Once political outsiders, activists learn to be power players on inside
JoAnn Fleming and Dale Huls front and center – Hard at work within the movement
AUSTIN – Nine years ago, fresh off a term as a Smith County commissioner in northeast Texas, JoAnn Fleming drove to Dallas for a “boot camp” with other like-minded conservatives.
It wasn’t on the radar of the public or most of the Texas political establishment. But many now consider it a key event in the birth of the tea party movement.
The goal was to examine how government works – and how they could force changes to make officials more accountable.
Also on the agenda: how to get their point across, voter to voter.
“Konni Burton was there, as were a lot of other people whose names would become familiar to a lot of Texans in the years to come,” Fleming said, referring to the Republican who went on to become a state senator from Colleyville. “I had thought that once I was through with elected office, I’d take two years off to become a normal person again. Obviously, I didn’t.”
Within weeks, she said, the tea party movement in Texas was born.
It was a seed that quickly blossomed on the national stage with calls from grass-roots activists to cut federal spending, taxes and the size of government, and reduce the federal deficit. The movement burgeoned just as Democrat Barack Obama was moving into the White House.
Back in Texas, the tea party emerged as a decentralized movement that slowly expanded its focus to state government in Austin, even as a few Texas elected officials including then-Gov. Rick Perry joined their ranks to help bash federal overreach and the wasteful bureaucracy in D.C.
Now, with Republicans firmly in charge in both capitals, Texas’ tea party activists are shifting their focus to the next phase in their evolution: as a political movement that is now an established insider power player at the Capitol, despite its historic outsider bravado.
Tea party caucuses have grown ranks in both the state House and Senate – the Freedom and Liberty caucuses, they are called – and Burton is now a senator in the chamber where staunch GOP conservatives are in charge, starting with the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
The next step for the tea party will be played out front and center in the special legislative session that begins Tuesday. Gov. Greg Abbott, who formally announced his re-election bid Friday, has set a 20-issue agenda – much of it tailor-made for tea party regulars – that will pit the strongly conservative Senate against the more moderate House over controversial issues such as the bathroom bill, property-tax reforms, school-choice for special-needs children and how to better finance public schools.
“We are moving from solely a tea party effort to a coalition approach because we have common ground with a lot of other organizations on other issues,” said Fleming, who is executive director of Grassroots America – We The People, a tea party group. “People in the tea party movement have been asking for some time how we can get help to effect change, and the answer is that it takes time to build trust and build coalitions. That’s where we are now.”
Austin Bureau Chief, Houston Chronicle