Fred Nathan Jr., founder of Think New Mexico, was always a bit on the serious side.
“I’ll paint a picture for you: I was the only kid in my elementary school who came to school every day with a briefcase,” he says.
A “recovering lawyer,” Nathan started the think tank in 1999 in an unusual format – it is not associated with any political party or viewpoint and it doesn’t just sit back and think. Instead, it works to translate its deep research into bipartisan approval for change.
Nathan’s latest victory was last year’s passage of the New Mexico Work and Save Act, which allows workers without access to a retirement plan to contribute to one through automatic payroll deductions.
Nathan says he was motivated to start Think New Mexico after working in then-Attorney General Tom Udall’s office to pass landmark drunken-driving laws.
Fatalities dropped by nearly 20% in the following two years, “and it demonstrated for me how laws can really … save lives,” says Nathan, who won a Humanitarian Award this year from the Jewish Community Center.
But the seed was planted much earlier, when Nathan watched his mother become active in the pro-choice movement after her own experience trying to get an abortion in her home state of New York.
Nathan’s younger brother was developmentally disabled, and when his mother got pregnant again, his parents knew they wouldn’t be able to care for a fourth child.
However, Frances Elson Nathan couldn’t get a legal abortion unless she had letters from two doctors testifying that she was insane. She was definitely not insane, but she did get the needed letters, along with a sense of outrage about the fact that low-income women likely did not have such connections and had to resort to back-alley abortions.
She plunged into a life of activism, leading teams of women to Albany to successfully lobby for legalized abortion, becoming active in Planned Parenthood and founding the state chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, now called NARAL.
“I can remember coming home from elementary school and sitting at our dining room table with my mother and a group of women as they put out a mailer and talked politics,” Nathan says. “My job was to seal the envelopes, which meant that I couldn’t talk because my 10-year-old mouth was occupied. But I did a lot of listening.”
So what was in the elementary school briefcase?
“Often it was empty or carried a candy bar. Sometimes there was a book. I have four very close friends from back then, and they always find ways to remind me of this. They never pulled me aside and said. ‘You know, you look ridiculous … with the briefcase.'”
Is there a Think New Mexico project you’re particularly proud of?
“I would say our first project to make full-day kindergarten accessible to every child in the state. Back then – this was 1999 – it was half-day kindergarten. It was really a misnomer, because it was only about 2½ hours long. I remember explaining to legislators in the rural parts of New Mexico that kids were actually spending more time on the school bus going to and from school than they actually were in the classroom. The hero of full-day kindergarten was really Dee Johnson (now deceased wife of then-Gov. Gary Johnson), who became our biggest ally and I think was very helpful in helping to change the governor’s mind. He had said he was going to veto it, but had a change of heart.”
How did you get to New Mexico?
“Quite by accident is the short answer. The first time was in the summer of 1977 … right before my junior year of high school, and I signed up to work with a wonderful non-profit called the American Jewish Society for Service. They sent me to San Miguel … west of Las Cruces, where they were building a park for a migrant community that didn’t have any place for their children to play. We had the weekends off, and we traveled the state in this old school bus. Having grown up in New York, I was absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of the state and how friendly people were. I actually still am. And after law school, I decided to return. My parents back East told their friends, ‘You know, Freddie, he’s going through one of his stages.’ And that was 34 years ago, so it’s been a very long stage.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“There’s only one thing on my bucket list. My father worked until he was 90, and I probably will, too. But maybe when I’m 80, I’d like to scale up the Think New Mexico model and see if it might work in other states.”
Do you have any hidden talents?
“None. I am colorblind and tone deaf.”
What’s a splurge for you?
“I was raised by two Depression-era parents who taught me the difference between needs and wants. So splurging for me is two scoops of ice cream. Wait. I want to amend that answer. Two scoops of butter pecan ice cream.”
Do you ever get to see a direct impact Think New Mexico has had on an individual?
Yes. For example, many of our summer interns now come from public schools and tell us they were one of the guinea pigs – the first people to encounter full-day kindergarten.”
Have you had any failures that haunt you?
“One that we’ve been working on for six years has been New Mexico’s unique way of funding public infrastructure projects. We’ve failed on making it a more merit-based process to prioritize and fully fund the state’s most urgent infrastructure needs. It’s clearly needed, and we’ve struggled to gain traction, but we’re persevering. We never give up, so we’ll keep bringing that idea up until it’s enacted.”
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
“This humanitarian award, which I suppose (shows that) every dog has his day. It’s nice to have our work recognized, but it’s especially meaningful when the award is coming from a group like the JCC that’s done so much for so many. My wife is having a lot of fun with it. It used to be, ‘Honey, please take out the trash,’ which has now become, ‘Would the great humanitarian be willing to get off the couch long enough to take out the garbage?’ I’ll never live it down.”