News Story

Michigan's Newest Accidental Activists

Most Tea Party activists didn't plan to take on their role, and many are brand new to politics — literally accidental activists created by the times, rather than their passion for politics.

Aside from voting regularly, retired business owner Ben DiPonio of Milford says he wasn't ever anyone's definition of a political activist. But as the train to federalized health care clattered clumsily to the president's desk earlier this year, a frustrated DiPonio, 64, found himself repeatedly screaming at his television. His wife Joanne told him to either shut it off, or do something about it.

The Italian immigrant, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1982, decided to do something, and attended his first Tea Party at the state capitol last month.

But while joining his local Tea Party seemed the logical next move, he discovered a surprise: Amongst the endless winding roads, waterfront homes, golf courses and general fiscal conservatism in his part of the prosperous exurban playground of western Oakland County's "lakes area," Tea Party activism had been surprisingly quiet during 2009.

So he decided to do something more. What was just yelling at the TV a few weeks ago is now the Tea Party Patriots of West Oakland County. More than year late to the movement that is regularly drawing hundreds and thousands to rallies all over the state and nation, upscale Milford will have its first Tea Party at the town's Central Park on Sunday, May 16.

It started with e-mails to a bunch of friends, asking for help. The notes came back with a message: "We're with you." Over the last few weeks, a group numbering between 7 and 10 has been meeting to plot out what they want to accomplish. They are serious, accomplished people, including many business owners and professionals. Not the sort to "dilly-dally," according to DiPonio.

"I didn't think they'd pass it," says DiPonio, referring to the health care bill and explaining why he sat out the Tea Parties of 2009. "Big decisions affecting so many being done with a narrow majority was never intended by the Constitution."

He and his group don't want it to ever happen again. And he concedes that the lack of full engagement from people just like him is what caused the success of the federalized health care bill.

"I take full responsibility for what has happened," he says. "No more will we just elect them and forget about what they're doing."

In the near term, he says his group has a committee that will be "sorting through the candidates" and deciding whom to support, looking for fiscal conservatives who will "change the mix in Lansing and Washington." And then the Tea Party Patriots of West Oakland County will put their time and energy behind helping those they support and giving "exit visas" to incumbents who don't properly respect the taxpayers.

"If they gain our support as fiscal conservatives," he says, when asked about long term plans, "then we are going to stay on their cases."

But in the very short term, the group wants to make their rally a success — which is defined as making the group larger and more effective.

Few politicians will be allowed to speak. Ben says there is currently a quota of two per rally. (The TPPWOC are also planning another Tea Party for July 3, may have other events in other communities after that, and will give different politicians a chance to fill the two slots at those events.)

"I don't want to make this a political thing," he explains.

When asked about how many people he expects to show up on May 16, DiPonio refuses to put a number on it.

"I'm nervous. I wouldn't be surprised by either 100 — or 1,500."

Whoever shows up, the group wants to sign them up and organize them into a collection of local activists who will start implementing those long-range goals about holding politicians accountable. Then the next stage will be regular monthly meetings so the new enlistees can plot for the elections — and beyond.

How ever many show up on May 16, DiPonio says politicians should expect them all to stay in it for the long haul this time.

"They're going to be tired of hearing from us."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.