Politics & Policy

Good Citizen Kane

Kevin Kane (Pelican Institute/YouTube)
In memory of a New Orleans free-market hero

Some people are attracted to public policy by the lure of power or the adrenaline rush of political competition. Kevin Kane had no such motivation. Kane just wanted to help his beloved New Orleans recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Kane, who died Thursday night of gastrointestinal cancer at the far-too-young age of 50, had left a comfortable professional life in New York City to launch the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, in the Crescent City. When he started to discuss his idea with both of us, about a year after Katrina, Kane had no immediate source of funds, very few professional connections in Louisiana, no background in policy work, and little personal experience with the many eccentricities of Pelican State politics.

But as a graduate of Tulane University (where he was captain of the rugby team) and Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, the native Long Islander had developed a deep and abiding love for New Orleans’s unique culture. Kevin savored the full gamut of its varied musical traditions, reveled in its literary heritage, rejoiced in its foods and festivals, and even rooted for its then-woebegone football team, the Saints. He and his vivacious wife, Lesley, who also had spent some time in New Orleans, couldn’t bear the prospect that the city’s culture would be lost. They also thought the hurricane might have wiped clean the biggest stain that long had plagued the otherwise terrific city and state: its tawdry and counterproductive politics.

So, after spending a few moths planning their move — and getting advice from the helpful experts at the State Policy Network (SPN), the umbrella organization that serves and inspires conservative state think tanks across America — the Kanes took the proverbial leap of faith and moved back South.

“We tried to lay it out very plainly for Kevin: You are taking a risk,” said Tracie Sharp, SPN’s president and CEO. “It’s tough to start something from nothing. But Kevin and Lesley took that risk up front and got started. SPN provided modest start-up resources and expertise to help — but he was the one who had to make it happen locally. It takes a real leader to step up and be the one to actually do it.”

In the eight years since Kane officially opened Pelican, he and Lesley (and daughters Molly and Vivian) made themselves part of the fabric of New Orleans, in both the public-policy realm and in their volunteer-heavy private lives. Always operating on a rather limited budget — for all of Kevin’s skills as a researcher, writer, consensus-builder, and persuader, fund-raising was not his favorite part of the job — Pelican made valuable improvements to local and state government. It made significant efforts, with real accomplishments, on behalf of fiscal discipline, coastal restoration, paycheck protection, and especially school choice. (Kevin also served as a volunteer board member of the Choice Foundation and the Center for Development and Learning, which oversees three charter schools.) And at conferences around the country and as a speaker before conventioneers who converged on New Orleans, Kane enthusiastically touted the city’s potential.

In his crowning achievement this year, even as he battled cancer, Kevin saw through to passage major, bipartisan legislation implementing criminal sentencing reform, capping off three full years of his seminal leadership on that issue. While insisting that violent criminals deserve tough sentences, Kevin and Pelican hoped that non-prison penalties for lesser offenses (such as possession of small amounts of marijuana) could ease Louisiana’s serious penitentiary-overcrowding problem and help violators turn their lives around, rather than become bitter and hardened behind bars.

“We admired Kevin and supported his efforts whenever we could,” said Matt Warner, Vice President of Programs and Institute Relations for the Atlas Network, which collaborates with 457 free-market think tanks in the U.S. and 95 other nations worldwide. The Atlas Network provided several grants to Pelican from 2009 onward and included Kane in a number of its gatherings for freedom lovers. 

Meanwhile, Kane became a tremendously valued SPN member. He shared research and ideas with other free-market policy organizations and built a remarkable esprit de corps at SPN conferences through his affability, generous spirit, wry wit, and simple but matchless friendliness to everyone he encountered.

“Those who passed through New Orleans and got to spend time with Kevin and Lesley were treated to a couple who love the city, who were young, energetic vibrant, and hip,” said Sharp. “They were a great team. They really complemented each other. They knew all the best places to go and knew where the fun was to be had. They were a delight to spend time with.”

An elder in his church, a loving family man, a loyal friend, and the epitome of a good citizen, Kevin Kane made a real difference — for his adopted city and state, for free markets and freedom in general.

Kane was an attentive host to each of us. At times, he arranged opportunities for us to lecture and debate — separately and together — before the Pelican Institute’s audiences during various visits to New Orleans. A few years ago, we memorably shared the stage with Kevin and several other speakers at a policy luncheon in a private-dining space at the Palace Restaurant on Canal Street; this was followed by an afternoon at Jazz Fest. On other occasions, Kevin — often accompanied by Lesley — made himself available to share the city’s seemingly infinite culinary and musical offerings.

An elder in his church, a loving family man, a loyal friend, and the epitome of a good citizen, Kevin Kane made a real difference — for his adopted city and state, for free markets and freedom in general, and, in the private realm, for a legion of compatriots across the nation who have filled Kane’s Facebook page with the most touching of tributes.

The Pelican Institute was often a one-man shop, but even as Kevin endured 16 months of cancer with astonishing grace, he made arrangements to keep Pelican going after his own departure. Kevin remained determined that even after his death, his work would help Louisiana’s civil society become as strong as its culture is memorable.

Well met, good friend. Well met.

— Quin Hillyer and Deroy Murdock are NRO contributing editors. The idea for the Pelican Institute began in a conversation between Murdock and Kane at the October 24, 2007, Bastiat Prize for Journalism awards dinner in Manhattan. Hillyer, a native New Orleanian and frequent columnist for Louisiana newspapers, closely followed Pelican’s progress starting the day after Kane and Murdock’s initial discussion.

Editor’s note: This story has been emended since it first appeared.

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