The following is reprinted with permission from the Gongwer News Service. It was published in their Friday, April 23, edition. Gongwer is a paid subscription news service that covers the Michigan capitol and Michigan politics. Subscription information may be obtained at: www.Gongwer.com.
When Wendy Day last roamed the capital city, she was a legislative aide fresh out of college, a longtime Democrat working for Republican House members out of happenstance. A decade later, she is one of the top forces behind the Tea Party movement in Michigan and a key leader in conservative politics.
A key organizer last year of the Tea Party rallies, Ms. Day has taken her involvement to a new level by helping head up the Michigan Citizens for Healthcare Freedom ballot drive to pass a constitutional amendment designed to allow residents to opt out of the new national requirement that all citizens have health insurance.
Ms. Day said it began on Twitter in February 2009, a month into the administration of President Barack Obama, when CNBC analyst Rick Santelli had his now famous rant on television railing against government bailouts of bad mortgages, General Motors and Chrysler and suggesting a Chicago tea party later that summer. Ms. Day said she randomly connected with a few people on Twitter about the Santelli diatribe.
"We decided to have a tea party. We planned it in three days," she said.
When 300 people showed up on short notice, Ms. Day said, "It kind of gave us the first inkling that something special was going on."
Ms. Day, a Howell resident, organized a group called New Patriot Revolution, which was quickly renamed Common Sense in Government, Ms. Day said, after some thought the name implied an armed militia. Less than two months later would come the April 15, 2009, Capitol rally organized by a variety of organizations, including Common Sense in Government, that drew an eye-catching 5,000 protesters to the east steps of the Capitol.
But it was something of a return of sorts for Ms. Day. More than a decade earlier, she landed a job with then-Rep. Dan Gustafson's office after contacting his staff about the graduated driver's license bill he had been championing.
Ms. Day bounced around to other lawmakers, including liberal Republicans like Rep. Jan Dolan and Rep. Pan Godchaux, before deciding to leave the legislative sphere.
"It was kind of fun and exciting. I didn't get too caught up in all of it because my core ideology was not in line," she said, meaning that as a Democrat she didn't get overly involved in the Republican political scene. "I really appreciate the people who work in those offices because there's so much administration work that has to be done. ... It was not the best fit for me."
The Gustafson staffer who hired Ms. Day was David Palsrok, who would later win election to the House from 2003-08 and is now with the Small Business Association of Michigan. Ms. Day told him she was a Democrat, but he said he was unbothered.
"As we were going through and talking about different issues of the day, I probably sensed that she wasn't a far-left Democrat," he said.
Still, when Ms. Day went to work for Ms. Godchaux, probably the most liberal Republican in the Legislature at the time, Mr. Palsrok said, "I thought that was probably a better place for her to go work philosophically."
Mr. Palsrok learned of Ms. Day's ideological conversion last summer following the initial Tea Party protests. Laughing, he said, "I like to think I converted Wendy Day into a tea party person back in 1995."
While Mr. Palsrok said Ms. Day's political switch surprised him, he said her leadership role does not surprise him.
"It certainly makes sense how somebody who knew about the system and worked in the system could rise in an organization like that," he said. "She's got a good political mind."
He noted the now famous "Snowmen Protest" earlier this year in which Ms. Day and her organization built snowmen on the Capitol lawn holding anti-tax signs, one of the most talked about protests in memory.
Born in Michigan, but raised in Escondido, California, near San Diego, Ms. Day, 37, returned to Michigan to get her bachelor's degree from Central Michigan University - where she was a Democratic precinct delegate.
Ms. Day said she became conservative after she left work in the Legislature, got married, read Dinesh D'Souza's "What's So Great about America?" and watched her husband, serving in the Army National Guard, deployed to Iraq. During the 2004 presidential election, she volunteered for President George W. Bush's re-election effort, disgusted at how the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, had testified before Congress after serving in Vietnam against that war.
"I could not have him come back to a country where he would be treated the way our Vietnam vets were treated," she said.
And of her own ideological change?
"I think I misunderstood the role of government. I had a really misinformed perception of what it meant to be a Republican or a conservative," she said, saying while a Democrat she unfairly and wrongly assumed those on the right were rich, country-club types. Democrats have "a perception that the government is supposed to do the job that communities and families are really supposed to do."
But now Ms. Day considers herself detached from the political parties, which she says look out for political interests first and foremost. If Republicans were serious about lowering taxes and reducing the deficit, they would have done so when they had control of the White House and Congress in 2001 and from 2003-06, but they did not, she said.
"Within the parties themselves there's such a wide variety of individuals," she said. "Even though we keep switching out parties election after election, things don't seem to be getting any better."
With that in mind, Ms. Day said political-watchers and candidates should not expect her organization to endorse or support candidates for office this year.
"We know you can send the right person, or who you think is the right person, to Lansing and Washington, but they can make really stupid decisions," she said. "But our job is going to be to hold those folks accountable once they're elected and let the folks back home who elected them know what they're up to."
Ms. Day is an elected official herself. In 2006, she won a term on the Howell Board of Education. Ms. Day said she's an unconventional board member since she homeschools her children. But many in the district disliked its direction, so she ran and won. She said she has not decided whether to seek re-election this year.
"People were really looking for someone to come in and ask the tough questions and provide some transparency about what was going on in the district," she said.
Democrats and centrist Republicans have criticized Tea Party thinking, questioning how its activists can rail against every aspect of government even as they benefit from government services like roads, police, fire protection and the public university, public school and community college system. Ms. Day herself is an adjunct professor at Lansing Community College in speech communication.
Ms. Day said there are legitimate government services like roads, public safety and others. But there is waste in those systems and unnecessary programs as well. There are immediate steps state government could take, she said, like opting out of No Child Left Behind, cutting the Michigan Business Tax, shuttering the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, allowing more school choice and ending the practice of "picking winners and losers" with tax breaks to businesses.
"There's a debate to be had about what the core function of government is," she said. "If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, government shouldn't be doing it."
Yet Ms. Day also said, "We can't just say that government should stop doing things. If we don't want government to do certain things, then we have to be willing to go out and do that instead."
Acknowledging that there is waste in the private sector too, Ms. Day said, "If corporations waste too much money, they go out of business. If governments waste money, they just raise taxes."
Now Ms. Day is hoping to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment designed to allow Michigan residents to opt out of the federal health care legislation's requirement that all citizens buy health insurance. A number of legal experts have said even if voters approve the measure, it will fail in court because federal law trumps state law.
"We don't think this is the magic silver bullet," Ms. Day said. "If this bill dies by death of a thousand paper cuts, then I'm okay with that. I think we need to do everything we can and throw everything we've got at this bill."
Ms. Day noted the proposal would prevent Michigan from enacting a Massachusetts-style health care law.
She did not have a current signature count. The group needs about 380,000.
Liberals have criticized her organization as nothing more than a front for Republicans, funded by Republican donors, but Ms. Day refuted the allegation. "It really is people who are grassroots, who care about this country," she said.