An Ohio state Tea Party convention featured workshops that advocated for dismantling public education, states’ rights, voter suppression and against unions. Racist rhetoric about how black people who receive welfare “have no souls,” that “Obamacare” is reparations, and the persistent refrain that president Obama is “not American” once again marred the Tea Parties’ public relation attempts to appear non-racist.
Attendees were taught that global warming was a fraud, and climate science a form of socialism. A hard look at this conference provides an invaluable window on the way the Tea Party movement works against even the most minimal efforts to promote the common good. Further, the simultaneous prominence of both a spokesman for the well-respected, if ultra-conservative, Heritage Foundation and the unrespectable John Birch Society provide an object lesson in the way the Tea Party movement has brought the furthest edges of the far right into the middle of American life.
At a panel devoted to the Federal Reserve System, John McManus, president of the John Birch Society, claimed that the bank operated in secret and lacked accountability and that it was reminiscent of a Central Bank supposedly discussed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto. McManus touted the idea of a monetary system based on gold and silver, and he repeatedly called for abolition of the Federal Reserve.
One of the other panelists, Mike Sullivan, an investment advisor and financial planner, agreed that the Federal Reserve should be abolished, but said little else. On the other hand, Robert Wagner, a portfolio manager and optometrist, decided wasteful spending of Congress was the actual problem, not the Federal Reserve. He also disagreed with McManus over the bank’s current practices, which he said “stopped the recent recession from devolving into a depression. Nevertheless, he said he would support abolishing the Fed if a better option was presented.
The audience’s attitude to the presentations was instructive. Wagner was often derided, including several attempts to shout him down. The views of McManus the Bircher, and Sullivan, on the other hand, were met with vocal and visible agreement from the audience. Outside in the hall, the literature booths contained more anti-Fed materials, some claiming it was unconstitutional.
The John Birch Society
In addition to a panel discussion on the Federal Reserve, McManus led workshops on the Council on Foreign Relations and a session on the “Neo-Con Agenda.” In the latter session, he told the audience that America is becoming socialist, a system “more deadly that communism.” He blamed Democrats and neo-Conservatives. He warned that a union between North American countries with open borders would be the first steps towards a one-world government system. A “New World Order” was being pursued by many politicians in the United States and abroad, he said. To augment McManus’ multiple presentations, a John Birch Society booth distributed a DVD entitled “JBS (John Birch Society) Overview of America,” and several fliers warning against American interventionism and global socialism.
IREHR has previously reported on how the John Birch Society has piggybacked on Tea Party activities in order to attract news members and gain a larger audience for their ideas. The decision by the convention sponsors–the Ohio Liberty Council, Tea Party Patriots, and Americans for Prosperity–to give the Birch Society a platform is a further indicator of this trend. More, both the Birchers and the Tea Partiers seem to rely upon each other for short-term growth.
One attendee was not happy with the Birch Society’s presence, but he did not criticize its conspiracy-mongering. Rather he wrote on his blog, “I would not, I repeat would not, have invited the John Birch Society. Their reps were almost as arrogant and entitled as Ron Paul’s campaign reps were.” Otherwise both the Birchers and the more staid Heritage Foundation were well received.
The Heritage Foundation
Matt Spalding, vice president for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, gave his own workshop, telling participants that America is currently at a turning point in its history, with analogues to the founding of the nation and the Revolutionary War. The enemies of the Tea Party patriots, he said, were the elites and the progressive liberals, both of which sought to oppose individual liberty. Progressivism, he argued, was initially brought to America from Germany, and is rooted in relativism and historicism. From this evolved the idea that everything must be questioned, including the Constitution. Moreover, liberalism, which grew out of progressive thinking, promotes unlimited government power and elite control. According to Spalding, liberals are trying to turn America into a European country, and “Obamacare” was pointed to as a glaring example. He ended his talk by telling the audience that only they could stem the rising tide of liberal elitism which sought to abridge their freedom and liberty. The audience cheered loudly.
The conference, dubbed “We the People,” took place on July 1 and 2, and was primarily organized by the eighty-eight local Tea Party groups in the Ohio Liberty Council. Ohio has a particularly high level of Tea Party activity, with 12,606 online members of the six national factions in the state, making it the sixth highest total just behind neighboring Pennsylvania and New York. Convention sponsor Tea Party Patriots alone has 2,674 members in the state. Sponsors also included Americans for Prosperity, The Heritage Foundation, and American Majority.
Approximately three hundred people attended, and less than a handful were people of color. It was an older, mostly middle class crowd. Men and women attended in relatively equal numbers, often as couples.
The convention was held in one wing of the Columbus Convention Center, with information booths outside of the workshop rooms. Most of the convention sponsors had booths in the hall with literature available, either for free or for purchase. One booth was dedicated to the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul, replete with information on the need to lower taxes, end the Federal Reserve, and protect Second Amendment Rights. Literature at several booths attacked President Obama. Two tables promoted the repeal of “Obamacare.” Another table passed out information on how to purchase a 9mm pistol engraved with “We the People Convention,” and other phrases from the Constitution for just such an occasion.
“American Exceptionalism” was also touted at several booths, with handouts pronouncing “Why America is Great,” “Endowed by our Creator,” and “Why Doesn’t America Have a King.” The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle that Changed the World was distributed at several different tables. Adherence to the Constitution was staunchly promoted, and at several tables copies of the Constitution were handed out.
The conference opened with a welcoming ceremony led by Tom Zawistowski, president of the Portage County Tea Party. (Shortly thereafter, Zawistowski also became president of the Ohio Liberty Council). After showing a short video by the Heritage Foundation on American exceptionalism entitled “We Still Hold These Truths,” Zawistowski unleashed a hyperbolic speech tinged with war metaphors. The president’s administration was depicted as a “professional army,” and likened to the British who infringed on the rights of Americans centuries ago. The Tea Party patriots, on the other hand, were depicted as the American revolutionaries defending their liberties against a new oppressor, fighting back against Obama and the “liberal agenda.”
Tea Party Nuts & Bolts
Zawistowski also led a workshop on “How to Start a Patriot Group.” He outlined strategies for starting local Tea Party chapters. To get people started in the Portage County Tea Party, he said his group used robo-calls (automated telephone messages). These were necessary, he claimed, because the “hostile” media would not help Tea Party groups advertise. He also advocated using petitions to get people to the events. He talked about how to keep people involved with the movement after an initial event, and highlighted the importance of delegating, and hence making people feel useful. His strategy seems to be working in Ohio.
This session ended with a defense of the Tea party movement. Zawistowski claimed that the movement was not a branch of the Republican Party, as often portrayed in the media. He stated that the Portage County Tea Party had, in fact, backed Democratic candidates, and that they will endorse anyone who upholds the Constitution. He also denounced the portrayal of the movement as racist, stating that “we do not hate Obama because he is black; we hate him because he is a socialist, fascist, and not American.” At this statement, the session participants applauded loudly.
Similar hands-on workshops offered during the convention included sessions on neighborhood and precinct organizing, campaign planning, get out the vote efforts, running a PAC, event organizing, and how to recruit and maintain volunteers. Americans for Prosperity held a three-hour on-line session to teach participants how to effectively use new social media for planning and organizing.
Tea Party activists in the state are already campaigning hard for and against several ballot measures.
Lunch with Jenny Beth Martin
Campaigning was the theme of a lunch time gathering with Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. She praised the movement’s accomplishments while cautioning against complacency. She began by listing a litany of electoral accomplishments attributed to the Tea Party. The list included both Tea Party and Republican candidates. At the same time, she was critical of these same elected officials. Calling out several by name, she claimed that many left their promises to cut wasteful spending and observe Constitutional principles unfulfilled.
Aside from Herman Cain’s stump speech at a Saturday night banquet hosted by the Ohio Citizens PAC, Martin’s talk was the most overtly partisan at the convention. She implored the audience to abstain from voting for Mitt Romney, and gave a strong tacit endorsement of Michele Bachmann’s candidacy. She claimed Bachmann not only believed in, but also acted upon, the principles sacred to the Tea Party. Most of the audience responded strongly to her characterization of both Romney and Bachmann, jeering the former and applauding the latter.
Robert Wagner, who had participated in the panel on the Federal Reserve, led a workshop on “Global Warming and Fraudulent Science.” Wagner admitted he was not a climate scientist, but claimed that one need not be an expert to understand the evidence on climate change. Using a series of graphs and charts, Wagner argued that temperatures actually drive carbon dioxide up, not the other way around. Most scientists, he said, have the causal ordering confused. Any warming that has occurred, according to Wagner, is not man-made, but rather reflects normal cyclical heating and cooling of the earth. Claiming to debunk many global warming “myths,” he stated that glaciers are evaporating instead of melting, the polar bear population is rising, sea levels are falling, and coral reefs are not disappearing. Further, he asserted that any evidence of Antarctica melting is due to the fact that it is a volcano, not because of increasing temperatures. His talk ended with the claim that the entire solar system is warming, not just the earth, attributing this to an increase in the temperature of the sun, as opposed to rising carbon dioxide levels.
Following Wagner’s presentation, geochemist John Sanz reinforced the notion that global warming is a fraud perpetrated by special interest groups. He claimed that his opposition to global warming has gotten him ostracized from the scientific community. Sanz began by saying that humans contribute very little carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide actually has positive benefits for plant life. He cited ocean core data that does not show evidence of warming, and said that there has been a decrease in volatile weather patterns recently, counter to the predictions of global warming scientists.
Sanz compared global warming advocates to Joseph Goebbels, and closed by accusing politicians and corporations of promoting global warming for their personal benefit. He cited the “myth” of global warming as part of a larger global conspiracy to form a one-world government, professing that “the third world will benefit the most because the majority of the “green jobs” will be created in less-developed nations,” and that climate science was a means to achieve “global socialism.” The audience seemed to agree with the claims of both speakers.
Dismantle Public Education
At a workshop entitled, “Education in Ohio: Taxes, Expenditures, and Choice,” Chad Aldis, executive director of “School Choice Ohio” argued that parents should be able to choose the type of education that their children receive. While not disavowing public schools altogether, he contended that they were neither efficient nor thorough. He warned of the rising costs of public education, and projected that 91% of school districts in Ohio would be losing money in 2015. Hence, costs would have to be cut, or taxes would have to be raised.
Aldis advocated what he termed “student centered funding” where money “follows the student” rather than “pumping more money into failing schools.” Under his system, money would be allotted based on a child’s individual needs, and would follow them to whatever type of school they chose to attend—public, private, or charter schools.
The “school choice” concept was well received by the Tea Partiers in attendance, with several audience members sharing their public school horror stories. Back in the main hall, a booth endorsed “school choice,” promoting charter schools and voucher system. Information on the supposed ineffectual nature of public schools was distributed, and attendees were encouraged to sign a petition endorsing alternative choices for education. Home schooling was advertised as a superior choice to public education. Prayer in school was also promoted, and liberal “secular progressives” were blamed for eroding the moral fabric of America.
Attacks on public education seems to be a developing project for the Tea Party movement. In neighboring Pennsylvania, for example, Tea Party activists led by the national faction FreedomWorks are also campaigning hard to privatize schools.
Union Bashing 101
A session called “Cost of Government: Unions, SB5, Pensions, and Waste” focused on the negative economic impact of unions and “excess government intervention” into the economy. It was led by Greg Lawson, the Statehouse Liaison and Policy Analyst for the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Columbus. The session was used to gear-up opposition to a pro-union ballot measure certain to be voted on by Ohioans.
Gov. John Kasich had signed legislation last March, State Bill 5, that bans public employee strikes and restricts collective bargaining rights for more than 350,000 teachers, police officers, state employees and others. In response, more than 10,000 volunteers collected more than 900,000 signatures from all 88 Ohio counties to get a ballot measure to repeal the bill, a measure they believed attacked employee rights and worker safety.
Notably, this Tea Party session framed Senate Bill 5 as measure designed to balance sacrifice, not as an anti-union bill. Lawson contended that public employees should sacrifice in a time of extreme hardship in solidarity with private workers who are suffering. At this claim, the audience applauded enthusiastically. The presentation also claimed that Medicaid was a misallocation of Ohio tax dollars, particularly to Medicaid, and that public schools and the Department of Rehabilitation were tax drains. A common thread throughout Lawson’s presentation was the need to privatize these federally-funded programs.
A workshop called “election integrity and voter fraud” was run by Anita MonCrief, formerly of the Tea Party-affiliated group American Majority and co-founder of a Tea Party group in Louisiana. She is well-known in Tea Party circles because she is a former employee of the now defunct community organizing group, ACORN. And she regaled the audience with tales of ACORN’s alleged misdeeds.
Democratic initiatives at increasing voter registration were characterized as attempts to only win elections, not register voters. The National Voter Registration Act was passed by Clinton, according to MonCrief, solely to increase African-American voter registrations, and Democratic pushes to get voter registration placed on welfare forms sought similar ends. She also warned against a Universal Voter Registration Act, supported by some Democrats, terming it “fraud waiting to happen,” and a “nanny-state initiative.”
MonCrief concluded with a stern caution against a supposedly sinister plot of liberals and progressives to destroy “America as we know it.” She accused the ACLU of trying to tear down the U.S. system of democracy, and accused liberals of infiltrating U.S. elections from “the local level on up.” She told the audience that liberals “buy their candidates,” and thus it was very important that Tea Party patriots stay vigilant and monitor elections at the local level. At the end of the session, several attendees muttered that they were unaware of the expanse of voter fraud amongst Democratic candidates. A further discussion of election fraud was held in a separate room following the session.
Tea Party Economics
At a session on the current economic crisis, Beth Powers began her talk exclaiming that “the government should get the hell out of our lives in every sphere.” The crowd roared with approval. She added, “it is the duty of every patriot to protect the country from the government.” Again, applause erupted. She emphasized that the law can only be morally used to protect people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of property. Any redistribution by the government, therefore, is immoral and must be resisted. Programs such as Medicaid and Social Security were characterized as ponzi schemes.
Powers presently runs “Liberty in America,” a group that travels the country in an American flag-Constitution-wrapped bus promoting free-market principles and passing out Constitutions. She had worked briefly at the Cato Institute, and held positions at several oil and gas companies in Texas. She blamed excessive government regulation for the collapse of the housing market; claimed that America’s debt could lead to mass riots; and that an energy crisis was looming. While the tone of most of the presentation was bleak, Powers ended with tempered optimism telling the audience that “a financial crisis is the perfect opportunity to reclaim our liberty.”
Additional workshops delving into Tea Party economics included sessions on the economic impact of “illegal immigration,” economic bubbles, business recovery, and restructuring Ohio government.
Racializing Health Care Reform as “Reparations”
One of the final sessions on Friday was a panel discussion attacking health care reform led by Kevin Coughlin, a former Ohio House and Senate leader. He told the crowd that “if the government controls your healthcare, they control your lives,” and that maybe “they will just let you die.” He closed by asking who in audience thought Obamacare should be repealed, receiving a unanimous response. A two person panel discussion, consisting of Shonda Werry, Executive Director of the American Healthcare Education Coalition, and Michael Price, a practicing doctor, followed.
Price argued that President Obama’s healthcare plan was in fact not about healthcare at all, but rather about redistribution of wealth, increasing taxes, and reparations for racial minorities. He added that the Health Care bill passed by Congress in 2009 “is evil; it is the most evil thing I’ve ever seen.” He branded it a “non-violent Bolshevik attack on our way of life.”
Weary’s discussion of “Obamacare” lacked the same fiery
rhetoric, although she was similarly opposed to the healthcare reform legislation. She argued that enforcing an individual mandate is unconstitutional, and claimed that the new legislation would hurt both the economy and stunt medical innovation.
States’ Rights and Tea Party Treason
Michael Alan Young held a session on the “Ohio Sovereignty Act,” a proposal to amend the state constitution and codify the states’ rights doctrine of nullification (for more on so-called state sovereignty efforts, see “Tea Time with the Posse”). The amendment would seek to nullify objectionable federal laws from applying in the state; and install a recall process, wherein elected officials could be removed from their positions for “abuses of power.” Under this measure, any legislation proposed in Ohio would have to be deemed constitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court before it could be ratified.
Young is a founding member of the People’s Constitutional Coalition of Ohio (PCCOH), an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic outfit promoting states’ rights rebellion to Tea Party crowds. (He and PCCOH events coordinator Jim Flaugher had spoken at a “state sovereignty” event in Alabama organized by the Patriot Action Network the previous June.)
The necessity of following a strict interpretation of the Constitution was emphasized throughout. Young repeatedly contended that abortion, immigration, and healthcare reform would be eliminated if we adhered to the Constitution. The Ohio Sovereignty Act, he stated, would be a first step towards restructuring America, based on Constitutional principles.
If the Oho Sovereignty Act failed (as have similar measures in other states), he said, other means could be necessary. Young closed with the statement that “there are two ways to hold the government accountable – force of law and force of arms; we don’t want to exercise violence until all other options are exhausted.”
Racism as Minority Outreach
A poorly-attended session led by Brenda Mack and Steve Cheeks, members of the Ohio Black Republican Association, began with a brief history of African-American officeholders in Ohio. They argued that the Republican Party had a superior record of nominating African-American candidates in the state. They both emphasized that the Republican Party speaks to issues important to African Americans, such as community safety, school choice, opposition to gay marriage and abortion, and support for the Constitution. Most African Americans do not vote Republican, they said, because Republican candidates do not reach out to them.
The remainder of the session was dedicated to deriding welfare, which Mack termed “modern-day slavery.” She blamed a poor work ethnic in African-American communities on a reliance on welfare, and stated that many people are “living great lives on welfare.” Moreover, she accused the Democratic Party of using welfare as a form of electoral ransom, securing African-American votes by keeping them intentionally impoverished. To these statements, the audience responded with applause, a few attendees even standing to applaud. Indeed, one audience member stated that African Americans who receive welfare “have no soul,” a remark lauded by all in attendance.
To the Tea Partiers who attended this conference, it was a chance to meet with and learn from people with similar views, and feel empowered by their common sense of right and wrong. It also provided bales of information on a wide variety of issues that they will use in their local organizing. For non-Tea Party advocates of social and economic justice, this report provides a chance to see “behind the lines” at the way Tea Partiers are preparing to thwart any justice agenda, and perhaps make their own plans accordingly.