From a corner of her dining room, Joan Fabiano directs a Tea Party group she founded called Grassroots in Michigan.
“This is command central,” she said, pointing to a desktop computer on a small table.
She has no budget, no bylaws, no regular meetings and no members. Yet, without leaving her Lansing-area home, she is able to influence politicians and create the impression that she speaks for a large organization.
A letter she released calling on conservatives to sit out the next gubernatorial election if Gov. Rick Snyder continued pushing for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare drew statewide publicity.
She claims to have 650 followers on Facebook and an email list that she says is in the thousands. Her website is a collection of right-wing articles and links. Aside from its occasional physical meetings, Grassroots in Michigan is a virtual Tea Party.
“I wanted to show that an ordinary person doesn’t need to have an organization in order to change public policy,” Fabiano said. “You don’t have to have an office. You don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t have to have all of those things to be effective. All you have to have is a desire and a way to network with all of these people. Whatever reputation or standing I’ve gotten, it’s all been done very minimally. This is what social media has done.”
The Tea Party movement owes much of its success to email and social media. Those tools are what allowed the Tea Party to spring to life within weeks of President Obama taking his first oath of office, and they are essential to what’s kept it going. Within minutes, it can generate a flood of emails and phone calls to lawmakers. Given a day or two, it can organize a rally on the state capitol lawn.
Fabiano doesn’t have the conventional background of a political powerbroker. Retired after 30 years with General Motors – first on the line, then in an administrative job – she runs a part-time home-staging business. She is a Republican precinct delegate who began connecting with other conservatives through Twitter in early 2009.
“We were having this conversation about the massive debt, the bailout and the general direction of our country,” she said, “and then the conversation turned to what can we do about it?”
She and “two other gals got together and put up a website, and in three days we got over 300 people at the capitol,” she said. “That had a domino effect.” She helped organize another rally on April 15, 2009 – tax day – which, according to the Associated Press, drew 4,000 in Lansing.
Initially, Fabiano called her group the Lansing Tea Party. It later morphed into Grassroots in Michigan.
“Twitter was the conduit to meet so many other people,” she said. “Then I transitioned more over into Facebook.”
Such tools are essential, said another Tea Party organizer, Wes Nakagiri, but are no substitutes for face-to-face contact. After attending a Tea Party rally in Washington in September 2009, he began reading books on community organizing, written by liberals, including Saul Alinsky, often cited by Newt Gingrich in the last presidential campaign as a left-wing bogeyman.
“I figured what works for them should work for me,” Nakagiri said. “They’d been at it longer, in my view, than the right. Nowadays, I would say the Tea Party does it better than the left, in terms of getting people organized.”
While he knew many potential supporters would have a wide range of concerns, he took the liberals’ advice to keep a narrow focus, in his case on fiscal issues. He drew up a petition expressing concern to his congressman and began going door-to-door near his Livingston County home. Days later, he circled back.
“Once you knew someone would sign one of these petitions, I figured they might want to get more involved,” said Nakagiri, who works in marketing for an auto parts manufacturer.
He founded a Hartland-based Tea Party called RetakeOurGov, set up a Web site, and then created a political action committee to raise money and support conservative candidates. He later created a second PAC and then a Super PAC to solicit corporate donations.
Combined, the three PACs raised about $45,000, Nakagiri estimated, and made campaign donations to Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, and U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, a Tea Party favorite who recently said impeaching President Obama “would be a dream come true.”
In late August, Nakagiri took the next step, saying he is running to unseat Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. He made that announcement on Facebook and by email.
For Gene Clem, a 70-year-old retired information technology officer for a bank, inspiration came on Feb. 19, 2009, when he saw CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s on-air meltdown, accusing the government of promoting “bad behavior” and calling for a “Chicago Tea Party,” a rant many credit with sparking the Tea Party movement.
Clem met two other like-minded conservatives through a website. They scheduled a meeting, and 20 people showed up to plan a rally in front of the Kalamazoo County courthouse in March 2009. If they were lucky, Clem figured they might draw a couple of hundred. A little more than 1,000 showed up, he said, and he collected 800 email addresses.
“We were just amazed,” Clem said. “We thought we’d have a rally and be done, but people kept asking questions, so it was obvious we weren’t done.”
He since has helped set up several Southwest Michigan tea parties and moderates meetings of the Tea Party Alliance, 20 or 30 groups that meet monthly.
“I don’t know how we’d have done it without the Internet,” he said.
He knows the Tea Party has a bit of an image problem, created in its early days when screaming members disrupted several Congressional town hall meetings.
“That the downside of Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “You can be really loud, but it doesn’t mean you’re effective.”
When some who attended his first meetings were disruptive, “I said, ‘We’re not going to do that, or I’m out,’” Clem recalled. “I don’t like people shouting at me, and I don’t do that.”
Joan Fabiano agreed the Internet has allowed some extremists to don the Tea Party mantle.
“Anybody can say they’re Tea Party, just as anybody can say they’re Christian,” she said. “Any time you have something this big, you’re going to have some kookiness. This idea to paint the Tea Party as a bunch of kooks, I think, is a creation of the liberal media.
“It’s like your crazy uncle. You don’t approve, but he is your uncle.”