MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — In a meeting room of the Embassy Suites next to the Pittsburgh airport, Richard K. Armey, the chairman of leading tea party organizer FreedomWorks, spent a recent evening chatting up 300 or so activists.
Armey had flown in from his Dallas home not to talk about debts or deficits or even President Obama, but rather to extol a proposal in the Pennsylvania legislature that would allow children to use vouchers to pay for private-school. In their usual attire of tea party t-shirts, “Don’t Tread on Me” pins and American flag scarves and hats, the 300 or so activists promised Armey that they would back the school choice bill.
Six months after helping tea party-backed candidates sweep to power in the House on a single-minded platform of cutting government spending, FreedomWorks has shifted its focus to the states, where the group is using its considerable clout to push a fresh crop of Republican lawmakers to back a number of long-sought conservative causes.
The goal for FreedomWorks is two-fold: to keep activists engaged enough to enter 2012 with a grassroots network at least as strong as the one that played so dramatic a role last year; and to use that network right now to push newly elected conservatives to accomplish something while in power.
In addition to the school-choice bill in Pennsylvania, FreedomWorks has helped push for dramatic curtailments of collective bargaining rights for unions in a number of states , including Ohio and Wisconsin.
A Washington-based free-market advocacy group that’s been around for more than a quarter-century, FreedomWorks was one of the first national groups to recognize the potential power of the tea party in early 2009 — and to jump at the chance to help shape it into a political force.
Today, not only do a small crop of freshmen lawmakers in Washington owe much of their political success to FreedomWorks, but so do a vast army of activists across the country whom FreedomWorks courted, trained and supplied with campaign materials throughout 2010. Keeping both groups intact and engaged is the priority now.
“If we don’t win in the next two years, if we don’t win in the states, we will grievously undermine our ability to win at the national level,” Armey told the crowd of activists in Pittsburgh. “We have to be able to demonstrate to legislators at all levels of government that we are a force of commitment and conviction, and we’re going to stay on the job.”
A historic opportunity
The day after his speech in Pittsburgh, Armey drove to Harrisburg, where he breezed through the hallways of the state Capitol, cowboy hat in hand, visiting with senior Republican lawmakers and even not-so-senior ones to let them know why the school-choice bill is important to him and thousands of Pennsylvania voters.
Armey buttonholed Rep. Brian Ellis, a Republican from a suburban district in Butler County, as he strode up the steps of the state Capitol. Armey had met many dozens of Ellis’s constituents at the conference the day before, he said — and they all wanted Ellis to vote for school choice.
Ellis explained that he wasn’t so sure of that in a district where most parents like their schools. But he also listened nervously as Armey spoke, all too aware of the power of the tea party — and FreedomWorks — to target lawmakers who vote the wrong way. Ellis would “absolutely” take a closer look at the bill, he promised Armey as the two shook hands.
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of pushing a school-choice bill through the legislature in Pennsylvania — a swing state with a powerful teacher’s union and filled with independent voters — would have been laughed out of Harrisburg. But the continued travails of the state’s most struggling schools, as well as tea party activists and sympathetic lawmakers, have helped shift the dynamics.
This week, the bill is poised to come up for a vote in the state Senate.
Armey and FreedomWorks have whittled their craft to an artwork; Armey calls it the “inside-outside” game.
On the outside, he secures what FreedomWorks doesn't have on its own: a grassroots base ready to offer their time and votes for conservative causes. On the inside, he uses his knowledge and connections to tell the lever-pullers directly about that base, how they want their lawmakers to vote and, occasionally, how they will try to oust anyone who doesn’t vote their way.
Armey is a compelling and charismatic face for this enterprise. He speaks publicly with ease and tosses out Texas-isms — with his native North Dakota accent — like candy. “You know there’s a great song by Merle Haggard: ‘I Wear My Own Kind of Hat,’” he said at one point. At another, he noted: “People ask me, ‘Why are you always with the NRA?’ Because they’re the ones with the guns.”
Offering the crowd that charm, as well as the tea party language — anti-union, pro-personal choice, attached to the idea that government is the problem, not the solution — has been a key piece of the formula of national conservatives trying to keep the tea party network in place. The other, less visible pieces include getting the crowds to turn out in the first place, and raising the money each year — FreedomWorks, for example, brought in more than $14 million in 2010 — to keep the enterprise humming along.
Keeping the tea party alive
The Pennsylvania trip was typical of the swings FreedomWorks orchestrates about twice a month. FreedomWorks wasn’t the official sponsor of the conference in Pittsburgh; that job fell to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Responsible Government and Veterans and Patriots United. Their banners hung behind the registration tables, and their membership rosters fed the invitation list to the $10 conference.
FreedomWorks has a mailing list of hundreds of thousands of activists, and finding one or two local volunteers is a key to its success. In Pittsburgh, one of those people is Kathie Marino, a part-time emergency room nurse and vice president of Veterans and Patriots United, who organized the conference locally and tapped her network of activists to bring out a crowd.
“We’re trying to keep people engaged with what’s going on,” Marino said. “Right after the election in November, folks took a little bit of a breather. Now we’re starting to see things pick up again.”
Still, this was clearly a FreedomWorks event. The Capitol Hill-based group underwrote the cost of the conference and sent a dozen people to Pittsburgh. Their expertise and contacts drew speakers such as Tammy Bruce, the Los Angeles-based conservative radio host. They passed out FreedomWorks tote bags and collected email addresses and phone numbers. The payoff: a full ballroom during the peak evening speeches, a fresh set of names to contact and keep engaged, and a reputation locally as a partner of conservative causes.
The story was similar in Harrisburg, where FreedomWorks’ reach — and Armey’s name — helped arrange a closed-door luncheon with Republican lawmakers at the Commonwealth Foundation, a fiscally conservative organization with offices at the base of the Capitol steps. Armey also glided easily into the offices of senior Republicans, where he pressed the issue of school choice.
Similarly, Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks’ president and a former Capitol Hill chief of staff and lobbyist, was able to schedule a half-day of private meetings with donors during the Pennsylvania swing.
The end result: more dollars flowing into FreedomWorks’s coffers, more activists engaged and more conservative policies inching closer to reality in state capitols across the country.