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Tea Party activists train to be candidates

Chris Faulkner, who helped organized the direct-mail campaign for Scott Brown’s Senate campaign last year, helped lead yesterday’s session. Chris Faulkner, who helped organized the direct-mail campaign for Scott Brown’s Senate campaign last year, helped lead yesterday’s session. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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WORCESTER — Patrick Humphries sat near the front of the classroom, diligently taking notes about precinct captains, direct-mail strategies, and door-to-door voter contact. The instructors never mentioned “Obamacare’’ or the Founding Fathers; no one was wearing a tricorn hat.

And that was the point.

Humphries was attending Tea Party candidate training school, an attempt to channel the fiery, inchoate energy of the Tea Party movement into disciplined, professionally managed campaigns for elective office.

Over the course of the morning, Humphries, a Tea Party activist from Bedford, and about 30 others listened to two professional political consultants teach them how to build a budget, organize a fund-raiser, set up a Twitter account, handle the press, and knock on doors.

Among the key lessons for first-time Tea Party candidates: Talk about issues that “regular people’’ care about. That means candidates should not “geek out about the Fed,’’ and other pet issues debated within the movement, said Chris Faulkner, a direct-mail guru who helped lead the training. Faulkner organized the direct-mail campaign for Scott Brown’s Senate campaign last year.

Instead, try talking about a $1 billion bond for a local sewer project, Faulkner said.

“I do believe in making things relevant,’’ he said. “Fundamentally, you know that protesting doesn’t change much. It’s what you do to follow through that matters.’’

Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, said she organized the workshop because so many Tea Party members were inspired to run for office after Brown’s victory a year ago. But not many, she said, knew how to run a successful campaign. Many had never been politically active before Brown’s run.

So Varley invited American Majority, a Virginia-based group that holds campaign workshops for conservatives nationwide , to come to Massachusetts.

“They understand we’re first-timers and can temper our passion by giving us the information needed to be effective,’’ Varley said. “Because what we see with people in the Tea Party movement is there’s a lot of passion and a lot of emotion, and not the know-how. It’s really valuable for people to hear there is a formula you can follow and steps you can follow, to get a good outcome.’’

Indeed, the candidate school was notable for its lack of raucous Tea Party energy. Held in a drab fourth-floor conference room, it had the feel of a nonpartisan corporate training session. The attendees — who included aspiring and former candidates for the Legislature and for local offices — received glossy manuals with chapters on how to design a press release, recruit volunteers, and take a “businesslike approach to winning elections.’’

Clicking through a series of slides projected on the wall, Faulkner offered tips on how to get voters to open a piece of direct mail. (He suggested enclosing two pennies in the envelope.) He talked about the relative merits of holding online fund-raisers and “money bombs’’ versus chicken dinners and backyard cookouts.

He warned candidates to carefully police their online profiles, cautioning that anything they or their friends have written online could become fodder for the press and political adversaries. Candidates, he joked, can only count on two days of positive press: “The day you announce — and the day you drop out.’’

“The rest is fair game,’’ Faulkner said.

Some of the techniques were unabashedly modeled on those used by liberal groups that are anathema to the movement. Ned Ryun, the president of American Majority who led the training with Faulkner, said, for example, that unions and ACORN, the left-wing community organizing group, had set the “gold standard’’ for voter outreach by going door-to-door. Conservative candidates should use the same approach, he said.

Humphries, a 50-year-old information technology specialist, said the techniques would help him become a savvier campaign volunteer. Last year, he worked for Sean Bielat, a Republican who lost to Representative Barney Frank, and for Bill Hudak, a Republican who lost to Representative John F. Tierney.

“We need training,’’ Humphries said. “We need experience.’’

Massachusetts has been inhospitable territory for Tea Party candidates. But Ryun, pointing to recent Tea Party victories in New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England, said, “We can’t give up on the Northeast. There’s a lot of good things happening here.’’

“Money is the key,’’ said Martha Wagner, a 63-year-old auditor from Dudley, who last fall worked on Tom Wesley’s unsuccessful and underfinanced campaign against Representative Richard E. Neal. “We couldn’t raise enough money to get him on TV,’’ she said. “And TV gives you more coverage than anything.’’

Varley said she hopes to use the workshop, which will be held again today in Woburn, to recruit 10 candidates for state and local offices.

“We need a farm team,’’ said Bonnie Johnson, a leader of the Worcester Seven Hills Tea Party. “Scott Brown jump-started this state into realizing we could do something. But there’s a lot more we need to do.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.