News and analysis from The Center for Michigan •
©2015 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at

Original article URL:

Public sector

Inside the rise of Michigan's Tea Party:

Kitchen table politics: Tea Party leverages social media to advance causes

Joan Fabiano, founder of Grassroots in Michigan, at her home computer. “I wanted to show that an ordinary person doesn’t need to have an organization in order to change public policy,” she said.

Joan Fabiano, founder of Grassroots in Michigan, at her home computer. “I wanted to show that an ordinary person doesn’t need to have an organization in order to change public policy,” she said. (Bridge photo by Pat Shellenbarger)

From a corner of her dining room, Joan Fabiano directs a Tea Party group she founded called Grassroots in Michigan.

“This is command central,” she said, pointing to a desktop computer on a small table.

She has no budget, no bylaws, no regular meetings and no members. Yet, without leaving her Lansing-area home, she is able to influence politicians and create the impression that she speaks for a large organization.

A letter she released calling on conservatives to sit out the next gubernatorial election if Gov. Rick Snyder continued pushing for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare drew statewide publicity.

She claims to have 650 followers on Facebook and an email list that she says is in the thousands. Her website is a collection of right-wing articles and links. Aside from its occasional physical meetings, Grassroots in Michigan is a virtual Tea Party.

“I wanted to show that an ordinary person doesn’t need to have an organization in order to change public policy,” Fabiano said. “You don’t have to have an office. You don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t have to have all of those things to be effective. All you have to have is a desire and a way to network with all of these people. Whatever reputation or standing I’ve gotten, it’s all been done very minimally. This is what social media has done.”

The Tea Party movement owes much of its success to email and social media. Those tools are what allowed the Tea Party to spring to life within weeks of President Obama taking his first oath of office, and they are essential to what’s kept it going. Within minutes, it can generate a flood of emails and phone calls to lawmakers. Given a day or two, it can organize a rally on the state capitol lawn.

Fabiano doesn’t have the conventional background of a political powerbroker. Retired after 30 years with General Motors – first on the line, then in an administrative job – she runs a part-time home-staging business. She is a Republican precinct delegate who began connecting with other conservatives through Twitter in early 2009.

“We were having this conversation about the massive debt, the bailout and the general direction of our country,” she said, “and then the conversation turned to what can we do about it?”

She and “two other gals got together and put up a website, and in three days we got over 300 people at the capitol,” she said. “That had a domino effect.” She helped organize another rally on April 15, 2009 – tax day – which, according to the Associated Press, drew 4,000 in Lansing.

Initially, Fabiano called her group the Lansing Tea Party. It later morphed into Grassroots in Michigan.

“Twitter was the conduit to meet so many other people,” she said. “Then I transitioned more over into Facebook.”

Such tools are essential, said another Tea Party organizer, Wes Nakagiri, but are no substitutes for face-to-face contact. After attending a Tea Party rally in Washington in September 2009, he began reading books on community organizing, written by liberals, including Saul Alinsky, often cited by Newt Gingrich in the last presidential campaign as a left-wing bogeyman.

“I figured what works for them should work for me,” Nakagiri said. “They’d been at it longer, in my view, than the right. Nowadays, I would say the Tea Party does it better than the left, in terms of getting people organized.”

While he knew many potential supporters would have a wide range of concerns, he took the liberals’ advice to keep a narrow focus, in his case on fiscal issues. He drew up a petition expressing concern to his congressman and began going door-to-door near his Livingston County home. Days later, he circled back.

“Once you knew someone would sign one of these petitions, I figured they might want to get more involved,” said Nakagiri, who works in marketing for an auto parts manufacturer.

He founded a Hartland-based Tea Party called RetakeOurGov, set up a Web site, and then created a political action committee to raise money and support conservative candidates. He later created a second PAC and then a Super PAC to solicit corporate donations.

Combined, the three PACs raised about $45,000, Nakagiri estimated, and made campaign donations to Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, and U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, a Tea Party favorite who recently said impeaching President Obama “would be a dream come true.”

In late August, Nakagiri took the next step, saying he is running to unseat Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. He made that announcement on Facebook and by email.

For Gene Clem, a 70-year-old retired information technology officer for a bank, inspiration came on Feb. 19, 2009, when he saw CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s on-air meltdown, accusing the government of promoting “bad behavior” and calling for a “Chicago Tea Party,” a rant many credit with sparking the Tea Party movement.

Clem met two other like-minded conservatives through a website. They scheduled a meeting, and 20 people showed up to plan a rally in front of the Kalamazoo County courthouse in March 2009. If they were lucky, Clem figured they might draw a couple of hundred. A little more than 1,000 showed up, he said, and he collected 800 email addresses.

“We were just amazed,” Clem said. “We thought we’d have a rally and be done, but people kept asking questions, so it was obvious we weren’t done.”

He since has helped set up several Southwest Michigan tea parties and moderates meetings of the Tea Party Alliance, 20 or 30 groups that meet monthly.

“I don’t know how we’d have done it without the Internet,” he said.

He knows the Tea Party has a bit of an image problem, created in its early days when screaming members disrupted several Congressional town hall meetings.

“That the downside of Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “You can be really loud, but it doesn’t mean you’re effective.”

When some who attended his first meetings were disruptive, “I said, ‘We’re not going to do that, or I’m out,’” Clem recalled. “I don’t like people shouting at me, and I don’t do that.”

Joan Fabiano agreed the Internet has allowed some extremists to don the Tea Party mantle.

“Anybody can say they’re Tea Party, just as anybody can say they’re Christian,” she said. “Any time you have something this big, you’re going to have some kookiness. This idea to paint the Tea Party as a bunch of kooks, I think, is a creation of the liberal media.

“It’s like your crazy uncle. You don’t approve, but he is your uncle.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

6 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Tom

    Another snot-nosed, as well financially privileged, tea bagger that would rather destroy the Republican Party than defeat the Democratic. When Republicans lose, YOU WILL HAVE FAR BIGGER PROBLEMS.

  2. Gail

    How interesting that this woman who has retired from a union position that has provided her with a life long pension and health care benefits, probably works very hard as a tea bagger trying to assure that the Medicaid expansion and health care for others does not get approved.

  3. Joan

    I am surprised that Bridge would allow user comments that use terms that have a sexually explicit meaning. Obviously this article has attracted the vitriol filled and uninformed. How unfortunate.

    As far as destroying the Republican Party I would say Republican leaders are doing a good job on their own by implementing a minority Party Liberal agenda. Its not a stretch to say that now Democrats control the House and Senate.

    And just an FYI to “Gail” I retired from General Motors a private company not a “union position” And you assume its “life long”. You also assume that Medicaid is decent health care. It isn’t. Medicaid is insurance NOT access to good health care. And it’s likely to be less so with the shortage of doctors in Michigan.

    However these two posters confirm that a position based on feelings ignore facts every time

    “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
    John Adams, ‘Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,’ December 1770
    US diplomat & politician (1735 – 1826)

  4. MI Patriot

    Gail and Tom…Typical liberals. When faced with facts, they can only call names and vitriol. To Gail and Tom…now that M’caid expansion is going to be the “law of Michigan,” what’s going to happen when, after a year or so the fed say tough noogies, we’re broke and you people in Michigan are going to have to fund everything yourself? The federal gov’t lies every time their lips move. In the meantime, Snyder has now enrolled 470,000 new M’caid applicants. The premise was that if they were enrolled in M’caid, they wouldn’t be using the ED as their primary care doctor. Well, when the feds say no more money, the newest M’caid people have no insurance, where are they going to go for their medical care? Wait for it…wait for it….waaaaaaiiit for it…..Oh yes…THE ED. Life has come full circle.

    Another down side to M’caid. M’caid reimburses maybe, if the doctor is lucky, 50 cents on the dollar. With such horrible reimbursement, more and more doctors are refusing to accept new M’caid patients. When I had to find a M’caid doctor for my son when we were broke and unemployed, as soon as I said I had M’caid, it was no go. It took me close to a month of constant calling and leg work to find a doc that accepted M’caid. That was back in the late 90s. It hasn’t gotten any better. So when the 470,000 new Snyder M’caid clients can’t find a doctor, what are they going to do? Again, wait for it….OH YES….BACK TO THE ED. And life has come full circle again.

  5. kay

    Yep, another union member who is too stupid and or greedy to think of anyone other than themselves. “I’ve got mine and everyone else can go to hell!” seems to be the cracked tea pot party’s motto.

  6. Dale Westrick Sr

    Quote from your article:
    When some who attended his first meetings were disruptive, “I said, ‘We’re not going to do that, or I’m out,’” Clem recalled. “I don’t like people shouting at me, and I don’t do that

    I firmly agree with that statement and work to keep our residents informed using the following quote I keep next to my computer.
    Nothing clarifies and informs quite like facts-backed up with solid evidence, emotion-free analysis, and sound, logical reasoning. That’s why bad economists are generally more popular in government than good ones.
    End of Quote.

    Dale Westrick
    I post the important facts and audios about our local Township government regular meeting on my website.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Currently on Bridge

An Earth Day pitch: When you hang up the phone for good, toss it the right way

Michigan’s roads affect everyone, so a 'yes' vote on Proposal 1 makes sense

‘Diplomacy Begins Here’ conference aims to illuminate international relations

What NOT to post on Facebook: Jokes about prison rape, when you’re in charge of preventing prison rape

A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison

Similar accounts in teen prison rape suit pose challenge to state's defense

‘New fish’ ‒ One teen inmate’s account of sexual assault

Early learning summit in June could impact Michigan’s children

Money Smart Week: Be penny wise, and pound savvier

Plan B or no Plan B, here’s what happens if road proposal fails

The political tale behind the selling of Proposal 1

A Bridge primer: Untangling the pothole promise of Proposal 1

Who supports, and opposes, Proposal 1

Let's rebuild Michigan through its greatest asset: its water

Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

Coalition supporting Detroit schools a step in the city’s road back

Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

A cull is a kill, and it’s an overreaction to deer ‘problem’

Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

For one Detroit mom, a complicated path to employment

Detroit by the numbers – the truth about poverty

Michigan should require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten

Where in the world is the Center for Michigan?

After two years, hard to call ACA anything but a success

Bridge’s Academic State Champs emphasizes all the wrong measurements

A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties

Up North, isolation impedes health care for seniors

Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

Not bigger government, but better services when Community Health and Human Services merge

Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

In northern counties, workers and business find each other lacking

Hidden poverty stalks a Pure Michigan setting

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Postcard: When elk is for dinner

Postcard: Luxe life at Bay Harbor reflects changing economy

Postcard: A roof and a bed

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.