Grass-roots effort secured Walsh's victory

Republican Congressman-elect Joe Walsh didn't have party support, big money, name recognition or high-paid strategists.

What he did have was the support of numerous grass-roots and tea party groups, most working independently of the candidate's formal campaign, yet all with the goal of getting rid of three-term incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean and bringing the 8th Congressional District new representation.

The result was a victory that's received national attention, as Walsh, against all odds, took a seat by 291 votes from a Democrat who had been considered absolutely safe. Walsh benefited, too, from the national Democratic Party's failure to see the seat as vulnerable and Bean's mostly low-profile campaign that started TV commercials only in the last weeks of the campaign.

The people who made it happen are members of a collection of tea party, Constitution-focused, gun rights and abortion opponent groups separate from Walsh's formal campaign.

Collectively, they totaled more than a thousand volunteers sharing the hard work of soliciting voters door to door and at rallies, parades and special events.

“We were tapping into people who were already motivated, who were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” Walsh campaign manager Nick Provenzano said.

Provenzano described the volunteers as a wide range of people from the unemployed to blue-collar workers holding down two jobs to business owners unable to hire because of economic uncertainties put off by the Washington, D.C., they believe Bean represents.

A documentary on how it all came together already is in the works.

“It was overcoming the perception (Bean had) created for herself over six years overcoming the perception that she was a centrist,” Provenzano said. “And without money, that wasn't easy. It required a strong grass-roots movement.”

Even in the Cook County portion of the district, where Bean won more votes, the efforts of groups like The Great Awakening and Palatine Tea Party were invaluable to Walsh's ultimate victory, Provenzano said.

With a margin of victory of only 291 votes, Walsh supporters noted, votes were needed anywhere they could be found.

“Our volunteers are saying we helped flip 291 votes,” said Carol Ann Parisi, founder of the Constitution-focused group The Great Awakening. “That was the Fridge carrying Walter Payton over the goal line.”

Parisi's group was one of several throughout the 8th District that took up the labor-intensive task of walking precincts and knocking on doors to speak with voters. The group, which formed in September 2009, was energized by the frustration its members felt with Washington, Parisi said.

The 912 Patriots, a like-minded organization operating in Lake County, played a similar role.

In an era emphasizing the outreach power of social media not to mention the expensive TV commercials Bean's campaign aired 912 Patriots organizer Tom Weber said face-to-face meetings with voters made the difference.

“I'm in business and I know the value of face-to-face meetings,” Weber said. “(Voters) look at you eye to eye when you go to their house.”

While the principles that members of the 912 Patriots felt they were fighting for may have had little to do with Walsh as an individual, Weber said the McHenry Republican's ability to engage and relate to people won their support.

That included talking openly and honestly about issues other candidates might have worked to conceal, like his foreclosure, Weber added.

“I think it was that he came across as a real person,” Weber said. “I think people were ready for somebody that was more like them.”

Provenzano, who didn't join Walsh's campaign himself until after the Republican primary, agreed. He said Walsh's personality made him stand out among the six Republican candidates, all of whom largely agreed on the issues.

“If you've seen him address a big group, he can feed off the energy of the crowd,” Provenzano said. “This guy has the ability to fire people up, to get them motivated.”

While some groups provided large numbers of volunteers to go door-to-door, others provided important behind-the-scenes coordination.

Palatine Tea Party Coordinator Craig Mijares said he did research for the campaign, sent out news releases and organized field operations.

In the aftermath of Walsh's victory, Mijares and others are creating a documentary showing the role the tea party played in the campaign.

“I don't think Joe would have won without the grass-roots support of the tea party,” Mijares said.

Raymond True, chairman of the Republican Assembly of Lake County, said he suggested as early as September 2009 that Walsh look into the support he might get from local tea party organizations.

The assembly helped provide staffing for Walsh's campaign office, but True said perhaps its greatest, and most unplanned, contribution was when its members demanded the Pledge of Allegiance be said at an October candidates forum in Grayslake. The incident unexpectedly turned Walsh's campaign into a national story and won over many voters, he said.

“It was spontaneous,” True said. “But people looked at that believing Joe Walsh was the guy who stood for saying the Pledge of Allegiance at a public meeting. People walked out of that room feeling Joe was their guy.”

While tea party groups approached the campaign with a broader agenda, Second Amendment and anti-abortion activists also found a candidate they could get behind in Walsh.

Among the pro-gun groups to rally around Walsh was, a Web-based organization supporting conceal-and-carry gun laws. Its president, Joe Franzese, said the group reached out to its 3,650 active members and participated in Second Amendment rallies that urged supporters to vote.

Irene Napier, organizer of Right to Life McHenry County, said her group normally focuses on state candidates, but many members volunteered for Walsh's campaign.

“It was just a spontaneous uprising,” Napier said of Walsh's grass-roots movement. “What he did was just phenomenal. He was unstoppable.”