My living room has seen a great deal of political activity in the last 4 and half years. The tea party has plotted and planned and vetted and organized from my couches and chairs. Yes, vetted. Politicians have made their way through my little condo, facing the firing line of tea party activists from every district and far flung corner of Connecticut. A gathering of 40-50 of the most active and influential members of the conservative grassroots movements in Connecticut would always bring the politicians out to seek the support and approval of our so-called irrelevant and fringe group. And our meeting on March 24, 2012 was no exception. That was the day former 4th District Congressman Christopher Shays walked through my front door, seeking support of the tea party for his candidacy for Senator.
It was a tough and well-informed crowd. From the Second Amendment advocates, to the financial hawks to the Family Institute of Connecticut Action, each person came prepared with questions about Congressman Shays’ voting record and stances on issues. We put him through the ringer, with sharp questions and a deep well of background information. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say we knew more about his positions on issues over the years than he did. Still, Shays handled the firing squad with dignity and aplomb, deftly answering our questions, eloquently escaping from tight spots, and gracious, most of the time, to his detractors.
I’m sure everyone in the room remembers a particularly heated exchange between an FIC Action representative and Congressman Shays where Shays literally got down on his knees, and with a resonantly shaking voice spoke in passionate opposition to a matter regarding social values. Their two faces could not have been more than 6 inches apart by the end, so much so that I damn near intervened, contemplating using my position of power as hostess to stop the exchange before it came to blows. I did not, and it did not, but it was a powerful moment, one where the moderate Shays showed he actually had some vim and vigor to him, and one in which he realized that we aren’t the uninformed dumb hicks that the media keeps telling people we are.
A mutual understanding was born. It was at this moment we turned away from the past and toward the future. Shays wanted our support, and frankly, we were looking for someone to support. Every one of us was willing to compromise a bit on some things. “I’ll take a half a loaf, as long as it’s a scrappy half a loaf” I told him directly. We don’t want spineless, gutless, throw money at people and pander to the big government spenders. The Second Amendment crowd wanted assurances he wouldn’t champion gun bills he knew nothing about (a request that was neither unreasonable nor a fear that was not based on past actions). The social conservatives wanted social issues left to the states. That was it. We neither demanded nor expected lock-step allegiance to our particular causes. Heck, the people in the room from the tea party movement had differing views on differing issues. We did not then and never have demanded purity on every issue. What we demanded then, and still do, is adherence to principle. If we know where you are coming from, and you have principles, and you agree to actually stick to them, we’ve got the potential for a great relationship. Shays assured us that while we may not agree on every issue, we agree on our fundamental principles.
The meeting ended with people accepting literature and bumper stickers and placing their emails on his contact list. And as Shays was enjoying my mother’s curry pasta salad, he wrote on my living room wall. Yes, my living room wall. Anyone that has been to my house in the last four years has seen it, and left their mark. Dozens upon dozens of patriotic sayings, goals and aspirations of our fledgling tea party movement, well wishes from supporters, and even words of encouragement from politicians, are all written on my living room wall. As Shays was winding down our multi-hour meeting, with a fragile “meet me half-way” understanding in place, he picked up a sharpie, headed to the wall and wrote, “God Bless America and the Tea Party Movement. Christopher Shays 3/24/12.”
Doesn’t sound like we had much trouble seeing eye to eye on things, does it? So the next time Shays pops his head up from his foxhole to criticize us grassroots activists, remember this: not only were we willing to compromise, we reached out to him, we extended the hand of friendship, and he took it. What happened to Shays’ candidacy had nothing to do with our unwillingness to compromise, but rather his unwillingness to refuse to compromise. The electorate has changed, you can’t be mealy mouthed and get past us anymore. We demand people with principles that are unashamed to actually stick by them.