by Daniel C. Vock
To many Tea Party leaders in Illinois, state government needs more people like Arie Friedman.
A pediatrician from Highland Park, Friedman first entered politics just two years ago to protest the passage of President Barack Obama’s federal health care law. Friedman is a business owner, a Navy veteran, a conservative and a candidate for the Illinois Senate. He says he does not need a job as a career politician — joining the state Senate likely would mean a pay cut — and he has no plans to do it forever. Most of all, though, Friedman is fed up with how the state is being run.
But if all that makes Friedman a good Tea Party candidate, it also makes him a good fit in today’s Republican Party. As he campaigns for the state Senate, Friedman has met plenty of folks serving on Republican township boards and showing up at Tea Party meetings. “It’s the exact same people,” he says. “One meeting a month is not enough for them.
“There is a sense that the Tea Party is a separate part of the Republican Party,” he says, “but that has not been my experience. There’s a lot of crossover.” Still, Friedman also says the underlying anxiety behind the Tea Party is felt by voters of all stripes, especially when it comes to Illinois government. When he talks to residents about Illinois’ tax hike, mounting pension bills or the growth of Medicaid, he says, “It is very rare to encounter someone who isn’t nodding their head.”
Next year, Illinois’ Tea Party leaders plan to focus their efforts on making a difference in Springfield, and Friedman’s race is near the top of their list in that effort. But if the doctor wins, it likely will not be because of the Tea Party alone. Friedman has a clear path to the Republican nomination, but he is likely in for a harder fight in the general election. The district, which is now represented by retiring Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett, became more balanced between parties in redistricting — in the last election, it went for Democrat Pat Quinn for governor and Republican Mark Kirk for the U.S. Senate. That means whoever wins the state Senate seat will most likely do it with the help of their state party.
It is situations such as those that make it hard to gauge the success of the Tea Party separate from the success of the Republican Party as a whole. Tea Party adherents maintain that the movement, and its 100-plus groups in Illinois, is nonpartisan. But it is clearly a movement of the right. Despite its name, the Tea Party is not a political party. It is about issues more than individuals. That means, though, that it needs candidates to be the vehicles for the ideas. More often than not, those candidates are Republicans.
In a blue state like Illinois, the Tea Party has its work cut out for it. Friedman talks about flipping the state Senate to Republican control, which would require the GOP to pick up six seats. Because of the once-a-decade drawing of new maps, all 59 seats in the upper chamber this year will be on the ballot. Of course, Democrats drew those maps in the first place, giving their candidates the upper hand. But if Republicans controlled that one chamber, Friedman says, they could force Quinn to the negotiating table to deal with pension costs, spending cuts or, as Friedman describes it, Medicaid eligibility curbs to keep that “failed” health insurance program solvent and able to treat those most in need of medical care.
In being so closely allied to one party, perhaps the best way to look at the Tea Party, then, is as an interest group, like a chamber of commerce or the Sierra Club, with a very clear point of view that coincides with one party a heck of a lot more than the other.
“We basically view our role in the Tea Party as a counter to all the big-money progressive groups, like the unions, who are well-funded,” said Steve Stevlic, before he resigned as director of the Chicago Tea Party Patriots. “We realize we don’t need as many people as them because we have a better message, and we actually have solutions to the problems of the state and the federal government. We just need people who are informed and engaged, and we think we can make a difference.”
Stevlic, who stepped down as leader of the Chicago group in October when his prior arrest for soliciting a prostitute came to light, was one of the lead organizers of a Midwest convention of Tea Party activists who gathered in Schaumburg from September 30 to October 1. The event featured high-profile speakers, including former Fox News host Glenn Beck, commentator Andrew Breitbart and presidential candidate Herman Cain. But Stevlic says the main goal of the 980-person convention was to “educate, energize and engage people for the 2012 election.” That means the most important part was not the marquee speakers but the nuts-and-bolts training attendees received.
This year, more of those efforts will be directed to races at the state, rather than the federal, level.
In the days following last year’s elections, Tea Party activists in Illinois had a lot to celebrate. Illinois voters ousted four Democratic members of Congress and kept a politically competitive fifth seat in Republican hands. It was part of a nationwide backlash against Obama that flipped control of the U.S. House to the Republicans. The Democrats on Capitol Hill no longer could pass new laws on their own, which they essentially did to enact two of the most reviled laws in Tea Party circles: the federal stimulus law and the “Obamacare” health reforms.
From its inception, the Tea Party focused heavily on federal issues. CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, after all, launched the movement from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2009 with a rant on provisions of the stimulus law that would reduce the interest rates on mortgages for people who could not make their payments. “This is America!” he vented, turning to the traders beside him. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?
“We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July,” he said. “All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.” A lot of organizing followed, and the Tea Party propelled new politicians to Congress, including Republican Joe Walsh from the Chicago suburbs, who eventually became one of cable television’s favorite guests among the class of new Republicans.
But back at home, Illinois Tea Party leaders recognized that state government remained firmly in Democratic hands, once Quinn squeaked by Republican Bill Brady to hold onto the governorship. So some 40 Illinois Tea Party leaders gathered on November 20, 2010, at a Lisle hotel to take stock. “We basically decided as a state Tea Party that we would allow some of these other states that had things better under control to work on the federal issues,” says Jane Carrell, coordinator of the Tea Party of Northern Illinois, which is based near Rockford, “while we focused more on our corrupt, lousy state of Illinois and helped to elect a different legislature next election.”
The leaders drew up a list of issues they thought need to be addressed at the Statehouse. They want to rein in pension costs and public employee benefits; include Illinois in a pact with other states to reject Obama’s health law; overhaul education laws, including the elimination of English as a Second Language classes; require voters to present identification at the polling place, ensure that military voters overseas receive their ballots on time and other election-related changes, including, of course, curbing the power of public-sector unions.
But the exact mix of priorities depends greatly on the Tea Party chapters because of their vastly different characters. Some chapters in southern Illinois meet over kitchen tables, while suburban groups may draw 300 people to a monthly meeting, says Denise Cattoni, coordinator of the Illinois Tea Party Patriots.
Stevlic, the former head of the Chicago group, says public pensions are the top issue for his members, as they are for most Tea Party groups in the state. But the Chicago group also weighed in on the politics of nearby Wisconsin. Chicago Tea Party volunteers rallied in support of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who stripped unions of many of their powers there, and volunteered in the ensuing recall campaigns of Wisconsin state senators, Stevlic says.
The chapter also emphasizes school vouchers, which would allow parents to choose whether to send their children — and the tax money that pays for their education — to public schools or private schools. That issue, in particular, has helped his group attract support in the black community, he says.
“They know that the Democrat Party has ruled Chicago and the state for a long time, and it’s not making their communities any better,” Stevlic says. “It’s not making their schools better. It’s not making their streets safer. It’s not creating more jobs in their community. So they’re frustrated.”
“What the Tea Party does is, it gives them an outlet where they don’t have to turn to the Republican Party. They know we’re nonpartisan, so we’re reaching out to people who do want to do work, for example, on school choice,” Stevlic continues. “When we’re able to convince them that we’re not simply an arm of the Republican Party, we are actually pretty well-received in just about every community.”
Rodney Davis, acting executive director of the Illinois Republican Party, says: “What I see the Tea Party movement doing, and what happened in 2010, was they helped broaden our base. They brought a lot of disgruntled nonvoters and former conservative Democrat voters into the Republican fold, and I have to commend them for that.”
Davis says many Tea Party members are running for Republican precinct committeemen positions that have long been vacant. That strengthens the Republican Party by giving it more ground troops on Election Day, and it gives the Tea Party a bigger voice in the Republican Party.
While the Tea Party groups are not tied directly to the Republican Party, national polls suggest they are drawing from the same pool as the GOP. The Pew Research Center found last year, for example, that more than four of five Tea Party members either considered themselves a Republican or an independent who leans toward the Republican Party. Only 13 percent of Tea Partiers identified as Democrats or independents who tended to vote for Democrats.
Overall, Pew concluded, Tea Party supporters were “more likely to be male, white, affluent, weekly church attenders and to follow national news very closely.” While fiscal responsibility and smaller government are the rallying cries of the movement, its members tend to be more conservative than the general electorate on social issues, too. They are more likely, for example, to oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, the possibility of citizenship for illegal immigrants and gun control.
Nationally, support for the Tea Party is waning, especially among independents. In February 2010, a quarter of Americans had a good impression of the Tea Party, while a third viewed it negatively, according to Pew. This August, roughly the same percentage viewed the movement favorably, while 43 percent saw it negatively. The shift came as more people became familiar with the movement, and Democrats and independents turned against it. Conservative Republicans gave the Tea Party even higher marks this summer than before — with nearly three-quarters approving — while more moderate Republicans are split.
The Tea Party is by no means alone in seeing its numbers drop. The same is true, of course, of Obama. Congressional approval ratings are also at all-time lows.
Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress from Illinois must deal with a new district map, drawn by Democrats, that would force many GOP incumbents to run against each other or compete in almost entirely new territories. Although Republicans challenged the map in court, it already has set up struggles within the party, as Walsh, the Tea Party darling, declared that he would challenge fellow Republican Randy Hultgren for a west suburban congressional seat.
At the state level, a Democratically drawn map forced another Tea Party-backed incumbent, state Sen. Sam McCann, to run in a district based in Sangamon County, rather than closer to his base in the Jacksonville area in Morgan County.
Despite all the obstacles, the people working with the Tea Party in Illinois think their members are more fired up than ever. “The underlying emotion is anxiety, particularly about Illinois,” explains Friedman, the state Senate candidate. “The elections are a chance to do something about it. That feeling is stronger [now] than it was in 2010.”
Republican Party chief Davis says: “People forget that it wasn’t too long ago that people in Illinois didn’t talk about electing Republicans north of Springfield. Now, we have healthy primary contests. ... It’s healthy to show Republicans have the base.”
Cattoni, the Illinois Tea Party coordinator who was one of the very first to join the fledgling movement after Santelli’s call to arms, does not expect any miracles. “Illinois is not going to get better any time soon,” she says. “But we’re making a difference. Looking back on it, since I’ve been involved since the very beginning, it is amazing to see at least we have changed the message in D.C. Even the president is saying: Stop the spending. It is amazing to be part of that.”
Daniel C. Vock is a reporter for Washington D.C.-based Stateline.org
Illinois Issues, November 2011