20 August 1995

Political Networks Combine Technology, Fear

By Dale Russakoff, Washington Post Staff Writer

Barely two years ago, Linda Liotta was a former PTA president and an artist who worked alone in her spacious house in Potomac, and worried privately that something was deeply awry in America. Then she entered the electronic universe of fax networks, and discovered she was not alone at all.

Today Liotta's art studio is one of thousands of outposts of a new grass-roots political movement, a union of technology and fear whose potency has begun to alarm established politicians. it has no name, no headquarters and no official leaders or spokesmen. What it has is members--millions, according to groups monitoring it--linked by fax machines and united by a radical distrust of government borne of wide-ranging grievances about American society.

Increasingly, they are making common cause out of what appears to be little common ground, building mushrooming fax and computer networks of angry taxpayers, property rights groups, states' rights groups, gun owners, home schoolers, right-to-lifers, John Birchers and Christian patriots. While it echoes the militia movement--charting conspiracies from Waco to the United Nations-- the new movement is far more mainstream and middle class.

"This is as yet an unorganized, unfocused group," said Grover Norquist, who is an ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and heads Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative grassroots coalition that at times overlaps with the new movement. "If somebody could focus their unhappiness, it could become very powerful."

Many men and women in the movement said they started as believers in some political leader--particularly 1992 independent presidential candidate Ross Perot--and then "moved beyond him." "Beyond" is a defining concept for this movement. Those interviewed used the word repeatedly. They have moved "beyond" newspapers and television news, "beyond Perot," "beyond Gingrich," "beyond Reagan," even "beyond Rush."

"I was never involved in politics until 1992, when I worked for Perot and discovered I had a voice," said Helen Mawn of Manhattan, a retired airline employee involved in an effort to unite more than 2,500 separate fax networks behind a far-right effort to field a new independent candidate. "A great many of us have gone beyond Perot since then. But I'll be eternally grateful to Perot for waking us up and making us smell the garbage."

"This is not a top-down movement," said Chip Berlety, who studies it for Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass. "People have set up horizontally connected, low-level networks from the bottom up."

To activists in the various networks, their biggest trophy so far is the so-called Conference of the States. Championed by the nation's governors and legislative leaders, blessed by Gingrich, it was billed as a high-level forum for reasserting states' rights. But Liotta and her compatriots feared it was a plot to rewrite the Constitution, weaken states and maybe even install global government.

They faxed alerts to thousands of sympathizers, who faxed them to thousands more, enlisting radio talk show hosts in dozens of states, until one state capitol building after another bulged with opponents. Earlier this summer the governors threw in the towel.

"We didn't take it seriously at first," said Levarr Webb, an aide to Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), head of the Republican Governors' Association and chairman of the proposed conference. "We said: "What's this? A bunch of right-wing wackos? We have the governors, the state legislatures, all the leaders. These people are way off in never-never land.'"

Early reports blamed militias (The Wall Street Journal) and "far- right extremists" (The New York Times) for defeating the conference. But calls to people listed on anti-conference faxes sent to several state legislatures turned up a much more mainstream coalition of small business owners, insurance agents, airline employees, engineers and stay-at-home mothers.

"The media labeled us as militias and that was grossly unfair, completely inaccurate, an effort to discredit us by making us look like insane people," said Liotta. "I live in Potomac, Maryland. My neighborhood is probably 80 percent Jewish, so you won't find many white supremacists here either."

Liotta, 46, a mother of two who is married to a federal scientist and who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, said she now believes powerful forces on the right and left--including Clinton, Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), major American corporations, the media and the United Nations--are working to collapse the United States into a global government.

"To me, that's the only explanation that seems to solve the confusion," she said. "The global socialists want the U.N. to have all the power, and the global capitalists want the multinational corporations to have it, and in the meantime my kids can't get jobs and my friends' kids can't get jobs and the standard of living is going down for Americans and I'm angry about it."

The movement, whose members often call themselves "patriots," appears to be growing rapidly. A national fax network founded by Detroit-area sales representative Karen Mazzarella to fight Clinton's 1993 tax package mushroomed during the health care debate and tripled to more than 100,000 people while fighting the Conference of the States.

The movement is closely allied with talk radio. Liotta has been a guest on a Baltimore show hosed by Alan Keyes, a GOP presidential hopeful. Mazzarella, whose network is called Speak Out America, has been on the "Mike Reagan Show" in California, hosted by the former president's son. She phoned nightly bulletins to Reagan during the Conference of the States fight, and he told listeners which legislators to call or write, state by state. "Every time he gave out our number, we got 100 calls a day," she said.

Two Republicans viewed as renegades by party leaders have worked hard to marshal the networks into a movement. One is Evan Mecham, the impeached former Arizona governor whose defenders say he was ousted by forces behind Arizona's Martin Luther King Jr. paid holiday, which he rescinded. He chairs the Constitutionists' Networking Center (CNC), made up of more than 2,500 smaller networks, which aims to draft a 1q996 presidential candidate. At a CNC conference last year, the Confederacy was extolled as the ultimate symbol of states' rights.

Another prime mover is Colorado state Sen. Charles Duke (R), founder of the Tenth Amendment Movement, who has a national network of 2,000 "patriot" groups and says states should dissolve the current Congress as treasonous unless it radically retracts Washington's regulatory reach.

"We don't see any difference between Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich," said Duke, himself a Republican, but a rogue in the eyes of party leaders. "Anybody with entrenched power is suspect."

Within the "constitutionist" cloak are familiar segments of the growing far right: armed militias, white supremacists and purveyors of anti-Semitism. But as the Conference of the States fight revealed, the movement's ranks are thick with people like Liotta, educated, metropolitan and nonviolent. Many are "angry white males," but there are also "angry white mothers" who, like Liotta, voice fear for their children's economic futures. Calls to more than two dozen members of fax networks turned up no minorities. only whites. Keyes, who has had Liotta on his radio talk show, is black.

Besides defeating the conference, the movement coalesced to help vote Democrats out of power last November, to oppose the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (they called GATT a step toward global government) and most recently to fight the Clinton administration's new antiterrorism legislative package as a breach of constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. While in ways ultraconservative, its members have allied with the labor movement at times on global trade and now side with the American Civil Liberties Union on antiterrorism bills. Though many movement sympathizers supported the GOP in 1994, they show no sign of making a permanent home there.

American University historian Michael Kazin sees the unrest as a populist outcry from people bruised by three decades of social and economic upheaval.

"Beginning in the 1960s, America lost a war, the radical order was upset, the gender order was upset, you saw the rise of foreign industrial competition, deindustrialization at home, falling family incomes," he said. "When things are getting worse people seek explanations."

"We've lived with this incredible tension and anger in the society as if it wasn't there," said Berlet. "It's like pretending the dead elephant in the living room isn't a problem. People who sued to put pot roast on the table every night are now eating meat loaf and they know the difference."

The story of how this discontent came to focus on the Conference of the States, about which most Americans knew little and cared less, provides a window onto the workings of the evolving movement.

Like many conference opponents, Liotta joined the fight after immersion in other causes. Her sometime art studio is now overtaken by stacks of faxes from across America. Where once there was an easel, a table is piled high with documents. Somewhere down the hall, a television is tuned perpetually to C- SPAN.

A registered independent, she said that in 1992 she was fearful about the recession and embraced Clinton's common man touch and call for a new prosperity. But she viewed his health care plan a year later as coercive and socialistic. After watching a spokesman for the American Conservative Union on C-SPAN discuss a national grass-roots coalition to fight the plan, she called to volunteer.

The ACU told her of Mazzarella, whose network turned from fighting the Clinton tax plan to fighting the health plan. Liotta joined that network, then set up her own, Americans for America, which she said has cost about $15,000 from her own pocket. The ACU presented her with an award for helping kill the health care bill by doing research in the archives of Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force and arranging a forum to publicize opposing views.

Some of Liotta's research has traveled widely on fax networks; for example, a letter she found in the task force archives from a Justice Department lawyer explaining how to "avoid the Tenth Amendment limitation" on federal power over the states. The letter said the government instead could put conditions on federal funds or move to preempt state authority, as in the Clean Air Act.

People throughout the networks now cite Liotta's health care document as proof that the federal government subverts the Tenth Amendment to impose environmental policy, education policy, civil rights policy and more.

"When you send someone a fax, you don't know where it will end up exactly," Liotta said. "They'll send it to someone and that person will send it to someone else and all of a sudden you get a call from somebody all the way across the country and you don't even know who that person is. People put it on the Internet, on talk radio. You could be reaching millions."

She and others said they expect their movement ultimately to rely on computers, but for now many members have not graduated beyond fax technology.

After the health care fight, Liotta said, someone on the network plugged her into the unsuccessful fight against GATT. She was alarmed by the power Congress and Clinton were giving the World Trade Organization, she said, and became as wary of Gingrich and Dole for supporting GATT as she was of Clinton.

"I really didn't see the global picture until GATT," she said. "Then the U.N.-watchers threw their information into the network." Not only was Washington dictating to the states, she said, but the United Nations was also dictating to America.

After GATT, she joined a network fighting stiff federal auto emission standards as violations of states' rights. This led her to Duke and his Tenth Amendment Movement. He is pushing a resolution, endorsed so far by 15 states, ordering the federal government to "cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of its constitutionally delegated powers."

Shortly after the November elections, Utah Gov. Leavitt and Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson (D), both conservatives, began championing the Conference of the States. They wanted a high- powered conference, authorized by resolutions in each state legislature, to agree on ways to reclaim power from Washington. They said the centralized, bureaucratic federal government was "outdated" in the "high-tech global marketplace," and hinted that if Washington failed to respond, a constitutional convention might be a last resort.

Although the governors' goals sounded similar to the Tenth Amendment Movement's, the "Constitutionist" fax networks went on red alert. "When we hear language like `global marketplace,' most of us in the movement, the hair rises on our necks," said Duke, calling it a code phrase for global government.

The mere mention of a constitutional convention, and the formal resolutions of support introduced in each state legislature, alarmed "constitutionists." Unlike the conservative establishment, they view a constitutional convention as an invitation to mischief, even if its purpose is to rein in the government.

"I would wake up in the morning and find the floor literally carpeted with faxes about the Conference of the States," said Liotta, who was working the fax network herself, calling talk radio hosts and lobbying her legislature.

She discovered from documents obtained through her network that the Council of State Governments, a sponsor of the conference, received donations from scores of multinational companies. "We just don't like the idea that big organizations, funded globally, can dictate the agenda in our states," she said.

Duke said he had never seen the fax networks collaborate so widely. Home schoolers, the religious right, gun owners, property rights activists, U.N.-watchers, GATT and environmental regulation opponents, Perot supporters and Tenth Amendment Movement activists all coalesced. Duke said that by sending eight faxes at night, he could reach 100,000 people by morning, and a million by the next day.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum, whose formidable grass- roots network helped block the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s, and the John Birch Society also turned their guns on the conference. Schlafly said she saw no global plot, but opposes any move that smells of a constitutional convention.

The AFL-CIO, viewing the anti-Washington tenor of the proposed conference as a threat to workplace protections, jumped in too: "At first we wondered whether this could be stopped," the federation's Mike Gildea said. "Then the right came on strong and they could get the people we couldn't touch."

"Anyone with patriots in their district had to stop and say, `Do I need to take this risk?'" said Colorado state Sen. Ray Powers (R). "I don't think they had any strong conviction that Charlie [Duke] was right, but just a sense that it wasn't worth it."

Only 14 states ended up passing the resolutions. The National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures since have scrapped the planned conference in favor of a "federalism summit" in Cincinnati in October. This time, no legislatures are being asked to approve it.

Meanwhile, the grass-roots networks have converged on the antiterrorism legislation, papering Congress with warnings against giving the government too much police power. Conservative Republicans who recently blocked the administration's bill in the House used the same argument.

Liotta too is working on antiterrorism, but remains watchful of the governors and the unfolding stories of Whitewater, Waco and Oklahoma City. Standing in her doorway in Potomac after a long conversation with a reporter, she said again that it was laughable that anyone would characterize her and her compatriots as part of the militia movement. "The militia is very small and extreme," she said. "It's middle America where it's happening."


Special correspondent Leslie Jorgensen in Colorado Springs contributed to this report.

Copyright 1995 The Washington Post

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