About 80 people streamed into the Harney Elementary School cafeteria on a rainy Tuesday last week and took their seats in folding chairs.
They were there to engage — enthusiastically — in Clark County’s newest experiment in participatory democracy.
We the People Vancouver was born last year out of the same political disenchantment that launched the Tea Party movement. It started with a few people meeting at a bakery, talking about how the nation pulled together after Sept. 11, 2001, and about how the government needs to get back to constitutional principles.
It has grown rapidly, drawing 80 to 100 at each meeting.
Though it has some Tea Party members, including David Hedrick of Camas, who is running for Congress as a Republican, the group’s founders insist We the People is a true grass-roots movement unaffiliated with the national Tea Party groups.
“The Tea Party is single-focus, single-issue,” said Tom Niewulis, a member of the leadership team, “whereas we can generalize about all the things that are going on in our civil involvement. What brought us together was the inaction of the political parties. We are helping people to move in the direction of their passion and to really understand the Founders’ intent.”
On this evening’s agenda is the vetting of three Republican candidates for the Legislature: Brian Peck, Ann Rivers and Paul Harris.
Several audience members, chosen by raffle, will get the chance to question the candidates directly on gun control, immigration policy, the Growth Management Act and other hot-button issues that are on the minds of conservatives in this volatile election year.
Niewulis says all candidates for local legislative and Congressional seats, regardless of party, have been invited to take part in the vetting. So far, only Republican candidates have accepted.
But last week, state Rep. Tim Probst, a Democrat, inquired about getting vetted, as did Richard Carson, an independent running for the open 18th Legislative District seat.
“With elections coming up, neither party appropriately vets candidates,” Niewulis said. “One party may groom candidates better than the other.”
We the People Vancouver went public this spring with two demonstrations opposing the federal health care reform bill and a major rally at Esther Short Park.
Steered by a seven-member leadership core, the group has jumped into a number of local issues. Its local government committee is monitoring the city of Vancouver’s policy on special events permits. An education committee is petitioning the state to require the teaching of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in public schools. Another subgroup has formed to read the great books of Western culture, from Locke to Marx to Machiavelli.
The group will be represented at the Hazel Dell Parade this Saturday when Niewulis, dressed as colonial Boston patriot Samuel Adams, will ride in a chariot and hand out copies of the U.S. Constitution.
But its main contribution to political discourse is that We the People has energized a lot of Clark County voters who are fed up with both major political parties.
Its members favor limited government, and they look to the nation’s founders, through the principles articulated in the Constitution, as validation for their views.
“It’s eclectic,” said Washougal City Councilman Jon Russell, a candidate for the Legislature in the 18th District, who hosted some of the group’s early meetings at his family care clinic in Camas. “Its complete focus is on the Constitution. Regardless of political party, they want to know a candidate is going to adhere to the Constitution from the Founders’ perspective.”
Clark County Republican Party Chairman Ryan Hart stresses that We the People is not a branch of the GOP, although the county party’s website links to the organization’s meeting schedule.
“They’re independent and nonpartisan,” Hart said. While the group attracts plenty of Republicans, “it also attracts large numbers of independents and Libertarians,” he said.
“We certainly support what they’re doing,” Hart added. In fact, he said, because of independent groups like We the People, the state GOP “is in the process of developing a vetting process and how that might look.”
At last week’s meeting, Niewulis gave a little talk about the Sedition Act, under which newspaper publishers were imprisoned, and the need to protect free speech and individual rights.
He talked about Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
He noted that the issue of banking regulation is nothing new; President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton disagreed over it soon after the nation’s founding.
“Go learn our history,” he urged.
Candidates who submit to the group’s vetting process are required to fill out a detailed questionnaire detailing their work experience and qualifications. They are grilled on their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, their political philosophy and their positions on key issues.
Each candidate then gets 35 minutes at a public meeting to deliver a stump speech and field questions from members of the group’s election committee and audience members. Chances to ask questions are raffled off using tickets distributed at the beginning of each meeting.
The process is not for the faint-hearted. The blunt questions make some candidates squirm. But those who try to dodge them can expect to be pressed to provide more specifics.
After the vetting, candidates are ranked on a scale of 0 to 3 on 19 separate criteria, including ethics, values, faith, courage, philanthropy, private sector experience, voting record, constitutional awareness and understanding of Western culture.
The results, including videos of the interviews, will be posted on a website called the Washington Patriot Hub for all to see. Voters will be able to judge for themselves whether candidates pass their own particular litmus test.
On May 4, Brian Peck, a Republican candidate for the 17th Legislative District seat held by Probst, was first up in the vetting process.
In introductory remarks, he said he’d been creating jobs for more than 25 years, and his number one focus was getting jobs “back on track.”
“We won’t get that by raising taxes,” he said. “Government must end its hostile behavior toward employers.”
The first question nudged him out of his comfort zone: If elected, would he accept federal money, including transportation dollars, that came with strings attached?
“I believe in state sovereignty,” Peck finally said. “I think we should try to stay away from unfunded mandates.” Not quite on point, but the panel let it pass.
A supporter of gun rights, Peck aced a question on a California-style gun rights law. He committed to vote against any bill that infringes on the rights of initiative and referendum.
But he faltered on whether he would commit to requiring the federal government to transfer all federal lands back to the states. He finally got to yes, saying, “The federal government is trying to tell states what they can do with their resources. Many states want to drill for oil or other resources.”
On the question of whether states should act to break public employee unions if they negotiate higher pay than private sector workers make, Peck ventured, “Unions should be able to funnel their money where they want.”
But when that answer brought frowns, he recovered, saying, “I believe everything should be on the table when it comes to shrinking government.”
And when asked by Niewulis whether he would favor repealing the 17th Amendment and returning to a system in which state legislatures elect U.S. senators, Peck said firmly, “I would not vote for that. The right to vote should be protected.”
Ann Rivers, a candidate for the 18th District open seat, seemed more confident in her answers. She decried the way the state budget is written, and declared, “Taxation kills our economy,” when asked about how the Constitution deals with revenue and taxation.
Questioned about Arizona’s controversial new law, which requires police to stop people suspected of being illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers, Rivers embraced it.
“It mirrors the federal law,” she said. “We need to do that in our state. We need to make sure everyone with a driver license is here legally. We need E-verify.”
Rivers also embraced the repeal of the 1990 Washington Growth Management Act, saying, “To have GMA dictating what we can and can’t do violates private property rights.”
In response to a question, Rivers also vowed not to accept campaign donations from labor unions.
“I really do believe we will see a change in leadership in Olympia” next year, she said. “I feel we are in a perfect storm of events.”
Willie Bourlet began attending meetings of We the People just two weeks ago. He once lived in Pierce County, once served as an adviser to Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner, one worked as a union activist.
He moved to north Clark County in 1997, and became a convert to smaller government after a run-in with Clean Water Act rules that required him to fence off his streams from livestock. He wears overalls now, and a trademark red shirt.
“I’m tired of the government trying to help me, because every time they help me, I get screwed,” he said. He’s annoyed with the Republican Party, too. “We need to hear principles,” he said. “Why aren’t they asking these questions?”
Tom Hann, one of the founders of We the People, said he reached the boiling point while working for a Clark County high-tech manufacturing firm.
“I was getting fed up with layoff after layoff at my company because the economy kept shrinking,” he said. “There was no place I could keep my retirement investments. I listened to the lies and the rhetoric. They don’t report solutions or offer content to solve the problems. I decided, I can’t just cuss and scream. I’ve got to be part of the solution.”
What inspired him to found We the People, he said, was FOX News political commentator and Tea Party icon Glenn Beck.
“Glenn Beck is revamping our civic consciousness,” Hann said. Listening to him talk about where government has gone wrong “is a great first step,” he said. “It’s getting people awake, getting people’s radar turned on. But the only person who can educate you is you.”
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.