Is the Tea Party losing its mojo? It sure looks like it. Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann had to bail early from the presidential race and it’s looking more and more like they’ll have to settle for Mitt — hardly the Tea Party ideal. To make matters worse, they’re having trouble finding good candidates for Congress. And they seem to be taking a beating on the local level as well.
Consider the case of Troy, Mich., an affluent suburb 10 miles outside Detroit, where Tea Partiers last night got spanked in a fight over public transit.
In November, Troy elected Tea Party activist Janice Daniels as mayor, and put two other Tea Partiers on the city council. Daniels ran on a platform of “fiscal transparency, integrity in budgeting, and open communication between the private and the public sector” and “limited, constitutional government.”
What did that mean in practice? First, Daniels changed the oath of office when she took it, leaving out the part about how she was supposed to enforce the city charter. Then she got into a nationally publicized flap when homophobic comments on her Facebook page predating her mayoralty were brought into the public eye. (She wrote that she was giving up her “I Love NY” totebag after the state allowed “queers” to get married. Take that, you rainbow-flag-wavers in the Empire State!)
Just a couple of weeks after the Facebook post came to light, Daniels again made national headlines by leading the Troy city council in rejecting $8.5 million in federal funds to construct a rail-based commuter transit center. Daniels and the new Tea Partiers on the city council voted against approving a key contract for the center, which had been in the works for a decade, despite objections from the business community and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Their official explanation seemed to be that our nation is too far in debt to be throwing money around, and that it would be irresponsible to take the cash (although they gave no indication that they’d say no to federal money for roads).
Here’s what Daniels said to the New York Times:
There’s nothing free about government money … It’s never free, and it’s crippling our way of life.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this particular Tea Party celebration. Project supporters scrambled to present a scaled-back version that would require about $6.3 million in federal money, winning strong support from the Troy Chamber of Commerce. At a meeting last night, one council member reversed his vote on the contract, clearing the way for the project to proceed.
Many in Troy wondered about the claim that fiscal responsibility, and not ideology, was behind the initial rejection of the project. The rejected money, after all, wouldn’t have gone to pay off the national debt; other municipalities indicated they’d be thrilled to take what Troy turned away.
And during the mid-December hearing about the matter, it came to light that opponents of the project might have been motivated by fears that the trains would bring inner city crime to their peaceful burg, which has been named safest city in the state for 10 of the last 14 years.
David Wisz, an ally of Mayor Daniels who spoke at the Dec. 19 meeting, had this to say in his testimony: “It’s a magnet for crime … ‘Heroin express,’ that’s what the police call the transit center.” On his Facebook page (what is it with Michigan Tea Partiers and oversharing on Facebook?) he also wrote that “another mugger mover is not needed.”
As for being up-front with her constituents, Daniels has compounded her anti-gay Facebook gaffe by refusing to release the tape of a meeting she had with the local high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
They say she implied that homosexuality is a mental illness. She says she meant no such thing. We’ll have to wait for the FOIA requests to play out to see what her words really were. The transparency she values in fiscal matters apparently doesn’t extend to all her official actions.
Andrew Basile, CEO of a local law firm, takes all of this very seriously. In a letter to the Troy Chamber of Commerce, he wrote, “It’s bad for business for Troy to have a mayor who harbors (much less publicly voices) anti-gay perspectives. She might as well have taken out a full-page ad in the Detroit News admonishing corporations not to locate in Troy.”
Basile has argued that Troy’s miles of auto-dominated sprawl makes it hard to attract world-class talent. When I spoke to him about the transit center rejection before it was reversed, he was more frustrated than ever. He laughed at the notion that the rail lines could be viewed as “a heroin express,” saying they are commuter lines analogous to the Long Island Railroad or Chicago’s Metra.
As for accepting federal dollars for the project, here’s what Basile said in his letter to the Chamber of Commerce:
I’m a conservative Republican. I agree that federal spending should be cut. If Ms. Daniels were in Congress voting to reduce national transportation spending, I would probably applaud her. At least I would understand her. But when a person accepts leadership of a town, she is morally obligated to defend the interests of that town above all else. Her job therefore is to take every last dollar that the federal government is willing to give Troy, especially for projects of significant merit that enjoy the support of many if not most of the local residents and businesses.
At the meeting where the vote was reversed, Mayor Daniels was noticeably quiet. The outcome of the vote was clear from the opening minutes of the meeting. After the deal was done, a cluster of right-wing gadflies lined up to express their disgust during the public comment period. But it was too late.
In Troy, mainstream Republicans are reckoning on the ground with what Tea Party governance looks like in action. And at least in the case of their transit center, they have been willing to push back.