Foot soldiers of the Ron Paul revolution
The late-fall night fairly crackled with energy -- from a persistent Santa Ana wind, the high-tension power lines overhead and, especially, from the crowd packed inside the living room of a ranch house at the west end of the San Gabriel Valley.
Eighty people sat elbow to elbow on tight rows of folding chairs, chattering with enthusiasm and ideas. They would produce wall calendars and a concert. They would reenact the Boston Tea Party on the Santa Monica Pier. They would write to every independent voter in Iowa.
The foot soldiers of the Ron Paul Revolution, Pasadena Division, were only getting started.
Founded nine months ago by one of the first followers of the Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate, the Pasadena “meetup” spawned more than 1,200 similar groups that claim nearly 77,000 members nationwide.
These fervent supporters and their freewheeling tactics have helped turn Paul into, first, an Internet sensation and, now, this political season’s most unlikely phenomenon.
A 45-year-old artist and adventurer is bicycling from Santa Monica to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington to raise awareness about Paul. A Nevada brothel owner recently promised to take up a collection from her customers. One Colorado backer quickly raised more than $350,000 online this week, with a plan to launch a Ron Paul blimp.
“It’s bigger than one. It’s bigger than a group,” Juliet Annerino, a Silver Lake fitness trainer and singer, said at the recent gathering of the Pasadena group. “We are making history right now. Right here.”
Paulites tend to be tech-savvy, tired of traditional politics and suspicious of their government and the mainstream media.
But after that, they defy categories. A quick survey of the Pasadena group found Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Constitution Party followers uniting behind some or all of the Paul libertarian agenda -- ending the war in Iraq, abolishing gun control laws, legalizing marijuana and dismantling big hunks of the U.S. government, especially the IRS and Federal Reserve system.
“I think you could build a case that Ron Paul is part of a tradition of those unhappy with the iron grip of the status quo, from Ross Perot to Ralph Nader right back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “What they all have in common is a freedom from the normal tendencies toward caution and equivocation.”
National polls and most political analysts still make Paul a long shot, though he recently climbed into fourth place (with 8%) in three surveys in the early primary state of New Hampshire.
His biggest splash before that came Nov. 5, when an online effort (in web-speak, a “money bomb”) brought in $4.2 million, one of the largest single-day hauls in the history of political fundraising.
For months, the one-time obstetrician-gynecologist and Air Force flight surgeon had been a growing phenomenon on the Internet; his YouTube videos and website ( www.ronpaul2008.com) had become more popular than any other presidential candidate’s, Republican or Democratic.
Those were heady achievements for a campaign that did not exist until January, when a handful of Paul enthusiasts -- two of whom met while promoting a documentary on the government’s failure to search for POWs allegedly still held in Southeast Asia -- came together in Hollywood. Over two days in a suite at a Comfort Inn, the organizers mapped out the rudiments of Paul’s website.
“Nothing was going fast enough for people,” said Bill Dumas, who participated in the early strategy sessions. “They were really excited and wanted more ways to participate.”
In particular, the Paulites wanted to organize and meet with each other. Believing it would take too long to create an organization, Dumas signed on with the social networking site Meetup.com.
He formed the Pasadena group for Ron Paul 2008 in March and put a link on Paul’s website to help others start meetup groups. “It was quickly just bombarded,” said Dumas, 51. “People began starting their own meetups all over the country.”
Paul said in a recent television appearance that even he was surprised by the fervent response. “We are tapping into this sense of frustration,” he said.
At the recent Pasadena meeting -- held at the La Canada Flintridge home of Bill Johnson, an international corporate lawyer -- two young men described their plan to send hand-written letters to Iowa’s 700,000 independent voters, urging them to register Republican and turn out for Paul at the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Annerino talked about two fundraisers she had on the drawing board -- a “Rock for Ron Paul” concert Jan. 17 in Hollywood and a “Hotties for Ron Paul” 2008 wall calendar.
Yoga teacher Steven Vincent, 42, finished a brisk series of announcements about his many initiatives for Paul (including video webcasts he delivers each weekday from his Studio City living room at ronpaulfreedommessage.com) with the coup de grace: a march on Dec. 16, the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
Vincent beamed as he envisioned a procession through Santa Monica, with participants toting mock tea crates, labeled “welfare state,” “IRS” and such. (The event will coincide with another Paul money bomb, which volunteers hope will raise $10 million online in a single day.)
He said the procession would continue to the end of the Santa Monica Pier, where the symbols of government excess would be dumped into the bay -- and immediately hauled out to prevent any pollution. Vincent told the gathering: “It will be a great visual event.”
Insurgent campaigns rely on such bursts of creativity to keep enthusiasm high, said Zephyr Teachout, director of online organizing for Howard Dean, the Vermont governor whose Internet fundraising helped him leap to the front of the 2004 Democratic primary field.
“If you want people to do more, you have to break the stamp-licker paradigm,” said Teachout, meaning that volunteers should be allowed to do more than get out the mail.
Unlike Dean, who had five organizers shepherd meetup groups with agendas and regular conference calls, the Paul chapters are “completely decentralized,” according to Kerri Price, a Paul spokeswoman.
Paul volunteers take pride in making their own rules. “Authority,” said one young man at the start of the Pasadena meetup, “will never be true.”
Paulites also don’t hesitate to criticize the candidate’s small professional campaign staff, as evidenced last week when many followers flamed fundraising director Jonathan Bydlak. The protesters, calling Bydlak an “idiot,” among other things, said his demand for immediate contributions would steal attention from the Tea Party event.
Given the cacophonous voices gathered under the Paul tent, at least a little dissension should hardly be surprising. At the recent gathering in La Canada Flintridge, Paul activists described voting in the past for candidates ranging from President Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, to Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
Yoga teacher Vincent, 42, was not the only one who said he had been too disillusioned to ever vote before: “What’s happening right now is a paradigm shift in American politics. These divisions -- Democrat-Republican, conservative-liberal -- are breaking down . . . because there is really no distinction any more between the parties.”
Even as they have gained momentum and attention, Paul supporters still believe they are a breed apart. They talk openly about how some outsiders see them -- as obsessed and perhaps a little loopy.
“How many of you wear tinfoil hats and dance the macarena?” co-host Don Mooney asked at the start of the recent Pasadena meetup. The crowd laughed. Bryce Shonka quipped that the letters to Iowa independents might include this line: “I’m a normal American. I’m not a fringe-er.” Most of the 20 Paul followers interviewed over the course of a week hewed to the candidate’s limited-government themes. But others described Paul as the antidote to alleged conspiracies that ranged from aerial spraying of toxic “chemtrails,” to the coverup of the true source of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center implosions to a plan to force America into a single world government.
Columnist Mona Charen recently argued that, though Paul has not directly supported such theories, he had not done enough to defuse his “conspiracy-minded fans.” She is one of many journalists who has been bombarded with e-mails, sometimes angry and profane, after writing critically about the candidate.
Paul supporters said in interviews they didn’t condone harsh tactics, but some in their camp had become bitter because of the short shrift they said the mainstream media had given their candidate.
The Paulites remain stalwart. If their candidate doesn’t win the Republican nomination, many are determined to push a third-party run, even though Paul has said he doesn’t welcome it. They feel they’ve already beaten the conventional wisdom and those who would belittle them.
Vincent concludes e-mails with a line from Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”