Those familiar with the Tea Party movement know that one of its more sophisticated coalitions is the Ohio Liberty Council (OLC), a collection of 80 Tea Party and 9/12 groups spread across the Buckeye State. As an umbrella organization, the OLC has developed a model of connecting various local groups in a way that allows them to retain their autonomy while working toward the common goal of greater freedom and less government.
One leader of the Ohio Liberty Council is Chris Littleton, who until a few years ago was not politically involved at all (a familiar theme among Tea Party organizers). When asked why he got involved, Chris is very blunt: "One letter: W. During his presidency, I went from college student to husband to father. Obviously priorities change, but one thing seemed very clear to me over that time--this wasn't any version of America which I liked, and it certainly wasn't centered around the principles on which the country was founded."
Chris here reflects another common theme, namely that the frustration that exploded onto the public scene in 2009 had been brewing for some time under the Bush administration and Republican Congress. "Ds and Rs had become irrelevant, and no one had the fortitude to do the right thing," he recalls. "Our ruling class was driving us off a cliff and didn't even care."
So Chris and his friends decided to do something about it. "By February of 2009 we had decided to start our own little revolution thinking we would help re-plant the seeds of liberty neighborhood by neighborhood, starting in Ohio. Little did we know that just a month later, in March of 2009, the second phase of the liberty movement would begin with the first round of protests and rallies in response to Obama's stimulus."
He admits it's been an interesting journey these last few years. "There have been plenty of frustrations. Most of them revolved around the realization of some new fact: realization that more people want to complain, or maybe just attend a rally, than actually do something constructive. Realization that there is so much hypocrisy from within the old conservative movement that many times they would rather maintain the status quo than actually do anything to jeopardize their power base. Realization that practically without exception--even the lowest level of elected officials think first of their own careers, and rarely--if ever--even possess the capacity to do good."
Those realizations are what led Chris and his friends and fellow Tea Party leaders to form the OLC. "The last few years have been one continuous learning curve--all driven by the question: how do we go from merely being frustrated to achieving the policy objectives we desire?" So over a few beers, Chris, and his friends Mike Wilson (who is the president of the Cincinnati Tea Party, the flagship of the Ohio tea parties), Jason Rink, and Joe Bozzi sat in Chris's basement and, as Chris puts it, "decided it would be a great idea to have a statewide coalition of Tea Party and 9/12 groups working toward a common objective." The Ohio Liberty Council was born.
Founded on the premise of "federalism in action," the OLC acts as the umbrella group for more than six dozen groups, but doesn't manage, fund, run, or advise on any day-to-day activities of any group in the state. It is merely intended to be a conduit for that kind of joint activity when needed. After an initial rally the summer of 2009, the OLC had local leaders meet to discuss the council's objectives. "All the participating leaders from the event were invited to help define five strategic objectives of the organization which as of that day became: Strengthen State Sovereignty, Affect Elections, Accountability of Elected Officials, Educate the Community to Principles of Liberty, and Grow Awareness of the Movement," Chris told me.
In February 2010, Chris and the OLC decided they were ready for a significant undertaking: to block Obamacare from going into effect in Ohio. "At that time, the health care bill debate was at its peak, so a handful of us sat in a restaurant in Cincinnati and thought--we could launch a citizen initiative to address the individual mandate. Why? Because it's the strongest defense we could offer as a state, and we knew nothing was more important. It also fit every strategic objective we had established for ourselves." Chris secured the help of Maurice Thompson from the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law to draft the Ohio Healthcare Freedom Amendment. After the idea was presented to all the Ohio leaders, every single group leader committed to help with this citizens' initiative, which would require the valid signatures of almost 400,000 registered voters in Ohio.
They formed a formal organization, the Ohio Project, to lead the signature-gathering effort. Chris describes the entire experience as an amazing one of learning on the fly, and of people stepping up to perform key roles as required. He singles out was a physically disabled attorney named Alan Witten. "Alan served on the ballot committee, acted as Treasurer for the effort and he and his wife literally transformed their house to be the nerve center of the largest volunteer signature gathering effort in Ohio history."
By last summer, Tea Party and 9/12 volunteers from across the state had gathered more than 441,000 signatures. Later in the summer, the signatures were certified and the Ohio Healthcare Freedom Amendment is on the ballot as Issue 3, to be voted on November 8. (As we go to press, polling shows it stands a good chance of passage.)
Looking ahead, Chris told me, "2012 will be about the election, but more than that--2011 and 2012 will give us something we never had before--expertise on how to impact elections. And if you can run a successful campaign from top to bottom to achieve a particular policy objective, why can't you primary the right person?" He added, "If you possess the ability to have genuine electoral impact, then you have the most powerful lobbying tool in the world--engaged citizens with objectives and experience. At that point, we'll have what we all desire: the ability to secure public policy consistent with our principles of personal and economic liberties for everyone. Society must uphold liberty as the goal, not just a cliché--and that's the key to everything."