A 20-Year Legacy: Fighting for Freedom, Truth, Responsibility

Click play above to watch a seven-minute video produced in connection with the John Locke Foundation’s 20th anniversary. It highlights JLF programs and activities. It also features testimonials from some of the well-known figures in politics, policy, and punditry who have spoken at JLF events since 1990.


John Hood chuckles about the early days. There were the people who assumed he must be John Locke. There were the hours spent entering names and addresses into an archaic database. And there were the lawmakers who asked him to fetch coffee since the fresh-faced Hood resembled the typical legislative page.

It’s been a memorable journey from john-of-all-trades to president and chairman of a premiere state policy think tank. But that’s the road Hood has traveled from that day in 1990 when he and founding president Marc Rotterman opened the doors of the John Locke Foundation. The following year, Marilyn Avila signed on as bookkeeper and administrator, and the trio formed the intellectual firepower and energy behind the state’s outspoken voice on behalf of conservative principles and free-market economics.

It wasn’t long before movers and shakers took notice. In 1991, JLF’s first alternative state budget addressed the state’s economic downturn and the state’s nearly $1 billion budget hole. John walked the halls of the General Assembly, passing out the budget and explaining its components. “There were some people who, pretty quickly, began to be interested in us and our work,” Hood recalls. “And not just conservatives — some liberals, too.”

One of JLF’s earliest public fights over policy came not with progressives but with Republican Gov. Jim Martin, who championed the Global TransPark in Kinston. JLF criticized the project as a misguided use of public funds. Martin stood his ground and defended the TransPark before a JLF audience. “He made his case, had his charts and everything,” Hood says of that memorable day.

Just a few years later, it was Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt who stood before a 1994 Locke Foundation gathering of fiscal conservatives. In the political wave that swept the country, Republicans had taken back the N.C. House — something North Carolina hadn’t seen since the 1890s — and came within a hair of taking over the N.C. Senate.

Members of Hunt’s Cabinet watched from the audience as the governor made front-page news by embracing tax cuts. “Gov. Hunt’s tax cut package was bigger than the one Republicans had proposed,” Hood recalls. “He perceived that the political environment in Raleigh had changed, and a good place to reposition himself as a tax cutter was at the John Locke Foundation.”

Hood believes the development of JLF’s journalism arm represents a key milestone for the foundation. He is proud of Carolina Journal’s reputation as a relentless government watchdog that invests time and resources into investigative journalism. Executive Editor Don Carrington’s 1997 expose on a $21 million legislative slush fund used for pork-barrel projects was the first in a line of consequential stories about misuse of public funds and conflict of interest.

“Whether you look at our impact on policy or our journalistic efforts, we’ve had a really remarkable 20 years.”

Hood notes there are still many policy challenges ahead, including alarmist climate change policies, the stifling of public charter schools, the spend-and-tax habit of state and local officials, weak private property rights protections, and local government intrusion disguised as “smart growth” policies. “We’re already working on all of them,” Hood says.

Milestones in Our History

  • 1990 — The John Locke Foundation begins operation.
  • 1991 — First issue of Carolina Journal produced.
  • 1992 — JLF issues major reports on school reform and public-private toll roads.
  • 1993 — UNC-Chapel Hill’s direction questioned in JLF’s Tradition at Risk.
  • 1994 — First major JLF policy conference (on health care) held in Durham.
  • 1995 — JLF releases first alternative state budget at Legislative Building.
  • 1996 — Former Gov. Jim Hunt chooses JLF event to announce a tax cut.
  • 1997Carolina Journal exposes secret pork-barrel accounts for legislators.
  • 1998 — Legislature enacts health-plan tax credit based on JLF research.
  • 1999 — JLF moves into current office location in downtown Raleigh.
  • 2000 — JLF predicts state budget woes, says UNC bonds will raise taxes.
  • 2001 — CJ Online redesigned, becomes a top site for state politics & policy.
  • 2002 — JLF’s staff approaches 15, budget first exceeds $1.5 million.
  • 2003 — Carolina Journal Radio debuts, now run on 20 stations.
  • 2004 — JLF appearances in N.C. print media exceed 3,000 per year.
  • 2005CJ expands readership to 160,000, begins regional editions.
  • 2006 — JLF’s staff approaches 30, budget first exceeds $3 million.
  • 2007 — Thanks in part to JLF, dozens of county tax hikes fail in referenda across the state.
  • 2008 — JLF exposes faulty data, political motives behind state global-warming commission.
  • 2009CJ investigation of Mike Easley’s finances sparks federal corruption probe.
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