As a Williams sophomore, Fred Nathan Jr. ’83 learned a lesson that to this day guides his work as founder and executive director of the nonpartisan think tank Think New Mexico. That lesson: Focus on one issue at a time.
It was the early 1980s, and Williams faculty were deciding whether to continue the Winter Study program, a three-week term in January when students can flex their intellectual and creative muscles in a single course of their choosing, without the pressure of a grade. Nathan ran for College Council president and won on a platform to fight to keep the program.
“I worked closely with President Chandler and met individually with almost every member of the faculty to make the case to retain Winter Study,” Nathan says. His efforts paid off. Winter Study today remains a vibrant, singular Williams experience for both students and faculty.
Nathan brings the same laser focus he developed at Williams to Think New Mexico, which describes itself as “a results-oriented think tank serving New Mexicans.” Now in its 20th year, the Santa Fe-based organization seeks out legislative sponsors across the political spectrum, builds supportive coalitions with other organizations and lobbies the governor and legislature to enact one piece of legislation annually.
Since the state is often at the bottom of many important educational and economic rankings, Nathan says, “We don’t have the luxury of being ideological. We don’t care whether an idea is liberal or conservative, just whether it advances New Mexico.”
Among the group’s legislative successes are implementing state-funded, full-day kindergarten for all children; repealing a local tax on food; and establishing a state-sponsored website where New Mexicans can compare the costs of medical procedures at hospitals around the state.
This year, the organization is advocating for legislation to redirect spending from public school administration into the classrooms. According to a Think New Mexico study, in the past decade, central office spending outpaced classroom spending in 61 of New Mexico’s 89 public school districts.
As one of a staff of four, including associate director Kristina G. Fisher ’02, Nathan is integral to the day-to-day work. During the legislative session, which ends in mid-March, he and his staff practically live at the “Roundhouse,” the state capitol building right across the street from Think New Mexico’s Headquarters.
Nathan is no stranger to state government and politics. After earning a law degree at Northwestern University and three years in private practice, he spent eight years as special counsel to Tom Udall, then New Mexico’s attorney general. Among other highlights, Nathan led the state’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement.
During that time, Nathan says he came to understand “how partisan politics seems to so often get in the way of solving problems.”
Udall was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998. Nathan remained on his staff in New Mexico but soon began thinking about starting a think tank.
“My last day of work with Tom was on Dec. 31, 1998,” Nathan says. “On Jan. 1, 1999, Think New Mexico was launched.”
Now, Nathan says, his “dream is to seed Think New Mexico in other states.” And he continues to draw lessons from Williams, where he’s served over the years as a trustee, member of the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni, class and regional officer, fundraiser and mentor for current students.
Says Nathan: “There’s a spirit of reform at Williams and a desire to always do more and to do better that continues to influence me and my work at Think New Mexico.”
—Emily Van Cleve ’77 is a writer and editor based in New Mexico.