On an early spring evening, inside the Elks Lodge meeting room on Fort Worth’s West Side, about 75 locals — most of them older white men — watched a presentation by Mike Brasovan. He’s a conservative Republican who ran against U.S. Rep. Kay Granger in the 2010 primary and lost. The group he addressed is known as the 912 Project Fort Worth, one of the collection of organizations around the country that make up the Tea Party movement.
The presentation was fairly typical for Tea Party groups: The federal government is spending irresponsibly, especially on social services. Healthcare reform will swell the federal deficit even larger. And of course, the Obama administration is spending wildly now and will get worse.
The crowd began mumbling. There were shouts about “taxation without representation” and the need for the private marketplace to replace lots of government spending. And then one man took it even further, to that gold standard of populist rhetoric: “The only way we solve this budget problem is to return to the gold standard.”
That flashback to early-1900s fiscal theory sounded a bit crazy, but then again, the people who had come to hear Brasovan seemed disposed to believe strongly in the good of the good old days, whatever decade they perceive that to have been. Back when the government didn’t spend beyond its means, and upstanding citizens worked hard, bought homes, and didn’t spend beyond their means. Some critics say the Tea Partiers harken back to the John Birch Society in the 1950s and ’60s. Others call them the CAVE people — “citizens against virtually everything” but with no coherent philosophy of what they do want.
But these days there is something else going on in the movement, both nationally and locally. When the movement first started building in 2009, the emphasis was almost totally on fighting federal spending and opposing President Barack Obama. But local Tea Partiers — there are half a dozen such groups in Tarrant County — have shifted some of their focus in recent months to local issues. Chief among them: the Trinity River Vision project, with its $900 million-and-still-climbing price tag, a reliance on eminent domain, and distant-from-voters political structure. It’s a project that many local Tea Partiers say Fort Worth doesn’t need and can’t afford.
That emphasis was clear in the first hour of the meeting, when the organization’s leaders described the local 912 Project to about a dozen prospective members. Club president Travis TeSelle outlined what the group is about: fiscal restraint, transparency of government, citizen involvement, and conservative “core values.” TeSelle then asked newbies why they had come.
Most said they don’t like the way the country and city are going and they want to do something about it — but that local issues are more important to them.
One woman, who asked that her name not be used, said the city’s dabbling with the modern streetcar lines and the TRV project are more important to her than national politics.sh
“We keep hearing from city leaders how [Fort Worth] hasn’t been affected as much as other cities by the national economic downturn” she said. “But then we can’t afford basic city services like building better roads and keeping pools open. I guess I just want to find out how we got in this mess. I guess I’m here because I want to learn more.”
TeSelle, 43, who works as a consultant in oil and gas leasing, said the local 912’s primary focus is on educating local citizens. The organization will not endorse local candidates but will weigh in on topics like the TRV.
“The spending issues we are dealing with are local issues, and we can have much more of an impact locally than at the state and federal level,” he said.
Local elections coming up on May 14 have increased the group’s emphasis on politics close to home, TeSelle said, “but we are not going away once the local elections are over.” He said the group will push to get their members appointed as Tarrant County Republican Party precinct chairs in future election cycles.
After Brasovan’s presentation, Bailey Faulder, 66, a nursing assistant at a local hospital, talked about how important groups like 912 are on close-to-home issues. He started coming to meetings earlier this year because “I would read the paper and watch the news at home, and I found myself having a fit,” he said. “I wanted to see what I could do, to learn more about all the issues and not just sit at home and complain.
“And what I am learning is that the problems we are having in this country start at the local level and work their way up to the top,” Faulder said. “That’s why what we are doing here in Fort Worth is important. The TRV is a big waste of money when we don’t even have money to fix our roads. Granger puts her son in charge of it at a very high salary. This is mis-spending at its worst. The Tea Party movement has to pay attention to mis-spending at the local, state, and national levels with the same amount of effort.”
He said the idea that Tea Partiers are simply against everything without putting forward their own solutions is “baloney.”
“Everyone in this economy needs to spend wisely,” he said, “and that includes government. Fort Worth has let its infrastructure go to hell, especially our roads. We let the pension system get out of control and found money for the TRV project. It’s not about not spending, but spending in the right way.”
Opposition to the TRV is not the only place where Faulder’s opinions coincide with those of folks from other parts of the political spectrum.
Mayor Mike Moncrief “always likes to trot out his ‘Fort Worth Way’ slogan, and we are all getting sick of it,” Faulder said. “He catered to his minions and has secret meetings — no public debate. Maybe the 912 Project can open up some debate on local issues. I don’t see how anyone … can see that as a negative.”
The 912 Project was started by conservative and bombastic TV and radio personality Glenn Beck in March 2009. According to Beck (who lost his Fox News job earlier this year), the purpose of the project was “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001 … we were not obsessed with red states, blue states, or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the values and principles of the greatest nation ever created.”
Hundreds of 912 Project chapters have since sprung up around the country, and the group is particularly popular in California and in Texas, where organizers claim a couple of hundred thousand members. The project is clearly part of the Tea Party movement.
That movement is not affiliated with any political party, yet polls make it clear that most Tea Partiers identify themselves as Republicans. There is no real national organization, but a group calling itself Tea Party Patriots estimates that there are 2,800 local affiliates including the 912 organizations. Numbers very wildly on how many people are active in these organizations. The local 912 Project has about 150 active members, though more than 300 people have shown up at some meetings. The Northeast Tarrant Tea Party claims 1,500 members.
Polls on the demographics of the movement have shown that — in addition to being mostly white, male, and Republican — Tea Partiers are also more likely than other Americans to be married, over 45, wealthy, conservative, well-educated, and “born-again” Christians.
Adrian Murray, 56, president of a Fort Worth company that provides wiring assemblies to vehicle manufacturers, started the local 912 Project in February 2009. He served as its president until late last year, stepping down, he said, because he needed to spend more time on his growing business.
Others think he left because of political differences with local Tea Partiers. He denied that but acknowledged that he sees problems with the direction being taken by some Tea Party affiliates.
“Sometimes paranoia sets in among some of these groups,” he said. “There is no Communist plot or some United Nations globalism at work. What we need to focus on is creating effective and efficient government on all levels.
“Are some of them CAVE people?” Murray asked rhetorically. “Some of my dear friends at 912 aren’t going to like to hear this, but it is a fairly apt description. The tendency is often to engage in a whack-a-mole philosophy when issues come up. We need to take the hysteria out of it when we deal with issues.”
He does have enough spare time these days to work with several national Tea Party leaders to form a group tentatively titled Common Ground America. “What we need to do is expand the base beyond the 55-year-old white male,” Murray said. “It might entail [doing] what Ronald Reagan did in the ’80s with Reagan Democrats. This movement isn’t going away, but we must accept the fact that evolution of some ideals is a good thing to embrace.”
It’s going to be tough for local 912 Project and other Tea Party groups to attract many people of color as long as the images are fresh in people’s minds of the racist signs and rhetoric that have been associated with the movement thus far. Sometimes-rabid opposition to Obama is, of course, at the forefront of the madness. Think of the constant yapping from the right about the president’s birth certificate. Beck himself famously accused the president of hating white people.
At a recent Washington, D.C., rally, one protester’s sign said “Obama’s Plan, White Slavery.” Another said “Obama Lies” with a swastika drawn inside the O. A third suggested Obama’s name stands for “Oligarch, Bolshevik, Aristocrat, Muslim, Atheist.”
TeSelle said he’s seen no such racism among local 912 Project members. Racist attitudes certainly weren’t displayed at recent local meetings attended by this reporter. However, neither were there many blacks or Hispanics present.
Chris Shelby, a 55-year-old African-American from Fort Worth, thinks that will change.
“I am an independent conservative, and I joined  because it seemed to be the only collective group in the area with a similar political mind-set to mine,” Shelby said. “I am more concerned with local issues like the TRV and the local budget shortfall. Right now I am more interested in the mayoral election, and this organization has been good about providing information and debate.”
Shelby said he grew up accepting the status quo. “In Fort Worth … no one has questioned authority in the past,” he said. “We just did not get involved. The more I keep my eyes open and the more I see, the more I need to get involved. And 912 needs to work closely with local communities to get them to see they need to get involved.”
He believes many in the local minority communities have the same concerns as 912 Project members but there’s never been a venue for exploring those shared values. “Behind the scenes, when I speak with minorities about local issues, we have a lot of common ground, but they don’t have a relationship with conservative independent groups like 912,” Shelby said. “We need to show them that the local 912 people are regular people like them, nothing extreme or special.”
Nationally, the Tea Party has had a preoccupation with grandstanding, trotting out Beck or Sarah Palin to stoke the fervor of the troops. Odd signs and strange costumes make many in the crowd appear to have mental issues.
There doesn’t appear to be much of that at the local level. Judging by their bumper stickers, most members of the Fort Worth 912 Project don’t like Obama or his policies, but there is little birther talk. Instead, the discussion is more about how to bring about grassroots change.
A few days ago, Fort Worth mayoral candidate Cathy Hirt addressed a meeting of the Trinity River Improvement Partnership (TRIP) at the Rahr Brewery on the Near South Side. She stressed the need for mothballing the current TRV plan and instead spending a fraction of the TRV price tag to create what she calls an “emerald necklace” of parks along the river, from Lake Worth to Gateway Park. Her remarks were met with warm applause.
TRIP and the 912ers have become close allies as they fight what they both consider crazy spending on a project that they believe is not needed and favors private development interests through the use of eminent domain. TRIP backs a plan that would spend about $60 million to improve river access near downtown, but members want the private marketplace alone to determine what kind of development happens along the river.
John Spivey, 46, is the chairman of the Tarrant County Libertarian Party and one of TRIP’s founders. He said the loose alliance between the two groups is based on the TRV’s reliance on eminent domain to acquire properties.
“The Tea Party movement varies widely from community to community, but the local groups seem to be encouraging local candidates to speak about local issues that matter more to everyone than national issues,” he said.
“I’m peripherally involved more with the 912 group,” Spivey said, “and [the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party] has really been getting more involved in Colleyville politics, where I live.” Neither of those groups deals much in “political blather,” he said, and 912 has provided volunteers to help with TRIP’s efforts.
Beverley Branham, a retired office manager and TRIP bigwig (she has several times rented halls around town for TRIP meetings and also paid travel expenses for out-of-town speakers) is also a member of the 912 Project. “I am a member of both groups because no one represents the taxpayers anymore, and that has to change,” she said.
“The TRV project is a perfect example of that,” she said. “They want to spend more than $900 million of federal and state and local tax money, and voters haven’t had any say in the matter. And believe me, the federal money is drying up because of the ban on earmark spending, and you know the burden is going to shift to local money.
“We need to put the TRV plan on the ballot for Fort Worth voters and let them decide if they want to do this,” Branham said. “Based on what I am hearing, voters will shoot this down in a heartbeat.”
While Branham sounds reasonable when discussing the practicalities of the TRV project, at least one of the meetings she sponsored for TRIP included the kind of oratory about globalism and the United Nations that make the Tea Party seem pretty far out there.
Branham was primarily responsible for bringing Michael Shaw from California to address TRIP members last month at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum. Shaw is the founder of Freedom Advocates, a group that, among other things, believes that urban sustainable development is part of a “globalist” plot that will tear down America. During his speech, he referred to the North Central Texas Council of Governments as a “Soviet-style council.”
In his Fort Worth remarks, Shaw also said urban development was caused by globalists’ insistence on setting aside areas to protect endangered animal species. Globalists “put nature above man” and “people are put in cages, with the animals roaming free,” he said, and projects like TRV “stack people like sardines in cages.” He failed to point out that urban infill developments — mixing retail, office and housing in walkable neighborhoods — are very popular among many groups of humans, including empty-nesters, baby boomers, and younger high-tech workers.
“When speakers like Shaw address our group,” said one TRIP organizer who asked that his name not be used, “they bring up this global conspiracy argument that seems to be coming from 30,000 feet above our heads. But TRV is a local issue, and we need to present the facts that are right in front of our faces. Throwing out globalist arguments just confuses people and makes our job much harder.”
Branham disagreed. “I thought Michael Shaw was a real treat,” she said.
When the 912 Project Fort Worth sponsored a forum at the Elks Lodge in April for the Fort Worth mayoral and city council candidates, about 100 people showed up — a decent turnout. Unfortunately, few candidates and none of the incumbents who are running bothered to come by.
A few claimed scheduling conflicts, but most didn’t bother to answer the invitation. Among the five mayoral candidates, only Cathy Hirt and Betsy Price sent representatives — and then only to extol the candidates’ virtues, not to answer questions.
Tolli Thomas, running against Jungus Jordan in District 6, and Paul Rudisill, who’s challenging Sal Espino in District 2, took part, along with four of the five people running for the open District 7 seat. Noticeably absent was District 7 front-runner Dean Shingleton.
Some candidates might have feared they would lend legitimacy to what they see as a fringe group. But those who did show up heard little right-wing extremist rhetoric.
“I have been going to a few of the 912 Project’s meetings,” said Thomas, “and while I don’t agree with many of their views, I have found that everyone is concerned with local spending issues and how the current city council has a habit of exclusion of ordinary citizens from the process.
“I was asked to attend, and I thought it was important to share my views with them,” she said. “As someone running for office, I feel that is a very serious responsibility.”
Rudisill decided to run against Espino when he saw the city was leaning toward spending about $80 million on modern streetcar starter lines. The city later pulled out of that plan and sent back the $25 million federal grant that was awarded to the city for the project.
“Local politics must be seen as a grassroots [effort] that makes changes that eventually help fix what’s happening in Washington,” Rudisill said. “When we shake the foundation at city hall, and the rocks start rolling off the roof, we must pick them up and throw them at Austin and Washington.”
As for the TRV and its main local-government sponsor, the Tarrant Regional Water District, Rudisill said the water board should return to its basic mission, which he said is “to provide clean and safe drinking water. Cutting another channel at the Trinity River is not what they should be doing. Let the private developers come to the table and do this.”
In the Fort Worth mayor’s race, Hirt seems to have the most backing among the local 912-ers, at least based on campaign t-shirts on their backs and bumper stickers on their cars.
“I haven’t followed [the local 912 Project] very closely, ” Hirt said, “and I am not a member of the organization. But from my perspective, any involvement from any group on local issues is a good thing. It is impressive that any local organization put the issues on the table and advocate for change in the way we do things.
“I am heartened to see they think the TRV project is a bad idea,” she said, noting that she thinks that the project is going to be a factor in the mayoral race. “It grew out of control with enormous costs and is fiscally irresponsible. There is no indication that private developers are going to invest their money in this town-lake project when there are already parts of the city struggling for the same market.
“So if these fiscal conservatives agree with me on that, I will welcome their support,” Hirt said. “There are extremes in all political groups, but we seem to have found some common ground and common sense on this issue.”
Some Tea Party leaders may be hoping to show Democrats and Republicans the issues where they share beliefs, but that doesn’t seem to be working well and could have negative consequences for Republicans in the upcoming presidential and Congressional elections in 2012.
According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll done last month, 47 percent of Americans view the Tea Party movement in an unfavorable light while 33 percent hold a favorable view — not good news for Republicans, who are strongly supportive of the movement.
Extreme views have already hurt Beck. He had lost half of his audience during the last two years (about one million viewers), and about 300 of his program’s advertisers had pulled out, according to news reports. So it wasn’t too surprising when Fox News pulled him from its broadcasts.
“The Republicans will try to move away from the Tea Partiers during the general election, but the far-right wing of the party won’t like that, and it will hurt them in general election,” predicted one Texas Democratic Party operative, who asked that his name not be used. “I think it’s obvious that these conservative Tea Partiers aren’t going to go away and aren’t going to move toward the middle.”
Local Tea Partiers said pretty much the same thing: They won’t be toning down their beliefs or their volume level over the next year and a half just to help Republican candidates.
“We will continue to make our voices heard, whether that is on a local, state, or federal level,” said David Lambertson, chair of the local 912 membership task force. “This country is going down a very bad path right now, and we see that in Fort Worth as well. So we will keep our voices loud, and we are finding we are in the majority right now, not on the fringe.”