Freedom Academy Comes to Whatcom CountyPermalink +
Mon, Apr 22, 2013, 5:52 am // Riley Sweeney
You can usually find my writing at The Political Junkie, but this story was too good not to keep to myself.
Rep. Jason Overstreet stared right at me from the stage at the Rome Grange as he waved his Constitution in the air. “Hack job bloggers, these pseudo journalists working for these pseudo journalist corporations; they have mocked my love for the founding documents. There is even one, right here in this room, that has mocked it as ‘Leprechaun Economics‘!” The crowd harrumphed as Overstreet continued. “Applying the timeless truths in this document . . .” again, more Constitution waving, “. . . will get you mocked by the media.” The crowd erupted with a defiant roar and Overstreet smiled as he passed the microphone over to the next speaker.
I am beginning to wonder if coming to Freedom Academy was such a good idea.
It started two weeks ago when a friend forwarded me an invitation. The Whatcom Tea Party, Whatcom Republicans, Northwest Business Club and the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights were sponsoring a training right here in Whatcom County for activists who wanted to run for local office. Curious, I paid my $25 and bought a ticket. Wanting to keep a low profile, I shaved my usual scruffy beard, put on one of my American flag t-shirts, and borrowed an Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network baseball cap.
I was ID-ed the moment I stepped out of the car. Michelle Luke, chair of the planning commission and candidate for County Council was just arriving. “Hi Riley!” She asked if I had a seatmate and when I said no, we picked out a couple of chairs next to each other. Inside the Rome Grange, there was the usual milieu of conservative movers and shakers. Greg Brown and Ellen Baker of Whatcom Excavator, Elliot Fine and Randy Elmore of the Northwest Business Club, Dave Onkles and Chet Dow of the Whatcom Republicans, Lorraine Newman of the Whatcom Tea Party.
The training was provided by the Freedom Foundation. Based out of Olympia, they are a think tank doing outreach for conservatives in Washington state. Our speakers, Glenn Morgan and Scott Roberts, both ran for elected office in Thurston County and brought great personal insight to the training. They clarified that they weren’t funded by “the Koch brothers or Wal-mart, but if anyone knows them, we’d love to get in touch!”
They opened their presentation with this video, talking about how liberals want the country to fail and the only way to save it is to return to conservative principles. They continued to build this sense of dread, “I used to believe that freedom is inevitable, yet in the last five to ten years I have begun to doubt that,” testified Roberts. However, Morgan and Roberts were very focused on their goal of electing conservatives to local office. “Local government is the one government that you can change the easiest and the quickest,” said Morgan. “Today’s school board members are tomorrow’s legislators.”
I have to say, their advice was really good. They pointed out that there are 8,000 elected positions in Washington state and if you want to get involved in politics, don’t jump straight to running for state Legislature, start somewhere smaller. Run for a public utility district or assessor or city council. They recommended the tried and true techniques: “Doorbell, doorbell and then, when you are tired of doorbelling, doorbell some more,” said Morgan. They recommended talking to people you disagree with, going to Democratic Central Committee meetings and union endorsement interviews. “Preaching to the choir is the path to oblivion,” said Roberts, obviously not a Tom Cruise fan.
They also imparted an important bit of messaging advice, “Stay away from conspiracy theories!” Morgan was quite adamant on this point. “Conspiracy theories are not helpful, especially on our side. They don’t build credibility.” Roberts suggested staying positive. “Don’t be angry all the time. If you are a bitter critter, people won’t want to talk to you.” I was relieved to see professional conservative organizations trying to turn their base away from the Andrew Breitbart-style black-helicopter-and-UN-secret-treaty-fears of the last couple of years.
Morgan and Roberts both hit the on the important concept of emotionally connecting with your audience, rather than just listing complaints. “The conservative movement tends to be really fact-based; we need to inspire people more,” Roberts admonished. They came down against big consultants for local races. “You don’t need some fancy consultant for your school board race. Maybe later, when you are running for Congress, but for a city council race, all you need is a good treasurer and some volunteers.”
Overall, the first half was solid, almost bipartisan information. Really, it was no different than the advice I’ve heard or given to candidates running for local office. Beware the time commitment, be a people person, always stay friendly and open, communicate on values and local issues. Really solid stuff. I was genuinely impressed, this was great information for anyone to have and I was pleasantly relieved to find it so . . . non-controversial. As I talked during the break with various attendees, most of them were open and receptive, curious why I was there, but never confrontational. Most of them were just surprised I had decided to attend. As I left for lunch, I thought to myself, “This isn’t too bad, maybe I misjudged the local conservatives, these guys seem perfectly reasonable.”
And then Rep. Jason Overstreet arrived.
After lunch, they held a candidate forum, where local elected officials spoke to the group about their experiences running for office. County Councilman Bill Knutzen, Ferndale School Board Member Hugh Foulke and Rep. Overstreet all arrived to share their thoughts. All three of them spoke quite eloquently about what led them to get involved and some of the challenges they faced. “When I gave my first public speech, I was terrified,” said Knutzen. “I had sweat running out of every orifice except for my mouth because it was so dry I couldn’t move my tongue. I’m pretty sure I just blacked out and didn’t remember a single thing I said.” Michelle Luke nodded sagely and whispered to me, “I can relate.”
All three of them talked about facing criticism from the outside. Knutzen said when he first ran, “One Bellingham publication linked me to Al Qaeda and another said that we should worry because I was too stupid to find the courthouse. Well, don’t worry, I found it.”
When Overstreet stepped up to speak, I pulled my camera out of my pocket to take a picture and he immediately called me out. “I’m going to let Riley take his picture before I start. Okay . . .” He paused for a moment and then launched right into that tirade against yours truly. “You can sit in the cheap seats and be a hit man blogger with inaccuracies, but it is a much different thing when you step in and actually say what you believe.” After a bit of this, he then got back to the subject at hand. Before long, they opened it up for questions.
The first question was about how to cope with the pressures of elected office. Jason Overstreet paused before answering and his wife, Jessica Overstreet, leaped right up and grabbed the microphone to answer for him. “The most difficult part is balancing the time and being used to being under the microscope. If you are going back to Scripture and living under Scripture then living under a microscope isn’t that bad, you don’t have anything to hide.”
This sudden swerve into religion actually startled me because before this, all the conservative talk had been exclusively about economic issues. Jessica Overstreet continued, “We are here to glorify God forever, that is why we are here. We just have to pick up our cross and we get to it. Be rock solid in your principles!” There was cheers from the audience and the woman behind me shouted, “When are you running for office?” Jessica blushed and handed the microphone back to her husband.
One of the audience members asked Overstreet what he thought about John Stark, reporter at the Herald, “mocking” Overstreet for carrying a Constitution with him everywhere. That’s what set off the rant against me about being a “pseudo journalist” and accusing him of leprechaun economics. It was out-of-place and while he got some definite cheers, the organizers looked more than a little uncomfortable about the direction the discussion was taking.
After a few more questions, I raised my hand and asked how they keep up their enthusiasm for public service. ”I know burnout can be an issue, all three of you have been in office for four years now, how do you keep the fire alive?” Knutzen answered that his family helps keep him grounded and thanked his wife for putting up with all of the demands of office. When the microphone got to Overstreet, he looked at me directly. “Riley, I’m so glad that you wanted to talk about Obama’s warrantless use of drones and indefinite detentions. I’m glad that you want to discuss Obama’s use of those despite that document that John Stark doesn’t want me waving around. I recently sponsored legislation restricting the use of drones and limiting indefinite detentions and some Democrats actually joined me in co-sponsoring that bill. That’s how I keep my passion, finding things that really matter and staying true to my principles.”
As soon as the forum was completed, Michelle Luke turned to me. “Has that ever happened before? Jason, you know, going at you like that?” I shook my head. “Well, it . . . it didn’t really contribute to the discussion,” she said. I agreed and slipped downstairs to grab some water. Knutzen greeted me as I reached the bottom of the stairs. “You notice I didn’t make fun of you,” he said with a big smile.
The second half of the day was more focused on activism, and here is where things got a little more controversial. At one point, Morgan told a story about doorbelling in Thurston County. “I knocked on this door and this black guy came out and just started yelling at me for twenty minutes. The whole time, I kept a smile on my face. After a while, he stopped and said, ‘You know, I’ve been giving you shit this whole time and you haven’t gotten angry. Come inside and let me write you a check.’ So I did, and I thought he was going to cut me a check for $20, just to apologize, but it ended up being for $200!”
“Was he a drug dealer?” shouted one of the audience members. Morgan winced as the comment drew chuckles from the crowd. “No, I think he was in law enforcement, but that’s not the point.”
Roberts spoke at length about finding corruption in your local government. Naturally, I thought he was going to discuss tax giveaways to local developers, sweetheart land deals, or moonlighting city employees, but I was wrong. “Homelessness grants. Consultants make thousands of dollars off these grants to fight homelessness and don’t do anything with them,” Roberts said. “Also, enviro-grants are the number one source of corruption in Washington state. Check out who is receiving them and how they are using the money.” Other potential sources of graft according to Roberts? The Department of Social and Health Services, municipal debt and non-elected boards and commissions. “Every person touched by government is a potential ally.”
Morgan noted that the internet is a good way to get information out about these issues. “I’m not as negative as Overstreet is about blogging. The internet is where the information is.”
Speaking of information, most of the ticket price must have gone to printing costs. I walked away with several new books to read, from an analysis of Ayn Rand’s writing to “How to Counter Group Manipulation Tactics.” I will be reading them over the next couple of weeks and provide you with any interesting tidbits.
I had to leave about half an hour before Freedom Academy finished, but it was winding down as I slipped out. Aside from Overstreet’s bizarre rant at me and the casual racism, the event was relatively positive with lots of good information for people seeking office. I’m glad I went. And while I don’t support the policy goals of these conservative organizations, I’m always in support of more people getting involved in their government and providing vigorous oversight.
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