Illinois Tea Parties Boiling Over?

-By Warner Todd Huston

The Old Media has this absurd habit of portraying “The Tea party” as a single, monolithic entity hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the Republican Party. If only we could rid ourselves of the baleful influence of the Tea Party, the lefties imagine, we could have “sane” politics again (and by that they mean politics without any conservative influences). Of course reality is many shades different than the fantasyland that the left and its handmaidens in the Old Media inhabit and the messy nature of the Tea Party — at least here in Illinois — is proof of how far off the left is in its fearmongering.

First of all, and I’ve said it before many times, there is no such thing as “The Tea Party.” There is no single entity, no central organization, no top-down model that can be properly called “The Tea Party.” The Tea Party movement is probably one of the first true grassroots political movements in American history having grown organically from the ground up. The Tea Party is comprised of thousands of disparate, unconnected groups that do not answer to anything close to a center of command and control. It is truly a mom-and-pop-styled political movement. This is quite unlike the left side of the aisle that is controlled by rich and powerful unions and programmed by big dollar left-wing organizations like George Soros’ and Think Progress. Conversely the Tea Party is localized and self-funded.

Because the movement is not run from the outside Many Tea Parteirs don’t want to see the movement’s reputation sullied and they fight tooth-and-nail to make sure “undesirables” are kept at arms length. Some of this is happening in Illinois.

Have big monied conservative groups like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity held Tea Party events? Sure they have. But Holding events that Tea Partiers have attended does not equate to programming and controlling them. In fact, these big groups have spent two years now racing around trying to figure out how they could successfully connect with the Tea Partiers. Far from controlling them these groups have more or less just been running at full speed just to keep up with the Tea Party movement.

One may correctly say that most Tea Party groups are fiercely proud of their independence refusing to have anything at all to do with their state’s GOP and sometimes even other Tea Party groups. This makes it all quite uncontrollable. Worse, it makes it very hard to coordinate issues among the various Tea Party groups. Certainly, some Tea Party groups in some states coordinate better than others — Missouri does a pretty good job, for instance — but the phrase “herding cats” is one easily applied here. Naturally Illinois is often in the troubled category. Perhaps, though, that is a reflection of how bad the Land of Lincoln is in every other category?

The recent TeaCon 2011 event held in October by WIND AM 560 Radio and co-sponsored by the Chicago Tea Party and long-time Chicago area conservative activist Jack Roeser is a perfect example of the messy nature of Illinois grassroots conservatism. It shows that coordination on the right is all too often anathema in Illinois.

First of all everyone had an eyebrow raised when TeaCon was announced in the first place. After all it was scheduled to be held in the same month and only just before the second outing for Right Nation, an event run by the United Republican Fund which last year which saw close to 5,000 attendees. Right Nation ended up being cancelled in small part because of TeaCon stealing its thunder.

The United Republican Fund now seems to be attempting a rebirthing of itself as its website address has been changed to United Restore Freedom. Still, that change happened weeks ago and no further announcements or information has come from the URF folks. The website even still has the now defunct Right Nation stuff up there. Looks like it’s all in limbo at this point.

In any case, there are several players here in this TeaCon deal that got some Tea Party activist’s dander up.

Firstly there is former Chicago Tea Party head Steve Stevlic and his close supporters who really threw a monkey wrench into the Tea Party groups causing some Tea Partiers to line up with him and some against. On the very weekend that TeaCon 2011 was gearing up for its festivities, a gossip site called revealed that Mr. Stevlic had been arrested by the Chicago Police on prostitution charges earlier in the year, a fact Stevlic hid from public knowledge and from his Tea Party compatriots.

During TeaCon there was a lot of angst over this revelation as you might imagine. Complaints also emerged from small knots of Chicago Tea Party members attending TeaCon that Stevlic had never made any accounting for all the thousands of dollars in donations that the Chicago Tea Party had in the bank, or if it had anything in the bank at all. Needless to say a lot of people were very upset.

Naturally this precipitated a schism. Those that backed Stevlic no matter the consequences were adamant that he be supported. Those that felt he was damaging the Chicago Tea Party brand were just as adamant that he step down for the good of the group. About a week after TeaCon Stevlic did, indeed, step down.

Then there is the aforementioned Jack Roeser. Roeser’s got a long career of funding conservative activism in Illinois and has been an unsuccessful candidate for various offices in the past. Through his, Roeser put upwards to $25,000 of his own cash into TeaCon 2011. Of course, the longer one is on the scene in politics the more enemies one makes (especially in Illinois) and Roeser seems to have made many conservatives suspicious of his activities and motives. Goes with the territory, I’d guess.

Another player here was the Illinois Policy Institute, a state policy organization that is free market and pro-education reform oriented. The Institute has been close to Chicago Tea Party chief (now former) Steve Stevlic. The Institute was going to get involved in TeaCon but the troubles with Steve caused it to balk at the idea.

Finally there is one-time gubernatorial candidate and current WLS radio personality Dan Proft who, while not involved in TeaCon itself, figures as a source of complaint by some Tea Partiers and has been relegated to the nefarious designs squad by some of them.

The main complaint seems to be one of “control” or influence some fear is sought over the autonomous Tea Party groups, specifically the Chicago Tea Party. Some Tea Parties fear that the Illinois Policy Institute and Dan Proft are attempting to take control of the Tea Party in Illinois in order to get the Tea Partier’s emailing lists. Presumably they’d want these lists in order to sell them to make profits from groups looking to advertise — whether for political candidates, issues, or otherwise.

Let’s take Dan Proft, for instance. With Stevlic’s departure, a rumor had it that Proft intended to swoop in and take over the Chicago Tea Party. Proft, it was said, had stepped up his attendance at Chicago Tea Party meetings with an eye toward taking control and presumably getting his hands on that lucrative email database.

I asked several members of the Chicago group and they told me that Proft has attended when he was asked to speak to the group but hasn’t done anything more than that. I also asked Proft for a comment on this story.

Anyone who thinks they can “take over” the tea party has embarked upon a fool’s errand. I am many things but a fool isn’t one of them.

I am not trying to “take over” anything. I accept opportunities to speak and to write about policy and politics (and to shamelessly promote my radio show, of course). That’s my agenda. That’s it.

There will always be the whisperers, the note-passers and the black helicopter enthusiasts who seek to create controversy where none exists or should exist. They deserve attention proportional to their credibility. But that’s for each person to decide for themselves.

As I have written, one of the aspects of the tea party movement I find most compelling is its focus on policy over pedigree or personality. I hope that all of the tea parties, including what has been a very robust Chicago Tea Party, maintain that focus particularly with all that we have at stake in 2012.

As mentioned, Jack Roeser is also one of those that is eyed suspiciously by some Tea Partiers for wanting to take over the Tea Party for his own use. I similarly put the question directly to him and here was his reply:

The idea that I am attempting to take over the Tea Party or control it is ludicrous and nowhere near my real intentions.

I have been a supporter of the Tea Party since the inception, I’ve been doing this for 50 years, I am 88 years old. I consider myself a tea partier before there was one because our views align so well! My only intention is to help provide the Tea Party with additional tools and resources to be even more effective in the field.

With Obama policies destroying the American Dream, and Marxists marching in the streets of Chicago, we all have far larger issues at hand.

I look forward to continue working with my fellow Tea Party leaders and members as we take back our State House, Senate and win back the Presidency of the United States.

Roeser recently allowed Steve Stevlic some office space to use for his future efforts, so this connection is also one that is causing some suspicions to be raised. According to Roeser he is not “funding an office” for Steve, mind you, just allowing Stevlic to use some space in an office that Roeser also allows others to use. Still, the connection is not helping put any end to the rumor mill.

But why is this all happening? Why are people spending so much time looking at other conservatives instead of gearing up to slam Democrats and other extremist lefties?

I recently had a nice long conversation with Illinois Tea Party coordinator Denise Cattoni who, in an unpaid position, helps to keep the various Tea Party groups in the Land of Lincoln moving forward in cooperation. Her immediate reply to my question of who is or isn’t taking over the Chicago Tea Party was that she thought it was “preposterous” to assume that Proft, Roeser, or the Ill. Policy Institute had any such intentions.

One problem here may be that to date the Illinois Tea Party Cattoni runs hasn’t really been able to do too much about the mess the Democrats have made in Illinois. The main Illinois Tea Party group hasn’t sponsored any legislation, not backed any candidates, not presented any of their own as candidates, and not gotten involved in the legislative process in Illinois, though they did try to help a few candidates in 2010. But all that is changing according to Cattoni. After all, it should be remembered that the Illinois Tea Party was relatively new when the first round of voting came up in 2010. There wasn’t time to push local candidates. The last two years has been about trying to organize. Now is the time for the direct activism, Cattoni says.

So things are picking up for Illinois activism for 2012. The ITP intends to sponsor a legislative newsletter to inform its 50,000 members in some 90 groups and our state legislators on what issues are near and dear to Tea Partiers and along with that various local Tea Party groups around the state are looking to push their own folks to run for office. Recruiting is definitely underway.

But the fact that so many Tea Party groups have not, if you will, “gotten their hands dirty” in the slugfest that is politics is a result of one of the problems with the premise of Tea Party itself. Many Tea Partiers feel such pride in not being connected to the “establishment” that anything that smacks of coordination with others makes them recoil in horror. This makes it hard to have an effective political force, to be sure. Many Tea Partiers are so intent on being unconnected with “the establishment” they go out of their way to say they are “non-partisan.” The Chicago Tea Party itself says this on its about page.

Cattoni also had an answer to that point when I spoke to her recently for this article. The Tea Party early started with the non-partisan label because they felt — and still feel — that if they become too partisan they will cut themselves off from the independents that they feel they need to sway elections. This is something I’ve seen reflected nation wide in the desire to steer clear of social issues. Straying from the powerful message of taxes, big government, and obscene government spending would dilute the message and make the Tea Party fall into the trap of too many issues.

Still, when you are expending so much energy trying to stay on the outside looking in, it is only natural that any hint of bowing to “them” from folks that are supposed to be on your own side causes some heartburn in the movement. This is what we are seeing in Illinois.

But this business of standing on the outside must end up hurting the very cause the Tea Party groups want to help succeed. After all, if there is no concerted effort to push a particular candidate or legislative effort, then why should “the establishment” pay any attention at all to the Tea Partiers in Illinois? With no actual power being wielded, no specific force being applied to government itself, why would government see any reason to pay heed to the Tea Partier’s ideas?

If the Tea Party movement is so concerned with staying outside the system in order to complain freely, their complaints will fall on deaf ears inside the establishment that will rightly see that they can’t count on the Tea Partiers for money or votes anyway. So, while they are upset at government and that ire has served as the basis of their activism, they are setting themselves up to fade away because they’ve opened no way to satisfy their need for change.

So, as you can see there are all sorts of problems in the Illinois Tea Party. These problems are the sort seen in other states to one degree or another, of course, but as in many other problematic areas, in Illinois things are always magnified to the worse degree here.

Yet, even with all this the Tea Party has thus far been a potent political force nation wide. Unlike the putrid Occupy-Whatevers, the Tea Partiers have stuck to their issues, pushed people to contact their legislators and to a large degree gotten involved. Likely more is to come, too. And Illinois is gearing up as we speak.

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