Local GOP Eyes November Elections

Lincoln Day dinner: "Learning from the Tea Party"

Mark Boonstra, chairman of the Washtenaw County Republican Committee, led the cheer: Virginia! New Jersey! Massachusetts!

Sarah Palin buttons

Sarah Palin buttons were among many on display at the Feb. 16 Lincoln Day Dinner at the Four Points Sheraton in Ann Arbor. (Photos by the writer.)

“What do you say we bring a little Massachusetts home to Michigan?” Boonstra asked, referring to the recent Republican victory in that state’s U.S. Senate race. His question prompted cheers and applause from the crowd of about 150 people attending Tuesday’s Lincoln Day Dinner, at the Four Points Sheraton in Ann Arbor.

“What a difference a year makes,” Boonstra said, noting a resurgence of energy and enthusiasm among local Republicans. It’s a year that the GOP can win back the state House of Representatives, he said, adding that Washtenaw County needs to do its part. Currently, all four state legislative seats in the county are held by Democrats. “If we can do it in Massachusetts,” Boonstra said, “I think we can even do it in Ann Arbor.”

The annual dinner drew more than 20 elected officials and candidates for the August primary. Two gubernatorial candidates – Rick Snyder of Ann Arbor and Mike Bouchard of Oakland County – dropped by for the pre-dinner reception. Others at the dinner included Archie Brown, a Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge; Kirk Tabbey, chief judge of the 14-A District Court in Ypsilanti; as well as several candidates for state attorney general, secretary of state and state legislative seats.

On the federal level, candidates included Tim Walberg, former 7th District Congressman who was defeated in 2008 by Democrat Mark Schauer and who plans to run again; and Jack Lynch and Robert Steele, two challengers for U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s seat.

Marlene Chockley and Joe Fitzsimmons

Marlene Chockley and Joe Fitzsimmons, who organized the Feb. 16 Lincoln Day Dinner, confer before the program begins.

Both Republicans on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners – Jessica Ping and Mark Ouimet – attended the event, with Ouimet serving as emcee.

Ouimet, who’s running for the state representative seat in District 52, observed that a year ago there were many empty seats at the annual dinner. The crowd on Tuesday reflected renewed interest in the Republican Party, he said, giving credit for that to Ron Weiser, chair of the state GOP and founder of McKinley Associates in Ann Arbor. If Weiser had been able to attend, Ouimet said, he would have told the group that “it’s a different time, we’re going to do it in a different way, and have a different outcome.”

The event’s keynote speaker was Ken Braun of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free market think tank. Braun is also editor of the Michigan Capitol Confidential, the center’s bi-monthly print and online publication that covers state government.

Braun began his talk, titled “Learning from the Tea Party,” by asking how many in the crowd were looking forward to the November elections. When the applause died down, he cautioned that they shouldn’t be quite so optimistic. “These Tea Party people are not always synonymous with getting Republicans elected,” he said.

Braun, who’s done consulting for Tea Party groups across Michigan, described them as not the standard Republican or even conservative – and they’re not a cohesive group that’s organized by the Republican Party. To say that, he joked, would be “like accusing the Detroit Lions of organizing a Super Bowl parade.”

Tea Party members are angry, Braun said. And their anger at Barack Obama over adding to the problems that were there when he got into office could just as easily bite Republicans. But Republican leaders don’t yet realize that, he said.

Braun noted that the deficit was high under former president George W. Bush when the GOP held majorities in Congress, and that taxpayers were angry then, too. People see the federal budget exploding and know that someone is responsible. That makes them angry, he said – even more so when Republicans are in charge.

The situation is similar in Michigan. Former governor John Engler started out fiscally conservative. But during his tenure in office, Engler and the Republican-controlled legislature created a bigger, hungrier government – which left taxpayers, when the bottom fell out in 2001, just hungrier, Braun said.

Ken Braun

Ken Braun, editor of the Michigan Capitol Confidential, gave the keynote speech for the Feb. 16 Lincoln Day Dinner.

What went wrong? Voters elected and re-elected these lawmakers, Braun said, then didn’t watch what they were doing, and didn’t hold them accountable for their actions. He said they shouldn’t worry about getting Republicans elected in November – they should worry about what happens after the election.

It’s up to voters to raise a ruckus when an elected official’s actions don’t line up with their words, Braun said: “Your politicians are not the leaders. You are.”

After his speech, Braun fielded several questions from the audience. Responding to a question about what the Tea Party wants – as opposed to what they don’t want – Braun drew a parallel to the 1994 mid-term elections, when anger against Bill Clinton’s reform efforts resulted in Republicans gaining control of both the House and the Senate. As Clinton shifted to a policy of accommodation, he said, that anger generally subsided. People in the Tea Party don’t want government leaders to make radical changes when things are working pretty well, Braun said.

Asked how the Republican Party can capitalize on the enthusiasm of the Tea Party, Braun said he didn’t think the Tea Party could be co-opted, calling them “enforcers.” They’re fiscally sane, everyday people who don’t particularly care about politics, he said. “They just want to be left alone.”

Later, a member of the Willow Run Tea Party Caucus stood up and told the crowd that they won’t allow the Republican Party to co-opt them. “What we want from you is to come and see us,” he said, and to listen to what they have to say. He invited candidates to attend the group’s regular meetings at the Big Sky Diner in Ypsilanti, but again said the candidates weren’t there to talk – they’d be there to listen.

Bill Bigler, of the Ann Arbor Patriots and the Washtenaw Campaign for Liberty, introduced himself and said the Tea Party was interested in three things: 1) fiscal responsibility, 2) a return to Constitutional government, and 3) a reduction in the size and scope of government.

Rick Olson, a candidate for the 55th District state representative, asked how many in the audience had attended a Tea Party event. More than a dozen people raised their hands. Olson said he’d gone to a Tea Party rally in Brighton, and was impressed by the people he met there, calling them patriotic and “kindred spirits” with Republicans. Following up on that comment, Braun likened the Tea Party members to Reagan Republicans,  and to the Republicans of the Contract with America in 1994.

In the final question of the night, Norma Sarns wondered what happens to people who are elected – people you know and respect – who then go to Washington “and it’s like they’ve gone to another land.” Braun said that they’ve “gone to a land where people buy them food.” Lobbyists and others treat elected officials very specially, and it’s natural that politicians don’t want to let go of that, he added. Everybody can be co-opted by the political system – it’s up to constituents to remind politicians of their priorities.

And again he reminded the audience: “They’re not the leaders – you’re the leaders.”


  1. By John Floyd
    February 18, 2010 at 10:30 pm | permalink

    Lack of accountability to citizens, explains much of what goes on in Ann Arbor government.

  2. By Charley Sullivan
    February 18, 2010 at 11:47 pm | permalink

    Currently, all four state legislative seats in the county are held by Democrats. “If we can do it in Massachusetts,” Boonstra said, “I think we can even do it in Ann Arbor.”

    Good luck with that!

    And it’s easy to sit on the outside and bitch and issue ultimatums and say no, at which the Republicans currently excel, but they can’t govern to save their lives.

  3. By lorie
    February 19, 2010 at 7:42 am | permalink

    about the article: generally gag.

    I respect Joe Fitzsimmons for his work founding the NEW Center.

    Accountability to the citizens is lacking in Ann Arbor and that is the fault of the citizenry. Republicans were worse, we remember that to.

  4. By Buddy
    February 19, 2010 at 10:09 am | permalink

    I was at this Lincoln Day Dinner. The keynote speaker, Ken Braun, was insightful…and he is HOT!

  5. By What to do!
    February 19, 2010 at 11:39 am | permalink

    HOW does one go about getting elected on a platform of “will not Do anything for you” – no programs, no benefits, no spending?

    – we must elect officials who will stop spending other peoples money – but how?

  6. By SunOne
    February 19, 2010 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    Any idea where I can get a couple of those Sarah Palin pins?

  7. By Mark Koroi
    February 19, 2010 at 5:13 pm | permalink

    John Floyd ran in the Fifth Ward general election as a Republican in 2008 and was decisively defeated by Carsten Hoenke.

    Today, Fifth Warder Allen Licari, a real estate broker and multimedia producer, has pulled petitions to run in the August 2010 primary against Hohnke.

    Mr. Licari is a longtime advocate of tranparency and reform in local government.

  8. By Judith Greenbaum
    February 22, 2010 at 9:33 am | permalink

    You cant convince me that the Tea Party is independent. it is clearly tied to the republican Party. I hope Americans wont be fooled.

  9. By John Floyd
    February 23, 2010 at 1:24 am | permalink

    @3 Lori, I’m not sure what you are referring to, do you have something specifically in mind about Ann Arbor?