The Grassroots Spectator

After the Tea Parties

Even before anybody dreamed of the Tea Parties, a number of conservative grassroots organizations were mobilizing. From our June issue.

By From the June 2009 issue

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What do conservatives do after the Tea Parties? What do you do when the protests are over? How do you harness all that energy? How do you turn it into a permanent force?

When hundreds of thousands of people— by some counts, well over a half million—protested nationwide against big-government-gone-wild on April 15, the near-spontaneous passion of the “Tea Party” demonstrators gave a major boost to the spirits of more seasoned conservative activists. And even bigger, more organized Tea Parties are reportedly on tap for July 4. But it’s one thing to get people to voice their frustrations; it’s a much more difficult thing to channel those frustrations into something long-lastingly positive.

The good news is that even before anybody dreamed of the Tea Parties, a number of conservative grassroots organizations, almost completely divorced from Washington/New York direction, were mobilizing in the far-flung towns and cyberspace wikis of this great nation. Candidate recruitment and training, media and Internet entrepreneurial efforts, intellectual stimulation and policy innovation, all are getting jolts of energy and talent from new organizations. Even better, many of those organizations were well positioned to build directly on the Tea Party momentum while working to create the next generation of conservative political infrastructure. Indeed, one such organization, American Majority, almost immediately posted a new website called, yes, AfterTheTeaParty.com. “Run for local office,” says one sub-link at the site. “Be an activist,” says another. “Support Freedom!” says a third. American Majority’s main objective is to recruit and train candidates for local and state offices such as town councils, school boards, county commissions, and state legislators—or, if people just don’t want to run for office, to at least train them to be effective activists. “You have to move from protesting to becoming ‘implementers,’” said American Majority President Ned Ryun. “We are saying to people: We will empower you. If you want to be involved, we will give you the tools.”

Ryun continued: “We’re trying to stay very much on the cutting edge, to teach things like: How do you use Twitter, how do you use Facebook, Plurk, and Ning? How do you use social networking tools in campaigns or in building coalitions or in building communities of like-minded citizens? We’re really trying to stay on the cutting edge—and trying to professionalize as much as possible.”

OTHER ORGANIZATIONS, OF COURSE, offer candidate training among their options—including the venerable Leadership Institute, which in its training of potential candidates, campaign managers, youth leaders, student journalists, campus organizers, and others remains one of conservatism’s greatest resources.

But what American Majority does is to focus specifically at the grassroots, at the local level—and locates full-time staff in those local areas to build relationships, actively search for political talent, and convince activists that they may have a calling in local public office. In short, rather than waiting for potential leaders to self-select, American Majority goes out into the local communities and finds those leaders—and then teaches them not only how to run and win campaigns, but how to navigate the politics and policies of their new offices after they win.

“We’re trying to create that broad deep bench of future leaders who have a good perspective on the proper role of government and then give them the tools to implement those policy ideas,” Ryun said. To do that, American Majority unofficially partners with state-level conservative think tanks to create site-specific manuals about how to serve in office—what the jobs entail, what policies are at issue, how the system works. And its local staff stays in touch after their training sessions and serves as a sounding board and knowledge resource, as well as providing continued encouragement and “moral support.”

American Majority has chapters in six states so far—Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Texas—and expects to expand into two or three more by year’s end. On April 7, its training was put to the test in both Oklahoma and Kansas, with city council races in the former and school board and city council races in Kansas. In Kansas, candidates it trained won 23 of 54 races, and in Oklahoma the record was even better: 17 of 27. Of those 17, 16 were first-time candidates.

“What the American Majority people helped me to do was to define how I can give back by showing me that my unique perspective will matter and does matter,” said one of those winning candidates, new school board member Todd Biggs of Pittsburg, Kansas. “The American Majority let me know that I wasn’t alone and that my opinion counts.”

Not only that, he said, but when he faced a last-minute choice about whether to run for the four-year term he had intended, or to switch and run for an open two-year term against “a big-wig from the local university,” as he called him, it was to American Majority’s local chief, Dennis Wilson, that he turned for unofficial advice. Biggs ran for the two-year term, and endured his opponent bragging at a key public forum about how many people the opponent could call in Washington to get things done for the local schools.

Biggs, who runs a landscaping business and “gets [his] hands dirty every day,” said his American Majority training helped him keep his wits when he would otherwise have felt outclassed. “Folks,” he told the audience, “I can’t call a single person in Washington, D.C., for you, but the people of Pittsburg, Kansas, have my phone number and when you call, I’ll listen, and that’s what’s really important here.” Biggs won with 55 percent of the vote.

AMERICAN MAJORITY'S PRESIDENT, Ned Ryun, and his identical twin Drew, age 36, are both longtime conservative activists. Drew just left a top job at the conservative American Center for Law and Justice to return to oversee the American Majority efforts in Oklahoma and Texas; Ned was a co-founder of the Generation Joshua program that provides character- and civic-education for youths aged 11-19. (The Ryuns are sons of former international track world-record holder and later five-term U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun.) Their American Majority originally was conceived (but is organizationally independent from) the Sam Adams Alliance, which is another key, fairly new player on the grassroots conservative scene. Sam Adams, founded in December 2006, is particularly focused on training people how to use new media tools, especially “wikis” (as in Wikipedia), and using them as tools to “advance economic and individual liberty.”

“Our political system is dysfunctional,” said Eric O’Keefe, chairman of the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance. “Congress is unrepresentative; government is out of control and the political parties are part of the system, both of them. So I am working on supporting independent infrastructure so that citizens can be heard and be effective and support mission- based, principled organizations.”

Perhaps the best known of the Alliance’s projects is “Ballotpedia,” a wiki that keeps tabs on ballot initiatives across the country. In the four days immediately before last year’s elections, Ballotpedia received some 5 million page views as people tried to follow the progress of initiatives on gay marriage, crime, tax hikes, and other subjects. Newer and less well known—but already with more than a million page views each—are Sunshine Review, a wiki hotline for government accountability and transparency, and Judgepedia, which already features articles on each of the nation’s 338 state Supreme Court justices and that by the end of the year will feature every state appeals court judge in the country. (By early may it already contained more than 12,000 total entries.) Also, by the end of the summer, Judgepedia expects to feature an article on every federal judge from the time of George Washington up to the present. In short, it’s a great way for voters to keep tabs on these officials whose jobs are all too often a bit mysterious to the general public.

O’Keefe says that like American Majority, the Sam Adams group is “close allies” with yet another key player in grassroots conservative revival, the conservative state policy think tanks that now exist in all 50 states. (Think of state-level Heritage Foundations or American Enterprise Institutes.) They will surely play a key role in helping Tea Partiers focus and direct their complaints about excessive, invasive government.

“A LOT OF PEOPLE AT THESE Tea Parties are not your usual suspects,” said Kevin Kane, president of Louisiana’s Pelican Institute, founded in March of 2008. “We were at the parties building up our e-mail lists—lists of people who need more information to give voice to what they are feeling.”

Kane returned to New Orleans—where he had lived for 12 years—after five years in New York, because he had experienced a “long-term frustration with the stagnant economy and lack of opportunities” in a state and city he had grown to love. “Post- Katrina and with Bobby Jindal being elected,” he said, “I felt there really was an opportunity to do some good”—and then after a lengthy conversation with syndicated libertarian conservative columnist Deroy Murdock, also a New Orleans lover and a fellow proponent of a Crescent City think tank, Kane and his wife decided to try to make a go of it. As in so many of the other grass-roots conservative efforts, Pelican was not created by some top-down edict but originally through individual initiative.

Such was also the case with one of the oldest of the state conservative think tanks, the Alabama Policy Institute, which will celebrate its 20th birthday on September 1. API founder Gary Palmer still runs the organization, and also was a founding board member and one-time president of the national State Policy Network that now serves as an information-sharing link for all of the groups. Again, the idea is solid communication rather than command-and-control coordination—a network of like-minded individuals and groups, far from the tightly controlled “Conspiracy” imagined by Hillary Clinton and the lefty blogosphere.

“We take the intellectual or academic information and make it retail,” Palmer said. “We give people like the Tea Party activists the ability to articulate what they know instinctively.”

Palmer said the Tea Party movement also has provided “a renewed opportunity to link the economic conservatives and social conservatives together…a reunion of the coalition” that had been begun to show a strain until the Obama administration reminded both groups that Leviathan threatens all of them.

Still, he said that the bigger problem the think tanks can address is not just the lack of information among activists and protesters, but among elected officials too.

“The real crisis is a crisis of leadership,” he said. “It’s a lack of understanding [by officeholders] of what things constitute the basis of government by a free people.”

Toward that end, he said he is particularly encouraged that an Alabama group led mostly by conservative women launched in May the Alabama Legislative Leadership Initiative, with a goal, like that of the American Majority, of identifying and electing leaders well grounded in conservative philosophy. The group intends to find 15,000 people each to commit $2 per week to a political action committee so that, every four years, some $6 million will be available for conservative candidates in a state whose Legislature heretofore has remained controlled by old-line liberal machine politics.

ALABAMA AND LOUISIANA are just two examples of the sorts of things going on in all fifty states.

“It’s natural to take the Tea Party concerns about the national government and apply those concerns to taxing and spending policies at the state levels, too,” Kane said. “And we can have an immediate impact at the state and local levels.”

Meanwhile, with more than 800 local organizers having driven the original Tea Party movement, another group, called Tea Party Patriots, was founded to try to serve as an “umbrella” organization that one of its founders, Mark Meckler, says will “facilitate communication between local Tea Party organizers and activists, and…act as a clearinghouse for information, resources, and services.”

Whether through a loose umbrella organization or through grassroots efforts like American Majority, activists on the ground intend to keep the Tea Party energy from dissipating.

“We need at least ten percent of [the hundreds of thousands] of Tea Party participants nationwide,” said Ned Ryun, “to at least think about running for office or at least become serious activists at the local level. We have to make that the starting point of something good, not just a one-day event.”  

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.