Tara Sue Takes Aim

Editor’s note: This article was written by me and originally published in the Online Community Report in 2002.  OCR went on hiatus in 2004, and when it came back in 2006 only a few of its old archived articles remained on the site.  With their permission, I am republishing this article on this site for historical interest, along with a new epilogue explaining where the story is today.

If you asked the average citizen to tell you where important things were happening in American politics today, odds are that not many would point to Guilford County, North Carolina. Far from the halls of power in Washington and the big-city machines of New York and Chicago, and even farther from the bustling country-within-a-country that is California, Guilford County up to now has been known more for its furniture industry than for any claim to political innovation. In the last few weeks, however, something unusual has been happening in sleepy Guilford County; something that may point to a fundamental change in the way Americans — as participants in online communities — choose their representatives. Like most fundamental changes, this one is starting slowly, building momentum as it goes, striving to reach the tipping point where the possible becomes the unstoppable. If it does — if the tremors build to an earthquake, and the creaky edifice of the System starts tumbling down, brick by brick — it will herald a power shift of a kind we have not seen in this country in many decades.

With that build-up, you might expect that the standard-bearer of this phenomenon would be a John Kennedy in utero, waiting to woo the world to his way of thinking. Or perhaps your mental image is of a new Richard Nixon, a hard-bitten campaigner who drives forward with grim determination. These are the types of people we expect to find at the heart of a political movement; people driven by public ambition or private demons, people with an inner fire that leads them, for whatever reason, to drive themselves in directions the average person never goes.

Occasionally, though, someone turns up who is the antithesis of that stereotype — someone who is catapulted by events from the ranks of everyday citizens into the stratosphere. These are the people like Abraham Lincoln, who in the space of a decade went from being a country lawyer of little repute to a national political figure, and Harry Truman, whose dogged determination in rooting out corruption in the World War II war effort started him towards two terms in the White House. These are not the class presidents and student government functionaries that everyone expects to see grow into practiced baby-kissers. They are called to greatness instead by the demands of their times.

Today, in little Guilford County, another such figure is emerging. This time, however, it’s a figure that would have been unimaginable in the time of Lincoln or Truman: a twenty-six-year-old mother with no political experience, running under the banner of a fringe party. And yet, something is coalescing around this young woman, something remarkable and unimaginable in a world without the online communities we live in today. Her name is Tara Sue Grubb, and she’s experiencing something truly new in our politics — a kind of national movement whose caucus exists only in packets flying silently through the ether.

Congress Offers Copyright Cartels a "License to Hack"

The story of how Tara Sue Grubb was hurtled to national prominence really began in 1984. In that year, the citizens of North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District (a large proportion of whom live in Guilford County) sent a new man to Washington to represent them. That man was Howard Coble, a Republican attorney from Greensboro who had served for five years in the state legislature before seeking to go to Congress. In the almost twenty years since that election, Coble managed to do what many thought was impossible: tame the notoriously turbulent 6th District (which had thrown out three incumbents in a row before his election) into a "safe seat" of the kind that every politician desires. Coble’s success can be read in the election returns: he demolished his Democratic opponent in 1996 with 73 percent of the vote, throwing such a fright into the local Democrats that they haven’t bothered to run a candidate against him since (except for a poorly-organized, last-minute write-in campaign in 2000). He has continued to steamroll over any opposition, winning 89 percent of the vote in 1998, and an astonishing 91 percent in 2000. Understandably, as they made plans for the 2002 election cycle, the Democratic Party did not bother to recruit another sacrificial lamb for Coble to slaughter.

Secure in his seat, Coble parlayed his seniority into choice committee assignments in the House, most notably a place on the powerful Judiciary Committee, which you may remember for its central role in managing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Within the committee, Coble was given a prime leadership role, being named in 1997 as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property. When that subcommittee had its jurisdiction expanded to cover the Internet, Rep. Coble found himself the point man on deciding how Congress would approach issues of IP online.

Until this year, he carried out this role quietly. But that all changed when he agreed to act as a co-sponsor for a new bill introduced in June by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). HR 5211 described itself as a bill "…to limit the liability of copyright owners for protecting their works on peer -to-peer networks." In it, though, was a knife aimed squarely at the heart of the Internet itself: its provisions allowed for copyright owners to use technological means to disable any peer-to-peer network they wished, merely on suspicion that its users were trafficking in their copyrighted materials, and be completely protected from any lawsuits that should be filed by angry users or service providers. What’s more, while they would not have such protection against suits filed by users whose personal systems were damaged or wiped out completely in this process, these users would have to go through an onerous process of applying to the government for redress. The bill contained some provisions that seemed aimed at limiting the scope of this sweeping power, but they could only be undertaken after-the-fact, after the networks had been shut down and their owners put out of business. It put the burden of justification on the operators of the network to explain why they did not after all deserve the death sentence handed them by the MPAA or RIAA.

The Berman/Coble bill ignited a firestorm in the Internet community. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) declared that the bill was "vigilantism unbound". Doc Searls, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, described Coble on his blog as a "sock puppet for the entertainment industry". Even Australian newspaper The Age chimed in, warning that if the bill were to pass, U.S. entertainment executives who entered Australia could potentially be arrested under local laws against unauthorized tampering with computer systems.

To be productive, though, all this energy needed an outlet, and at first, none presented itself. Neither Berman nor Coble seemed to have any reason to fear a public backlash; both were well funded by campaign contributions from the entertainment industry (Berman’s number one contributor, and Coble’s number two), and Coble didn’t even have a major-party opponent. What did they have to fear from a few disgruntled geeks? Especially when compared to the interests of the corporations that paid the bills?

Dave, meet Tara Sue

That’s where Dave Winer of Userland Software came in. Winer’s blog, Scripting News, is perhaps one of the most influential blogs on the Web today: he was one of the earliest evangelists of the blog format, and his blog is read religiously even by people who couldn’t care less about software or scripting languages.

When Berman/Coble came down, Dave Winer was frustrated. Like many, he was vehemently opposed to the proposed legislation, comparing it to a computer virus. But all he could do was complain, right? What good could one man’s gripes on a blog do?

What nobody anticipated was the power of the phenomenon that’s come to be known as blogrolling. It’s a simple enough thing, really; bloggers link their sites to other blogs that they read and think are worth their readers’ time. However, in practice, what this means is that new ideas tend to propagate through blogspace at very high speed. Imagine, for example, that one blogger who is very widely read posts something provocative. If I read his blog, and think his post is interesting, I’ll post a link from my blog back to his — exposing his idea to a new audience, in effect acting as a bridge between him and my circle of readers. From there, any bloggers in my audience can pick it up and show it to their friends, and so on. As each new blogger passes the meme to two or ten or a hundred more, it picks up velocity like a boulder rolling downhill.

Winer has a very, very large audience. So it should come as no surprise that, not long after he expressed his dissatisfaction with Berman/Coble, things began to move very, very quickly. One of his readers, Ed Cone, is a journalist in Greensboro, North Carolina — in the heart of Howard Coble’s district. He did two things that would change the course of the debate. First, he wrote a series of editorials in Greensboro’s major newspaper, the News-Record, explaining in non-technical language why Berman/Coble would be bad for anyone who owned a computer. And second, he pointed out to Winer that Coble wasn’t running completely unopposed — there was one candidate taking him on, a little-known Libertarian candidate named Tara Sue Grubb.

Grubb’s campaign was suffering the usual fate of third-party campaigns: complete oblivion. Coble’s previous electoral dominance, Grubb’s youth and lack of political experience, and the dismal fate of Libertarian candidates generally all combined to lead to her candidacy being written off before it had even really begun. She was determined to continue her quixotic crusade, but the odds were not looking good.

Then Dave Winer stepped in. Intrigued by Cone’s revelation that there was an opponent facing Howard Coble, he reached out to Tara Sue and asked to learn more about her. After talking with her firs
t by e-mail and then by telephone, he was convinced that he’d found the way to strike back at Coble’s attack on the medium he has so passionately worked to advance. "Everyone is setting expectations really low for Tara, but not me," he wrote on Scripting News. "I think she can win."

With some assistance from Winer, Cone, and other tech-savvy folks who wanted to help, she energetically dived into the Web, speaking directly to the new audience that had found her. She became the first candidate for Congress ever to set up a Weblog, posting her positions on issues ranging from the mundane to the profound. The medium proved a natural for Grubb; she writes with economy and force, and explains her positions in straightforward language you don’t often hear from someone pursuing elected office. Consider her tart summary of Coble’s peer-to-peer hacking bill: "If a store owner loses a few Ho-Ho’s due to shoplifting, he doesn’t ask Congress to install a security system." It’s hard to imagine a more concise illustration of the silliness of the media industry’s rush to legislation than that.

The result has been a swell of interest in the neophyte candidate. She’s been written up in Wired News, The Register, the San Jose Mercury News, and even USA Today. She’s set up a Paypal account to handle contributions, and they’re coming in from all over the country. She’s even gone through the most hallowed initiation ritual for new Net celebrities — she’s been Slashdotted.

Towards a New Method of Campaign Finance?

So, what is the significance of Tara Sue Grubb? In the short run, maybe not much — even her most ardent supporters concede that her campaign is the longest of long shots. However, many feel that even in defeat, she could find victory, simply by polling higher than anyone would expect and throwing a scare into Coble. (After all, if some kid with a Web site can pull away his "safe" votes, who knows how many challengers will smell blood in the water and come gunning after him in 2004?) And Coble is evidently taking her challenge seriously — he has begun to address the P2P issue in his town hall meetings with local audiences and in the News-Record, and his chief of staff went so far as to tell Ed Cone on the phone after his first column about Tara Sue that "now we are going to rip your face off." Those aren’t the words of a man who isn’t paying attention.

What’s most interesting in all this, though, is what could be the emergence of a counterweight to the corporate money that has distorted our political system for so long. For many decades now, we’ve had two audiences that politicians need to play to: a local audience of voters, and a national audience of corporations with deep pockets and interests to push. We pay lip service to how the House is really "the People’s House", and the closest branch of the Federal government to the average citizen due to the small geographic size of House districts. The fact remains, though, that for quite some time now it’s been clear that the real constituencies aren’t geographic at all; they’re the rootless corporations that pay the bills. Why else would Howard Coble, the representative of a rural district in North Carolina, have the entertainment industry as his number two funder? How many movies are shot in Guilford County? How many albums are recorded there?

Now, however, we may be seeing the start of a new movement to balance out that corporate power. Tara Sue’s support comes from the grassroots, that’s for certain. But her grassroots are not geographic either; they’re electronic, connecting together a disparate network of people across the country who care about the freedom of the Internet. Before the Net existed, networks like this were just not possible for individuals to construct; you needed the awesome resources of a corporation to pull together people from across the country, while individual activists could only staple flyers to bulletin boards and hope for the best. Tara Sue is showing us a new way forward, a way in which online communities can pull together and start to exert the same kind of influence over the political system that big business has monopolized up to now. She’s not raising millions of dollars through her site, of course; but every movement has to start somewhere, and some of our most effective leaders have been propelled to leadership merely by the force of events and their own determination. That’s as true for this young mother as it was for the gangly railsplitter and the failed haberdasher who came before her. Their intelligence and grit gave them the strength to push past their humble origins into the pantheon of truly legendary Americans. Will Tara Sue follow in their footsteps? It is, of course, too early to say. But if there’s any truth to the American Dream — to the notion that ordinary individuals can grow to become extraordinary — I’d say Tara Sue Grubb is a woman to keep an eye on. And across this great country of ours, digital citizens and the communities they compose are doing just that.

EPILOGUE (December 13, 2006): Tara Sue Grubb lost that election; she only polled about 11% of the vote, which is respectable for a third-party candidate, but hardly earth-shaking.

And yet, within a year of this article’s publication, it became crystal clear that Tara Sue truly had been a harbinger of something different. In 2003, the online world discovered Howard Dean, and the same dynamics I outlined in this piece sprang into action again — only this time, on an staggeringly larger scale.

Dean didn’t win the Democratic Presidential nomination for 2004, but his online popularity had an unexpected side effect — a torrent of small contributions, $100 or less, from networked individuals across the country. The blogswarm raised so much money for Dean that he actually turned down the $19 million in public financing he was entitled to, because he was raising so much money from small contributions that he didn’t want to accept the fundraising caps that came with the public money. 

The Dean phenomenon broke open the floodgates; today, the so-called "netroots" are crucial players in politics on the left and right. An example: in the 2006 cycle, left-wing blog Daily Kos raised money for 19 candidates, most of them long shots. On election day, online contributions had raised a stunning $5.4 million for the 19, propelling seven of them to victory (and most of the rest to close losses of a few points or less). Today, the path that Tara Sue blazed is a path that every sensible candidate is expected to walk.

Howard Coble is still in Congress; in 2006, his Democratic challenger, Rory Blake, picked up 29% of the vote.  

After this article appeared, I was contacted by Ed Cone, who took issue with my use of the words "sleepy" and "little" to describe Guilford County. He was right, of course; I’ve never been there myself, so I shouldn’t have let words like that (based entirely on stereotypes) creep into my writing. I apologized to him via e-mail, and I apologize to the other residents of Guilford County here.

And Tara Sue? She was thrilled to see this article appear and we struck up a correspondence. The last time I spoke with her (about a year ago, alas), she was still active in the community, making trouble for the Powers That Be.


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