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Taking the helm at Common Sense 

When David Mills got word that he'd been chosen as the next executive director of the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation, he was right outside the "board room."

"I was in the board meeting actually and they sent me out for a little bit to discuss my candidacy," says the 34-year-old Durham resident. "Then, they called me back in to congratulate me."

A former research director for the foundation--which operates as a unique combination of think tank and lefty lobbying group--Mills has been working as interim director since founder Chris Fitzsimon left for a job in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

It's never easy for an organization when its leader moves on, but this spring was an especially tough time for Common Sense as it faced the worst financial crunch in its 9-year history. Mills' steadiness and energy during that time, as he responded to press inquiries, met with donors, organized fundraisers and kept churning out the foundation's pointed and powerful "Consider This" commentaries, impressed board members.

"We had a lot of applicants, but as time went on and it became clear what a great job David was doing, we realized we had the best candidate in-house," says foundation board member Steve Schewel, founder of The Independent.

Although he didn't initially apply for the director's job, Mills says he soon decided that's where he wanted to be. "I realized I really love this organization and it was in danger," he says. "It's clear it has so much potential. It just needed leadership."

Mills first encountered Common Sense four years ago when he was working as an investigator for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. He'd moved to the Bull City to study for a Ph.D. in religion at Duke (he has a master's in divinity from Union Theological Seminary) but soon decided to shift into secular, activist gear.

What he liked about Common Sense was its refusal to be a research organization in the classic, ivory tower mode. "Common Sense is a think tank that can represent the people who've been locked out of the debate in North Carolina," Mills says. "There is very little public policy coming from the left these days. And the media is so conservative. There are a lot of people who really want a different perspective on the issues. Common Sense is positioned to provide that through commentary, research and analysis, and to do it in a hard-hitting way without compromise."

Take the foundation's newest project, for example. Later this month, Common Sense will present the results of a study of the 10 "worst cases" on North Carolina's death row--cases that highlight the unfair and arbitrary nature of the death penalty system. Common Sense will also continue to weigh in on issues such as tax fairness, education and health reform. The "Consider This" e-mail commentaries now go out to 2,000 addresses.

How does an organization like Common Sense prevent itself from preaching to the choir, reaching only those who are sympathetic to its views? "I think that's a real challenge," Mills says. He points out that on one recent issue--raising cigarette taxes--the foundation took a stance opposite the one many progressives have staked out by arguing that hiking the tax would unfairly burden the poor. "I had one person ask me if we were taking contributions from R.J. Reynolds," Mills says. "That's an example of how we've tried to analyze an issue in all its complexity and arrived at a conclusion that's pretty controversial among the people we care about."

In the coming year, Mills wants to find ways to reach more people statewide, more young people and more people in the technology sector with Common Sense's message. There's also plenty of fundraising left to do--a daunting job for a public policy organization that's often critical of big business (the foundation currently has no corporate supporters).

"And of course, I'd love to have another staff person," Mills laughs. Right now, he's the only paid employee.

While the past six months have been a difficult time for the organization, Mills says there have been positive side effects. "We have a lot of new members and a lot of new energy," he says. As long as people are calling us and e-mailing us, it's clear we're connecting."

For more information, go to www.common-sense.org.

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