WASHINGTON — The Heritage Foundation sits like a watchtower on Capitol Hill, a large building just steps from the U.S. Capitol on the northeast side of Massachusetts Avenue, where analysts work to shape conservative thought and influence legislation.
Suddenly, its academic, behind-the-scenes approach is getting a shakeup. Firebrand U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., will take over as president early next year after the retirement of its low-profile chief, Ed Feulner, on his 35th anniversary of running the think tank.
It means a raise for DeMint.
Feulner earned $1.025 million in 2010, according to latest Internal Revenue Service nonprofit 990 forms, as well as $66,161 in additional compensation. U.S. senators are paid $174,000 a year.
For Republican lawmakers, candidates and political operatives, the Heritage Foundation has been a temple of conservative thought for its authoritative briefing papers and analysis.
“It’s a major source of opposition to the Obama agenda,” said John J. Pitney, a former Republican Party research official and now a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “I’m sure DeMint will have a much higher profile at Heritage” than the current president.
“What Heritage does is influence the intellectual debate,” he said.
DeMint, a Tea Party advocate for small government, has focused on budget, taxes and entitlement reform — all among Heritage’s core issues.
“Under Ed Feulner, Heritage laid the foundation for the Reagan Revolution; under Jim DeMint, Heritage will continue laying the foundation for the next conservative revolution,” said U.S. Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was elected last month with DeMint’s help.
“Heritage has filled an important role and grown and matured since its founding,” said Tom Edmonds, a GOP consultant. “It’s a touchstone on any issue. ‘Where is Heritage on this?’ ”
DeMint’s presumed political ambitions raise the question: Will he stay for the long term or use his new perch to prepare for a presidential run in 2016?
Asked if the organization’s board of directors had asked DeMint for a commitment not to run, Heritage spokesman James Weidman seemed surprised and said, “I can’t imagine that that even came up.” He later called back, saying the terms of DeMint’s employment have not “been negotiated yet. The job was offered and accepted on the sole criteria of mission.”