Heartland's billboard signaled, to some, a time to leave

Eli Lehrer had a sinking feeling when he learned that headquarters at the Heartland Institute was launching a razor-sharp billboard campaign denigrating the evidence of climate change.

Things had already been tricky for Lehrer, whose corporate sponsors for Heartland's Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) had begun to express concern in February at being associated with the think tank's controversial climate views.

So when Lehrer, a Heartland vice president based in Washington, learned that a giant likeness of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski would peer down at motorists on a busy Chicago highway from an electronic billboard, insulting climate advocates, he tried to stop it.

"I asked Heartland to reconsider the billboard," Lehrer said in an interview over the weekend.

He realized later that his effort never had a chance. Lehrer learned about the marketing campaign just five minutes before it began. By the time he contacted headquarters in Chicago, the ad was already up and running. Its fallout, which includes Lehrer's departure from Heartland, was "inevitable," he would soon realize.


Lehrer wasn't the only one caught off guard. Heartland's board of directors, more than a dozen prominent businessmen and libertarians responsible for securing large donations, was also in the dark.

But the strongest reverberations struck Lehrer and his FIRE center, which was already bruised when climate scientist Peter Gleick, after impersonating a Heartland board member, released private documents showing that a handful of insurers had contributed generously to the think tank's insurance programs. Those companies and trade groups gave more than $1 million to the Heartland center over the past two years.

Lehrer says Bast not an 'adversary'

It wasn't long after the leak in February that Lehrer first brought up the idea with Heartland's president, Joe Bast, that he and his team at the FIRE center might leave the organization. But it wasn't clear if a separation would be necessary.

"Heartland's position on climate was not something that was necessarily unsustainable" for Lehrer's work, he said, adding, however, that it created "tension."

Then came May 3 -- when the billboard's launch erased any indecision among the insurers and Lehrer. They must leave. Lehrer said he and his donors came to the decision mutually. But in the end, he had little choice: The corporate sponsors that Lehrer had cultivated over the years were leaving with or without him.

"When it became clear some of the larger donors couldn't continue under any circumstances, it became inevitable," Lehrer said.

Lehrer and Bast announced the separation in a genial press release Friday. Lehrer said the divorce was amicable -- reflected in the use of an informal gentlemen's agreement, rather than a written contract forged by intense legal wrangling.

"I don't see Joe [Bast] as my adversary in any of this," Lehrer said. "He's been nothing but helpful."

Lehrer will continue working for Heartland until May 31, at which point he will open his own small think tank focusing on insurance and public health issues with his current staff, about 10 Heartland employees. He plans to announce the organization's name later. It will be located in Lehrer's existing Washington office space.

New horizons for Lehrer think tank

The group will focus on Lehrer's traditional topics, including reforms in the National Flood Insurance Program, hazard mitigation and land-use policies. It will also adopt several publications that Lehrer launched at Heartland, like Out of the Storm News and an annual report card on state regulatory environments for the insurance sector.

Lehrer is also interested in perhaps broadening his reach to other areas, like promoting privatization of insurance for the nuclear energy industry and discouraging subsidies for second homes in flood insurance and in the tax code.

He might also work on ending energy subsidies for fossil fuels and renewable sources.

And he said that he would oppose a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, should the idea be floated, "because it's an enormous tax increase."

The group, however, is unlikely to address the topic that had complicated Lehrer's work at Heartland: the science behind climate change.

"The new organization is not going to promote climate skepticism," Lehrer said. "I can say that for sure."

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