Does the Tea Party Even Vet Its Own Candidates?

The establishment may not be popular right now, but it does serve a purpose.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The primary elections in Massachusetts, where Tea Party movement-backed candidates scored surprisingly well in this still-blue state, raise a critical general election question:

Do they not vet these people?

[See a slide show of other bad candidates in the 2010 elections.]

Let’s begin with Tom Wesley, who rode a Tea Party train to become the GOP nominee in Western Massachusetts, where he is challenging Democratic Rep. Richard Neal. Wesley, who is running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, declared bankruptcy in 2000, erasing $140,000 in unpaid bills and $8,000 in unpaid income taxes. He didn’t think to mention it until the Associated Press unearthed the bankruptcy document, and he explained to the AP, "the American dream has risk and reward, and it also has consequences. I took the risk and suffered the consequences." Since then, Wesley told the news agency, he has "learned a lot" about fiscal responsibility. Let’s hope so.

Then there’s Jeff Perry who won a landslide victory for the GOP nomination in the 10th District, and who is dogged by a scandal from the 1990s when a police officer under Perry’s supervision participated in two illegal strip-searches of teenage girls. The officer went to jail; Perry was not charged.

"I was 23 years old. I was a new police officer. I did the best I could. I wasn’t a perfect police officer," Perry said during a primary debate on NECN.

Perry could overcome the scandal, but it’s a serious mark against him in a district that is, at least on paper, gettable for the GOP. It’s an open seat, with Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt retiring, and the district went strong for GOP Sen. Scott Brown in his upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley earlier this year.

[See which industries give the most money to Brown.]

In the Lowell area, we have GOP congressional nominee Jon Golnik, who had his license suspended in 2001 when he was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Golnik cops to the drinking citation, but told local news agencies he did not smoke marijuana. Democrat Niki Tsongas, the least senior member of the Massachusetts House delegation, should have been a juicy target for the GOP. A cleaner candidate might have helped.

And facing the irascible Democrat Republicans love to hate, Barney Frank, is Republican Sean Bielat. At least now he’s a Republican. Bielat, it turns out, was a registered Democrat in upstate New York’s Ontario County in the mid-to-late 1990s before he moved to Massachusetts—a matter he explains in an op-ed by saying his family had been longtime Democrats, but that he himself voted Republican despite his Democratic registration. Sure, candidates have switched parties before and survived. But it’s hard to run against a man the GOP claims is the embodiment of failed Democratic principles if one, in fact, used to be a member of that party of failed Democratic principles.

To be sure, there’s something very healthy and small-d democratic about grassroots movements that reject hack politicians and the establishment in either major party. But the establishment—no matter how much voters are punishing it this year in the primaries—serves a purpose. They scrub candidates’ records and make sure they can run a campaign on issues, and not one distracted by scandal. And it may be that people are so angry this year that they won’t care about past behavior or personal foibles. But there’s no excuse, even for an anti-establishment movement, for not doing one’s homework.

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