Cornstalked: As the 14 Wisconsin Democrats run, meet the numerous Illinois Tea Party activists giving chase

To say that 14 Wisconsin Democrats are “on the lam” in Illinois is an understatement. Relentlessly hounded by Illinois Tea Party members, they are, truly, on the run.

No matter which podunk border town the senators try to hide in, they are running all the time thanks to highly effective efforts of conservative activists who have streamlined their “search party” by utilizing Facebook, email blasts and quick video posts. Who knew the Tea Party would be so good at bounty hunting 2.0?

On Thursday, The Missing 14 unsubtly crashed the Clock Tower Resort’s Chocoholic Frolic in Rockford, Ill. David Hale and his camera began stalking the resort, pestering the senators. By Saturday, some of the Missing 14 had skipped over to the city’s Holiday Inn — and were reportedly seen at Hooters having a last supper of sorts — when Hale waltzed into the hotel’s lobby and confronted them with his camera, asking questions like, “Senators! Why won’t you go home and do your job?”

Probably aware that a posse of 14 pasty bureaucrats will stick out in a crowd, the senators did what any fugitive chain gang would do: They cut the links and went in separate directions. One did the smart thing and disappeared into the polished back alleys of the Windy City, where only the New York Times could find him.

By the following Monday, eight of the 14 had gone 30 miles northeast to the two-hotel town of Harvard (pop. 9,000ish) thinking it might be a good place to “hide.” It took just one tip from a “concerned citizen,” however, before a few amateur Illinois activists descended upon the hotel, causing enough commotion for the senators to quickly pack it up.

Mary Alger, the coordinator of the Crystal Lake Tea Party was grocery shopping when she got the tip. Dropping off her produce, making a quick sign and skirting 15 minutes northwest to Harvard, she met up with “Doc,” a member of the Northern Illinois Tea Party who holds down a full-time job when he’s not hunting Democrats. Lori White, a Spring Grove resident, showed up after responding to a Facebook post on the Rockford Tea Party page asking if anyone near Harvard was willing to drop by the hotel, preferably with a video camera.

The hotel called the cops on Doc and Mary because they were trespassing, so Doc skedaddled and at a nearby McDonald’s, Mary waited for White to arrive. Unfortunately, White got there just in time to see four senators piled into a tiny Mazda behind her — the make, model and license plate matching a response to a Facebook post. As she fumbled for her video camera, the senators sped off, up Highway 23. Though she tried to follow, White lost them. Though that won’t stop her helping out the other bounty hunters.

Meanwhile, a local paper published a picture of one of the Democrats. Northern Illinois Tea Party board member Joe Terrell had not only set up a “Flee Party Tracker” Facebook page but was able to do some magic thanks to information sharing and basic internet research.

“Based on that picture, a list of Democratic donors and Google Earth we were able to identify where it was taken,” said Terrell. And with that, he posted the citizen’s equivalent to what the police like to refer to as an APB — an All Points Bulletin.

For the past week and a half, this has been the regular rhyme and flow of both the Wisconsin state senators and the amateur bounty hunters tracking them. Each time the senators find a place to hide, some local resident sends a quick Facebook note or records a few minutes of footage so that Tea Party members around northern Illinois can coordinate confrontations no more dangerous than a slightly pushy reporter asking, “Why are you running?”

One local Tea Party group claims to have 80 to 100 people attending its monthly meeting. Multiply that by several northern Illinois counties as well as Tea Party supporters networking online, and the number of vigilant citizens looking for the 14 Democrats is in the hundreds, if not thousands. Everyone already knows why The Missing 14 refuse to go home (something about unions, right?), so why exactly are they hiding? Gov. Walker hasn’t issued any warrants for their arrest and Illinois doesn’t legally recognize bounty hunters. The truth is, the Missing 14 are running from bad publicity and an army of Tea Party enthusiasts almost serving as citizen journalists. So who exactly are these people doing all the chasing, and how are they doing it?

The Illinois Tea Party doesn’t have a listserv. Its professional “networking” skills are limited. However, since the Wisconsin 14 arrived in Rockford, Hale — the coordinator for the town’s official Tea Party group — had been blasting out emails to other Tea Party members across northern Illinois, keeping them updated on the situation. On Monday, when the senators scattered, Hale set up a Rockford Tea Party Facebook page, because calling on the phone was “slow and cumbersome.”

On Facebook, he wrote a wall post on the Rockford Tea Party site asking if anyone near Harvard was willing to drop by the hotel, preferably with a video camera. White responded that she was near Harvard and would make the trek to confront the Wisconsin senators.

“It’s streamlined the communication process,” said Hale, who has been posting — everything from photos to video — quite frequently.

Terrell set up the “Flee Party Tracker” Facebook page, and dedicated most of the posts on his own profile page to information regarding the Wisconsin 14.

“I’ve had a number of people just put something on my Facebook page itself in the status and saying, ‘Hey, go over here or over there,’” said Hale. “We needed a place to bring information together, tell stories, post thoughts. And that seems to be working OK.”

Terrell has posted specific details about the Democrats — like the kind of car they’re driving and the license plate number. When he posts requests asking if anyone from a particular area can scout out a rumored hideout, he says he gets “immediate” personal messages.

While she did try to confront the Wisconsin 14 at Heritage Inn, Alger — a substitute teacher and semi-retired secretary — said most of her time has been spent acting as an “information hub” for all the rumors and clues surrounding the missing senators’ whereabouts.

Heading to Harvard with her homemade sign, however, Alger was gently chastised by another Tea Party coordinator for forgetting one important item: her camera.

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Way back in 2003, Texas state senators pulled a similar tactic as the Wisconsin 14. Those 11 Democrats spent the entirety of their exile, 48 days, in Albuquerque, N.M. Speaking with Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, those involved in the Texas hold-up described the stint as a mild county jail sentence: church service, overextended workouts and underutilized libidos.

That was five months before Facebook launched. It would be a year and a half before two University of Illinois students would start YouTube. A “Twitter” was something you went to the see the doctor about.

Compared to the Wisconsin 14, the Texas Eleven had it easy. Or, in the words of one Texas senator: “We went to the baseball games.”

During clandestine press conferences or meetings with bottom-feeding TV reporters, the Wisconsin Democrats are trying to stand their ground while keeping their whereabouts as secret as possible. It’s a peculiar position. One of the most common appeals is for safety and, sure, when thousands of Illinoisans are trying to “hunt you down,” there’s bound to be a nasty email here and there.

(The young Sen. Chris Larson best displays this contrast between claiming to crave anonymity and while desperately seeking attention. The most TV-friendly in the bunch, Larson has repeated, vaguely, the threats he’s received. But he’s also the Wisconsin 14′s most resolute members, proudly declaring to “stand firm” against Gov. Walker.)

The “danger” posed by Tea Partiers is hogwash, according to … Tea Partiers.

“Oh, right,” said Jane Carroll, her Midwestern accent swinging upwards with sarcastic precision. “They have so little to fear in terms of physical threats from the Tea Party. It’s pathetic.”

There are a surprising number of Tea Party women involved in the Bounty Hunting. They all laughed at the idea of being threatening entities. Carroll said that the only “threats” the Tea Party makes are the ones involving the next election. Besides, she said, “We have no interest in breaking legs. That’s more the SEIU. That’s their line of work”

Given the numerous surprise-attack videos he’s posted, one could assume Hale had a camera surgically attached to his hand. Like a paparazzo, he’s probably an utter annoyance when he’s in your face during an impromptu inquisition. But by capturing the senators on film refusing to answers questions — by putting them “on the record,” as it were — and then posting the evidence for the world to see, Hale and the other Illinois Tea Partiers are making it difficult for these Wisconsinites to control their message. The Wisconsin Tea Party groups would love to come down to Illinois and find the Missing 14. They’re focused on the battle at the capitol in Madison, though. Besides, the volunteers don’t necessarily have the time nor money to spend.

It’s hard to make a case for self-imposed exile when local residents are gathered around, waving signs demanding you go home. So you run and keep running, hoping to elude the press that protests (and especially Tea Party protests) tend to attract.

“I was going to ask them why they were here, and [say] that they need to go and fulfill their duties to their state and their constituents,” said White, who’s not an “official” Tea Party member. “I’m a Tea Party member of me and my husband and my kids,” she chuckled. “I just interact with the Tea Party on Facebook and things like that.”

White got involved because she has two small public-schoolers of her own. Spring Grove had its own teacher strike in 2008. She said she just doesn’t think what the Wisconsin teachers and senators are doing is right. She’d never met Mary or Doc before, but said if she’s keeping an eye out, and if the senators come back again, she’ll sound the alarm.

Carroll groaned. “It’s no fun” tracking down the senators. “It’s totally childish of them. It’s not very patriotic and I think they should be caught and embarrassed.”

Her local group would much rather focus on issues affecting Illinois. The Wisconsin senators, she said, need to buck up and do their job — in Wisconsin.

“I’m not anxious for them to come back here too quickly, but if they do, we’ll just have to rally.”

For the most part, that’s the general sentiment among the Illinois Tea Partiers. It’s not so much about union-busting — although they all seem to support Gov. Walker’s plan — as it is about those damn cheeseheads stampeding to Illinois while Wisconsin suffers.

The same camera that’s been used to publicly embarrass the Wisconsin 14 is also the Tea Party’s main defense. As one Tea Partier explained, the videotaping is for the activists’ protection.

“Obviously, people getting beat up and the foul language and foul signs, that’s why people need take their cameras. It’s for safety more than anything,” said one state-wide Tea Party coordinator. “This kind of stuff isn’t funny. We’ve taken a lot of flak for being the Tea Party movement.”

While some news outlets have taken pleasure in showing tasteless Tea Party signs and labeling the entire movement as a bunch of racists simpletons, the coordinator noted that much of the media has ignored the union supporters’ vitriolic and hateful speech during the Wisconsin debacle.

“Honestly, these Illinois Tea Party supporters are people who just want to ask some questions. We are so careful. It’s not funny that people laugh at us. And people laugh at the fact that the senators are hiding out here.”

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To categorize the story of the Wisconsin 14 as a game of cat-n-mouse is a ridiculous exaggeration. Considering that most of those “hunting” the senators are unpaid, semi-organized townies, kitten-n-mouse is only slightly less ridiculous.

This is a silly game of Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy.

Despite earnest efforts (email excerpt: “Full disclosure: I will most certainly ask one of the senators where they are located [how could I not?!] but I understand the limits of the question [and] do wish to push the issue …”) The Daily Caller couldn’t get through to any Democrats.

“Apparently some of the media has known about their whereabouts,” said Hale. One news station, he said, was “conspiring with these guys to keep this all secret.” He said they had known about the senators’ original whereabouts for some time and hosted what was supposed to be a very quiet press conference at the Rockford Holiday Inn the previous weekend.

Apart from the NYT, several Wisconsin TV stations were able to snag exclusives with senators, so long as they asked softball questions and reported from “undisclosed locations.” Once they got they story, they sort of released the information. Truthfully, it’s hard to blame them. Why sacrifice a traffic-driver when you’ve cornered the market?

This isn’t to suggest the Tea Partiers always keep on the straight-and-narrow in their pursuit of transparency.

You see, the “Flee Party Tracker” profile page on Facebook is private. Several other Tea Party-focused Facebook pages have a lot of shareable information, but for the “Tracker,” you have to be invited.

“We don’t need just anybody in there,” said page-creator Terrell. “There’s a lot of people who don’t agree with what we’re doing.”

Terrell said he might be able to invite TheDC after a message of introduction — which he would first pass around to the other members  — was sent. The request was respectfully denied because members feared (rightfully, it’d seem) that they wouldn’t be able to speak “off the record.”

“Doc” wouldn’t give his real name because he was worried the police might be after him. No need to be suspicious, he said reassuringly. He had just given a TV interview and  “everyone knows me as ‘Doc’ anyway. I’m ‘Doc’ when I talk on the radio, too.” As for that phone call Alger got in the middle of grocery shopping? Well, it was from a “person I trust completely,” though she just couldn’t say who.

After the eight senators eluded attention in Harvard there was a flurry of emails and Tea Partiers gave notice of numerous rumored sightings. There were reports that some went back to Rockford.  A week after they first began fleeing coverage, a community newspaper reported that nine Wisconsin-plated cars were parked at a private residence in Woodstock, Ill., 12 miles southeast of Harvard. According to one source, the senators had been moving back and forth from there for two or three days.

“Someone” sent Alger an email about the location.

“Just open eyes. Ooopen eyes. That’s how I’ll describe it,” she said. “No. I can’t tell you who sent it — who gave me the information — but it’s a person in the network.”

Because it was a private residence, Alger was doubtful she’d get out of her car — private property rights and all. That same day, Hale said he had “somebody” do a “drive-by” of the mansion owned by Victor Narusis, who a quick Google search reveals is a registered Republican.

After eight full days, the Tea Party bounty hunters seem to be pretty effective at wearing down the Wisconsin 14. Chatter on the wires has the Democrats going back to Rockford. Back to the Clock Tower Resort, in fact. It’s déjà vu. The senators are still recycling the same lines they’ve been using for a week now. Gov. Walker is screening his phone calls.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Tea Party is only getting better and better at keeping the spotlight on the elusive ones. There are the constant phone calls and emails and Facebook posts between activists. But now, even the entire city of Rockford is drawing attention to the Wisconsin 14. The city’s promotional organization just launched a “Hideaway in Rockford” campaign. Soundbite: “Here in Rockford, our doors are wide open, we want people to come here and hideaway, from whatever they’re trying to get away from.”

Unrelenting public mockery, though, that’s tough to hide from.

— Originally published on March 3, 2011. Read the real thing here.
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