While we are busy signing petitions and out protesting ALEC, Citizens United, Koch Industries, Monsanto, Wal-Mart, the Keystone Pipeline, drones, fracking, factory farms, Gov. Scott Walker, mining in the Penokee Hills of northern Wisconsin, the Tea Party has been been quietly hi-jacking our local county boards, city councils and public school districts.
And, it's not because this recent article says so. It's because this phenomenon is nowhere likely more prevalent in Wisconsin than in the cities and villages of Rock County and more specifically, the city of Janesville.
Local activists say they have focused largely on their own communities since Obama's re-election and the ideological drift of some tea party-backed politicians. Many are running for school boards, county commissions and city councils, focusing on issues such as unfunded pension liabilities and sewer system repairs.
"The positions that people are filling at the local levels are more important for the future of the movement and the future of the country," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization. "It's creating a farm team for the future."
Forget thinking that the recent quiet and internal divide among Republicans and their Tea Party faction is a sure sign of their decline. It's not. It's only a momentary and common lull in the election cycle.
But I've got to give the tea party credit. They came out swinging during the 2010 census elections and won while everyone else was sleeping at the wheel. They laid down the necessary support-base groundwork for a GOTV campaign and quietly won local elective offices on attacks and false pretenses, only to re-juggle their priorities once in office.
Sure, Rock County soon restored a couple of our state legislative seats in 2012 and was one of few areas in the state that gave Scott Walker less support in the recall, but I submit for the most part that all three elected boards, Janesville's city council, the county board and Janesville School District are now majority tea party run.
Need some proof? The fact that the Janesville City Council and Rock County Board failed to pass a resolution against Citizens United is one strong piece of evidence. Heck, they won't even entertain the idea. Second, The county board refuses to discuss seeking funds for the Medicare expansion as well. Third, both boards are over-run with tax-shifting low-wage conservative Forward Janesville and Rock County 5.0 tools. Sure, there's a moderate Democrat or Progressive or two among them, but they are mostly token representation of the area's majority who are regularly shamed into becoming part of the establishment woodwork.
I know it, you know it, we know it. The question is: What are we going to do about it?
The problem is quite complex to be honest with you. For one, the "other side" has the messaging support of the local media machine, the Janesville Gazette and their radio affiliates, and that is a huge obstacle to overcome. Any movement to organize a community based, "We the people" political action committee is demonized by the local establishment and press as a power grab or immediately associated with the area's almost non-existent unions. I'm not saying we give up because of that obstacle, but just saying it so everyone is aware of it. Plus, as our local government boards turned red, we found the majority base comprised of the working poor and middle-class have even more budget pressure placed on their household income than during any other time in recent memory.
Yet, all politics are local.
So how could this be happening in a county that leans democratic, is trending bluer and was one of few counties in Wisconsin that gave Scott Walker even less support in the Recall?
For starters, I submit the first suspects to look at is us, that includes me. When it comes to issues and activism, we seem to be participating as individuals everywhere except on the home front. On the home front, we then look for, or depend on some outside help or angel to act here. I seriously don't get it. I write participating "as individuals" because there is no organized effort locally in place to grow a grassroots issue-based organization.
Because of deflated incomes, funding is another major obstacle and one person can't do it, but outside of this blog and a few courageous individuals including the forums held by the Rock County Progressives, you could hear a pin drop when it comes to people-driven community organizing. Let me put it this way, in my book "community action" and "diversity or neighborhood action teams" are not co-opted labels for local government-run agencies. But in Janesville and in most parts of Wisconsin they are.
In addition to us, in Janesville there is a almost un-American-like creepy silence at the mere thought of initiating citizen, issue-based or neighborhood political activism. A fear mostly instilled over the course of the past decade and propagated onto the population by the politically-active conservative Janesville Gazette and their establishment affiliates.
That, along with a bizarre notion many locals seem to hold that Janesville's city government is a progressive institution because of its "progressive" system of an elected at-large council and appointed city manager administration. So, some liberals, moderates and progressives don't want to rock that boat. But folks, a government is only progressive when we elect a majority of progressives to our boards and councils. Period. At the same time, I'm also not trying to imply that Janesville is majority progressive - because it's not.
But the fact is; a district-less "system" of representative government with a "leader" appointed by a minority can only serve one purpose: To wrest power away from the majority.
Of course there are caveats even with district/ward representation and an elected mayor - we would still need the right people to run for office and win so the majority is properly represented. I'm not looking for perfection, but at least we would have district representative government. The way it is now, all seven council members could be living on the same street block. If there's nothing wrong with that, then there's nothing wrong if they all lived in Delavan or out of state either. Again, elective representative office is best when one from many serves a specific pool of constituents, not an ideology or special-interest. That means district/ward representation. That's the big nut in Janesville that must be turned.
The county board is a different problem. There is a huge lack of common knowledge and awareness transmitted to the public on county matters. Nobody knows anything about anything. Except for the folks paying close attention, who also happen to be our local economic development groups, their wealthy backers and their political tools. Those are the folks getting elected to the board for the past 4 years. Again, I suggest that the communication barriers between the public and the county board are by design: To wrest power away from the majority.
I have to admit the local tea party faction has been playing it pretty cool - in fact, few people knew they even existed here until late. But they are here anonymously and relentlessly working social media forums and the Janesville Gazette in the newspaper's twice-a-week "sound off" column. They have all the response-provoking keywords memorized. They use all the tuned phrases and terminology repeatedly to bash and humiliate their opponents. They know how to associate any person or issue with commonly held negative perceptions and stereotypes. They're working in and promoting a zero-sum political and economic environment. This is where all of their gains never come by winning the debate or adding a positive element to the mix, but only by defeating opponents through radical right-wing legislation, smear campaigns or defunding their opponents support base. Their gains come by our subtraction.
The only way to defend the priorities and values of the majority in this dirty captive environment is by creating a people-driven community organization to bring change. If not now ...when?