not educated, he valued education greatly, and would reward me for A’s on my report card and that sort of thing. So in terms of getting a good education, he was a huge influence.
And my mom was a stay-at-home mom and went to work as a secretary after my dad died. They definitely shaped my values, but not my political beliefs so much.
My mom and dad were very, very close and rarely argued. And my earliest political memory was going to the polls as a kindergartener in 1964 and my mom and dad were not talking to each other. And I couldn’t understand why. So my mom finally explained that she was voting for Johnson and my dad was voting for Goldwater. So Goldwater actually is my earliest political recollection.
What was the earliest incident that shaped your political views?
It wasn’t so much a political thing as the fact that until eighth grade I was the youngest and smallest boy in my class consistently, and I met a lot of bullies. And I guess probably the theme that’s run through my career is standing up to bullies on behalf of the little guy.
I became a Republican in high school and became involved in the teenage Republicans, but had some deviant views such as support for legalization of marijuana and that sort of thing. It wasn’t until college that I realized there was such a thing as libertarianism and that that really was more my philosophy than a down-the-line Republican.
In college, I had not planned to be a lawyer. I planned to go into politics and teaching. And I got a teaching certificate for social studies and interned at some inner-city high schools, which really radicalized me on the issue of education. I started reading Milton Friedman’s theories on education, and that made me a voucher advocate.
I interned for Orrin Hatch, who at the time was an idealistic young freshman senator. But my experience on the Hill made me feel like that was not a place for a principled person to get things accomplished.
So around that time, I took a course in constitutional law at my college and fell in love with it. I decided this is how you can change the world without compromising your principles. This is how you can stand up for the little guy on a level playing field. And fortunately, no one told me that no one gets to practice constitutional law for a living. So I went to law school and I’m one of the handful of lucky lawyers who get to do this for a living.
What did you see in those schools that convinced you there was a better way?
In the inner-city schools, there was simply no order at all. Having gone to a suburban high school I was accustomed to order, respect of teachers, fairly high academic standards. But what I saw in these high schools was just chaos, and literally no education going on at all.
And then I ended up actually student-teaching at a very affluent public high school, which was Summit High School in New Jersey. I was planning to teach history and found that I was spending most of my time correcting students’ grammar. That really made me realize even in the better public high schools that the quality of education was alarmingly low.
Around the same time, what was really an influence on me — my college, like most liberal arts colleges, was pretty liberal leaning, and I didn’t have very much exposure to conservative political ideas or conservative economic ideas.
My college did not have a teacher-training program, so I did my teacher-training program in a reciprocal program at a school called the College of St. Elizabeth. That was a … Catholic girls’ school, so I was the only male in the school, which was kind of terrific.
But also, it was my first exposure to a Catholic institution of any type. I had always had the view of Catholic institutions as parochial. That’s what they’re called. And it turns out they’re anything but parochial — or at least this school was not — and we were exposed to educational philosophies from hard left to hard right. And that’s where I encountered Milton Friedman and the idea of school vouchers, and just fell in love with the idea.
I graduated in ’79. Within a dozen years, I was defending school-voucher programs. It was exciting to be able to take that practical experience as a student-teacher and the classroom experience and be able to do something about it.
Why did you get into the teenage Republicans? What shaped your views that early on?
I was interested in politics, but I hadn’t really chosen a political party. When I lived in California, for example, I worked on Governor Reagan’s re-election campaign, which was my first campaign. But I also worked for his opponent. I got double extra credit in my social studies class.
In the city where I grew up, which was called Linden (N.J.) — Linden had a political machine, which was mob connected and very, very corrupt. And it was run by Democrats. And it so happened that I lived in the only ward that was represented by a Republican city council member. And by the time my dad had passed away, this city councilman became my surrogate dad and just was one of the most ethical, principled people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
I remember he had all sorts of little sayings, and one of them was, “If you vote for the elephant or the donkey, that’s what you end up with.” So he was very much into principle over party, which I still annoy people as being to this day.
He turned me into a Republican. But he turned me into a conservative first and kind of led me on my political way.
Now, in law school I went to the University of California at Davis, which was and is one of the most left-wing, hostile law schools in the country. And I ran in 1980. It was my one and only political race. I ran for the state Legislature as a Libertarian candidate and got 7.1 percent of the vote, which I consider to be very good. I got that out of my system.
Since then I’ve sued them rather than being one.
So there isn’t another run for office in your future?
I like to joke that if I were to be elected to something, at some point I’d end up having to sue myself.
Considering that, maybe it’s a good thing your wife didn’t win her legislative race.
She understood that that was a possibility.
Your principle-over-party mantra sometimes puts you at odds with Republicans. Does that make things difficult with your donors?
No. I think the overwhelming majority of our donors are conservatives first and Republicans second.
I guess the only time that there’s been some tension is when we published the studies that I wrote on Sheriff Arpaio. We did have some donors who were upset over that. It was the same thing with the CityNorth case. We had some donors who were upset about that.
I can say many, many wonderful things about (Goldwater CEO) Darcy Olsen, but nothing more wonderful than that she has a spine of steel. If she believes we’re doing the right thing and she believes we’re consistent with the principles of Barry Goldwater, she’ll turn away a contribution before she’ll retreat from a position that we’ve taken.
You guys have also been extremely quiet about SB1070, which is tremendously popular with Republicans. Why have you been so quiet?
Our staff is divided over immigration issues, and a lot of our donors are divided over immigration issues. The employer-sanctions bill. SB1070. A lot of times people see us as an entity that would tolerate no internal dissent whatsoever, but we have huge internal debates over these issues. And because immigration is primarily a federal issue, it’s not been one that we felt that we needed to wade into.
Having said that, now that federalism issues are becoming a big part of this overall issue, I think we are becoming more engaged on the legal side. I have been providing counsel to various defenders of SB1070.
Even though personally I would have voted against SB1070, I think that the federal district court ruling was misguided. So from a federalism perspective, we’ve been providing some support on this issue. One can think that a law is unwise policy, yet still be constitutional at the same time.
So what’s the next big fight for the Goldwater Institute?
The next titanic fight is Obamacare, the federal health care law. I’m extremely proud of and optimistic about our lawsuit because it raises some issues that none of the other federal challenges to the federal health care law have in them. So I think it’s going to end up being a significant part of the mix.
How happy were you with the way the election turned out?
I think that the election of John Huppenthal really helps make even more systemic education reform possible in this state. We worked closely with him in the Legislature. I can’t imagine a state that has a more reform-oriented superintendent now that he’s been elected.
I think that most of the people who were elected to the Legislature (on Nov. 2) are Goldwater-friendly. So I hope that we will have a huge impact on public policy over the next couple of years.
So what’s the Goldwater Institute’s top priority for the upcoming session?
My work focuses, of course, more on the courts than the Legislature. But I still retain a passion for education reform, and I will certainly be working with my colleague Matt Ladner to push for further school choice and school accountability.
And I know that institutionally, probably our No. 1 goal is to make sure that we never see the kind of deficit spending that we’ve seen over the last couple of years through tax and spending reform. We think now is the time to fix the system and make sure that in times of plenty, government doesn’t get carried away, so that in times of less-than-plenty we don’t have the kinds of fiscal shock that the system has right now.
What’s the last book you read?
I’m almost embarrassed to say, but I loved it. It was “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” It actually was a bestseller by the same author who wrote “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Basically, it’s this really clever author who intersperses history or literature with horror. And it turns out that Abraham Lincoln, in addition to being a great president, was a (vampire hunter).
I’ve read a lot on Lincoln, and it was just meticulous in the history. It just took a little artistic license.
So you’re a big horror fan?
Horror and history are my two favorite genres. That’s probably an unusual combination.
What’s your favorite horror movie?
“The Exorcist” came back to the big screen because they released a Blu-ray version of it, and for one night they put it back on the big screen. I’d have to go with that.
Who’s your favorite historical figure?
I guess I really have to go with my heart and say Tom Paine.
What do you do for fun when you’re not fighting bureaucrats?
I love hanging out with my kids. My kids range in age from five to 26. And my oldest son just moved to Arizona and is clerking for the Court of Appeals.
Shawnna and I are both wine aficionados. I love playing raquetball, which I do regularly and often have horrible wounds.
The other thing is writing, and a few years ago I published my first novel.
What was it called?
It’s called “Nicki’s Girl.” It’s a psychological thriller.