In his time working in Wisconsin, CJ Szafir realized that the government often stood in the way of Wisconsin residents’ ability to pursue a fulfilled life. A desire to fix this problem led CJ to many policy positions throughout his life, including his new role as the president of the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG).
We sat down with CJ to learn more about his background, vision for the Institute for Reforming Government. and thoughts on current opportunities to improve Wisconsin residents’ lives.
CJ: I have long felt called to help people. When I interned for Senator John McCain in college, I learned how important sound policy was to improving people’s lives. That led me to pursue a master’s degree in public policy and economics. In 2008, I worked on the McCain presidential campaign in Wisconsin—my first exposure to the Wisconsin conservative movement. While in law school I stayed focused on Wisconsin and interned with the legal counsel for Governor Walker’s administration.
After graduating from law school, I worked in the Wisconsin State Senate for then majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. The experience in the state legislature opened my eyes to the work being done in the states. If you recall at that period of time, in 2010 through 2013, there was gridlock in Washington and Congress, and it was the states that were leading the way and generating the free-market policies that actually improve people’s lives.
After my involvement with the Legislature, an old law professor asked me if I wanted to work for a new organization called the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). I leapt at the chance to advance state solutions and ended up spending nearly eight years with WILL. It was at WILL that I heard about another fairly new shop called the Institute for Reforming Government.
IRG was founded shortly after Governor Walker lost his reelection bid in 2018. He was the honorary chairman, and one of the goals of IRG was to recognize the meaningful policies Governor Walker achieved and to share his success as a model for future policymaking. IRG wanted me to come on board and help them in their mission to equip Wisconsin with sound free-market policy, and I felt it was the right time to do so.
CJ: Our short-term mission is to advance free-market policies in state government. Long term, we were founded with a vision of making government more accountable to the people. We fundamentally believe that government closest to the people is going to have the buy-in of those people and will be better able to keep their interests in mind.
At IRG, our goal is to apply free-market principles to every part of state government. We believe those principles will ensure that every Wisconsinite has equal opportunity and access the American Dream.
Wisconsin used to be a leader in free-market policy. In the early years of Governor Walker’s tenure, Wisconsin expanded school choice, reformed collective bargaining, and passed regulatory reform. I want to get Wisconsin back to its position as a leader in free-market policy.
CJ: We’re working on getting our ideas and research in order so we can seize any opportunities to put forward sound policy. To be fully ready for any opportunity, we have a three-pronged approach.
First, we want to develop the next wave of free-market reforms. A divided government can’t discourage us, and several policy areas span the political spectrum. For instance, we think issues like school choice have broad appeal. Right now, black children in Wisconsin are getting a substandard education, and we know that school choice reforms would improve this problem. There’s an opportunity to work with members of both parties who want to give black students education options that put them on the path to success.
Second, we want to focus on the executive branch and prevent abuses from state agencies. Our biggest priority here is encouraging the Legislature to take their power back. We talk about this problem all the time at the federal level, but not enough about the state legislators who’ve been shirking their duties. A long-term goal is to create a playbook that other SPN groups can use to encourage legislatures to take back the powers they’ve abdicated to their state’s executive branch.
Third, I strongly believe in community engagement. Going into the communities we’re trying to help and finding out what they actually need is key to our success. We’ve hired a Community Engagement Manager, and we’re actively working to engage with community leaders, including business owners, school boards, chambers of commerce, and more.
CJ: At IRG, one of the first things we did was seek out State Policy Network. We knew that the Network of ideas and leaders would be instrumental to our growth and ability to succeed, especially in refining our vision. Becoming a member was a major goal from the beginning.
I’ve been a fan of SPN for a long time. I remember reading proposals from the Goldwater Institute in Arizona when I was in my first job in the state legislature. It’s humbling to be president of an SPN organization, especially in the context of other leaders I’ve known. I’ll always have a mentor in Rick Essenberg, the president of WILL. Some other Network leaders that have given me invaluable advice include Justin Owen of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, Charles Mitchell of the Commonwealth Foundation, and Matt Paprocki of the Illinois Policy Institute.