How the Contract from America Got Started

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The following is an interview with Ryan Hecker, the 29-year-old, Houston-based Tea Party activist responsible for the Contract from America, the statement of 10 principles for the Tea Party movement that was unveiled this week.

The interview was conducted on Wednesday (hence Tax Day, April 15th, referred to as "tomorrow). Hecker let people vote on their favorite principles for the movement on his website beginning in March, narrowing the list down to a final 10. The document was advertised by Tea Party groups at rallies on Tax Day.

How did you come up with this idea?

It was actually after the November 2008 election, and the Republicans had really lost legitimacy, and I really was frustrated by the lack of involvement and the lack of their willingness to kind of listen to the people, especially on economic conservative issues, and so I thought, well, how do we get across what the people want? People aren't just going to be silent. And that's where this idea was generated. People have great ideas: it's not just DC types, but around the country people have great ideas about how to fix the country, and let's create a forum for them to be heard.

What was the process like, in terms of getting support for this idea? For instance, getting Tea Party groups and getting other conservative groups on board behind the push to create an open-sourced document of principles?

Well, first I went to some of the local Texas groups, my own group, Houston Tea Party Society. I went to the person in charge, Felicia Cravens, I'm on the executive board, but she's kind of she's the idea woman, and I talked to her about it and she thought it was a great idea, and I thought it'd fit perfectly within the Tea Party movement as a whole. And then I went to Austin and Greg Holloway and he was gung ho about it, and then I went to Tea Party Patriots, and they were interested in supporting the effort. So I paid for someone who had developed Tea Party Patriots' site, Scott Graves, to develop this site, and we launched it. I think the idea, the process, it just fit so perfectly with what the Tea Party movement's about, and the idea of presenting a real agenda of positive reform, versus just being a protest-oriented kind of anti group, just really appealed to people that I mentioned it to.

Now, you know, there was a ton of hard work after that. To get someone like FreedomWorks on board, it was multiple phone calls to all these various groups, and some turned me down, some said yes, and we built it from there. It was by word of mouth for all the local groups, but it was a lot of hours.

What do you hope this document will become for the movement? Do you see it as a guiding document, or do you see it as something that everyone's going to adopt, or maybe a lot of people will like it and others won't? How do you see it fitting in?

It's definitely a proactive call for reform. We have over 100 Tea Parties presenting it tomorrow at their April 15th rallies. I think there's going to be a lot more that are hopefully going to join afterwards. I'm sure there will be a news article or two from some Tea Party person not liking the idea. The thing is, you get a lot of Tea Party people in a room, there will be disagreements about a lot of things. So I don't want to claim the entire movement, that this is the entire movement's document, but it's definitely a large chunk of it, and I would say that it's not just about the movement, though: we had close to half a million people vote for the ideas they like. And I think it's a broader, big-tent kind of document that reaches past the movement.

I think at the end of the day, I hope two things: one is that I hope It'll help, kind of, in terms of the Tea Party brand and narrative that we are actually a group of very smart people with ideas, and I think second, I hope that for those local groups that want to use it, that it can be a real way of getting congressmen to listen to them, and elected officials and candidates to listen to them and sign it and agree to it. I think it will give a sense of power to a lot of these local groups, at least that's my hope.

Do you see this as something that, potentially, congressional candidates can be confronted with and asked, 'Will you sign this?' and 'Have you signed this document?' as a litmus test for whether they're on board with the movement?

Yes, that's definitely happening. It'll be happening as soon as tomorrow, and probably the next few months. I already know of a few groups that are planning something like that. We really have to put pressure on them, because everyone can talk big ideas, and any Republican or supposedly conservative can talk generalities, but if you put them on something specific, I think there's a lot more power there in terms of making them do what you want them to and listen.

Do you plan to update the list at any point, or have it evolve in any kind of way?

I think that's still in the works. Right now, this is the list. In the future we may want to. We're releasing the list relatively early in the election cycle because it is a grassroots document and has to get out there. It's not something, insider track or something, where we have everyone, you know, every congressman's support at this point, and so we needed to release it early. And issues change, so if by October there's some huge issue, we might open it up for another vote to add something. But I think we're going to play it as it comes, and the effort will be entirely transparent. We're not just going to add something. It's gotta feel like it's part of what this whole process has been, which is a democratic, transparent, grassroots effort.

When you first posted this and gave people the option of different principles to vote on, how did you come up with those to begin with?

These were all ideas that were posted by people from September through January. We had over 1,000 ideas submitted and debated by several hundred thousand people, where they could give star levels and ratings, then we took some of the top ideas, but also since on some days hundreds of ideas were submitted, we couldn't look at just the top ideas, because some really great ideas got no support because they were just as quickly on the page as off it, off the front page. So what we did was a series of surveys, which several thousand Tea Party activists filled out and others, which helped us narrow down the ideas to 21.

How do you get the word out about this to Tea Party groups that are potentially going to use it, not just on Tax Day, but beyond that?

Long term, we'll see. So far what we've done is people have been able to sign up on our website to get these grassroots emails and so local groups have been interested, have hopefully signed on. So I imagine that there are a lot of groups out there. Since this is such a dispersed, bottom-up movement, there are a lot of groups out there that hopefully will join on afterwards. It's going to be a process. I think we're going to have two efforts. One is to get candidates and congressmen to sign on, and second is to make the grassroots database not just 100-plus groups, but 800-plus groups.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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