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Tea Partiers and FreedomWorks Craft a 2010 Agenda

Freedomworks-480x338.jpg
Freedomworks-480x338.jpg

Organizer Jebb Young addresses conservative activists at the FreedomWorks office (Photo by David Weigel)

Before Ryan Hecker presented the Contract from America to his Sunday night audience — 63 activists huddled inside of a meeting room in the Washington, D.C. office of FreedomWorks — the free-market think tank’s spokesman promised great things.

“You watch,” Adam Brandon told TWI. “This is the idea that’s going to change the election.”

[GOP1] In this room, Hecker, a lawyer and Tea Party activist, had an easy sell. His idea, fleshed out over four months, was to produce an election manifesto along the lines of the Contract with America launched by Republicans shortly before the 1994 elections, or the 1961 Sharon statement drafted by Young Americans for Freedom. First, Tea Party activists — and anyone else who was interested — would submit ideas at the ContractFromAmerica or Spiritof94 websites. Then they’d be whittled down to 50 ideas with an online vote. When he brought the draft contract to this meeting, it was down to 20 user-selected ideas. “I had four ideas,” Hecker chuckled. “None of them made it in here.”

The draft contract was a hit — at first. When FreedomWorks vice president of policy Max Pappas asked what people thought of the name, the dissent started to rumble.

“I just think if there’s anybody who has negative thoughts toward Gingrich or that group,” said Charlotte Fitzgerald, a Maryland activist, “this has associations with that. If you start with a clean slate, you can be more credible to independents.”

Hecker stepped up to explain himself. “My reason for ‘contract’ — maybe it’s just the attorney in me — is that I like the idea that it’s binding. With the Contract with America, a lot of it ended up not being enacted.”

Adam Brandon offered that the “Contract” name would make more sense to Washington politicians. “When I say ‘Contract from America,’ they know exactly what I’m talking about. When I say ‘American Manifesto,’ they say, What’s that?”

“‘American Manifesto’ sounds socialist,” sniffed Lynn Collins, a Delaware activist.

It was a friendly argument that didn’t go off the rails — within a few minutes, activists were voting on which in-progress Contract items they supported. That was business as usual at the Liberty Leadership Summit, an inaugural effort by FreedomWorks to bring together Tea Party activists from state to state to meet, share ideas, and craft an agenda. From Saturday through Monday, 63 activists gathered in the free-market group’s offices to strategize for the 2010 elections, participate in workshops like titles like “What You Can and Can’t Say: How to Stay Out of Jail This Year,” and break occasionally for pizza or Chinese food.

Despite the high level of the discussion — the Contract draft was marked “confidential,” and activists openly debated which incumbents they were ready to challenge in 2010 — FreedomWorks invited reporters inside to see how their movement worked. On Monday morning, the activists would sit down with reporters from The New York Times, CNN and other media outlets to explain who they were and what they were doing. After a year of liberal pundits bashing FreedomWorks as an “astroturf” group and attacking the credibility of Tea Party activists for working with it, the group’s leaders have stopped caring about MSNBC or liberal bloggers attacking them as a force behind a popular anti-government movement.

“We’re the shadowy roots!” laughed Brandon. “What I always tell people is that we’re a service center. There’s only 18 of us. Our model is that we’re going to help you and your network.”

The Liberty Leadership Summit was a perfect demonstration of how FreedomWorks amplifies and aids the work that Tea Party activists already want to do. On their way into the offices for Sunday’s meeting, activists grabbed copies of the latest Cook Political Report rankings of House and Senate races, copies of G. Edward Griffin’s seminal anti-Federal Reserve tome “The Creature from Jekyl Island,” and copies of a memo from Pappas laying out the “fiscal policy outlook” of the coming year. That memo laid out the cases against the Democratic agenda on issues ranging from energy to financial regulation, warning activists against the majority party’s proposals to answer voters’ concerns.

“Bush’s ‘Wall Street Bailout’ was the spark that lit the Tea Party grassfire,” wrote Pappas in a section on financial regulation, “and the Obama administration has so far been successful in continuing to increase the ties between Wall Street and Washington while at the same time demonizing bankers for political gain. This presents a big opportunity for the right to throw off the image of being owned by business interests when what we really support are free markets.”

Some Tea Party activists at the meeting, like Fitzgerald, blanched at the thought of their agenda matching up with the Republican agenda. There was audible grumbling when Hecker announced that Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions was on board with the Contract from America as soon as it was ready to launch — Hecker mollified that by explaining that the group was not “tied” to Gingrich. When Florida activist Robin Stublen worried that Republicans might try and beat Tea Party activists to the punch with their own Contract, Brandon told him not to worry.

“They don’t have the credibility to do that,” Brandon said.

At the same time, in the wake of Scott Brown’s upset victory in the Massachusetts special election — a victory that came after Democrats tried and failed to negatively tie Brown to Tea Parties — activists were thrilled at the prospects of taking down long-serving incumbents. Sketching out the primary and general election calender for 2010, activists speculated that the Florida seat of retiring Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) could be up for grabs, along with the Senate seats held by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and House seats held by Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) and Rep. Michael Mahon (D-N.Y.). Every Democratic committee chairman, they argued, should be looked at for a challenge. According to Virginia activist Lisa Miller, former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) was talking to Tea Party activists about challenging Perriello, the man who beat him.

When all of this was boiled down, the activists came up with three goals. The first: “No tax & spend incumbent goes unchallenged.” The second: “Take over the Republican Party,” which meant scouting out “strategic opportunities to put fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate.” The third: “Fiscal conservatives will take back the House and Senate.”

If the short debate over the Contract from America did anything, it demonstrated that the Tea Party vision of “fiscal conservatism” is one that Republicans are primed to run on. Asked to vote whether the first batch of possible Contract items were in their “top ten” or “bottom ten,” the activists heavily favored items that promised more government transparency (putting every bill online for seven days before votes) and lower taxes (making the Bush tax cuts permanent and replacing the tax code with one “no longer than 4,543 words — the length of the original Constitution). The transparency item, in particular, sounded like a no-brainer.

“I thought we voted for Obama to do that!” said Everett Wilkinson, a Florida activist.

The less popular items were ones that smacked of federal government intervention in the economy. The group voted down a tight term limits rule, a “Committee on Constitutional Authority” that would rule on whether bills passed muster, and waivers from the EPA “in order to allow states flexibility in establishing environmental priorities.” That prompted activists to argue that they should simply support abolishing the EPA. After no one supported a “corporate welfare commission” to scour wasteful spending, Pennsylvania activist John Stahl suggested that the movement campaign against corporate welfare altogether. And Stahl worried that the Contract was missing a major action item.

“There are assaults underway by the Obama administration, and others, on our Constitutional right to vote,” said Stahl. He rattled off examples — the motor voter law, giving the vote to “anybody who’s on the dole,” amnesty to undocumented immigrants — and argued that it needed to become an issue or there would be “a lot of disappointed people out there.”

“That’s a good point,” said Hecker. “One of the ideas that’s not in this, that was on the site, is an ID for voting.”

By the end of the meeting, Tea Party activists had a handle on the issues they’d demand answers on when politicians got fully into gear. And they’d started to determine how the Tea Parties of 2010 would not merely repeat the ones that broke out in 2009. Arkansas activists, said organizer Jebb Young, would hold a rally on the one-year anniversary of the day Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) called protesters “un-American.” They’d meet and greet legislators when they showed up to the next session. After he described ways for Tea Party activists to show their political heft, New York activist Tom Borrelli argued that the movement needed to pick one major corporation and start a boycott of its products. The dozens of Tea Party activists scribbled down notes.

“I think the people that you see here are going to change the direction of the country this year,” said Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director of federal and state campaigns.

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