SPRINGFIELD TWP.: When Tom Zawistowski is told something can’t be done, he doesn’t listen.
He wanted to find a way — in pre-Internet days — for sports fans to listen to events not being broadcast on local radio or television. He succeeded.
Naysayers said his grass-roots group wouldn’t be able to gather the 500,000 signatures needed to get a statewide issue on the ballot. He proved them wrong.
Now, Zawistowski, who heads the Portage County Tea Party, one of the most active tea parties in the state, wants to become chairman of the Ohio Republican Party — a move he thinks would help unify the fractured party.
He’ll find out if he succeeds in this latest endeavor Friday, when the 66 members of the party’s Central Committee vote in Columbus, where a majority vote of 34 will be required to claim victory.
Zawistowski knows he’s the underdog, with only an estimated 15 to 20 Central Committee members backing him over Matt Borges, the state party’s executive director who has the support of Gov. John Kasich. Zawistowski, though, does have a broad base of support from conservative groups across the state, with 150 of them signing a recent letter sent to Central Committee members.
Zawistowski and his supporters are calling the chairman battle “judgment day” for the state Republican Party and say if Borges is chosen as chairman, the tea party and other party conservatives might be forced to start a third party.
“Matt Borges can’t win,” the fiery Zawistowski said in a recent interview at his Springfield Township home. “If Matt Borges is named, you’ve just committed suicide. They’re done. It’s over. These people will never come back. There will be a third party or some other action.”
Others agree the fight for leadership comes at a pivotal time, with the party’s more conservative members jockeying for control with the larger group loyal to the party establishment.
“Even if Tom doesn’t win, if he can demonstrate enough strength to the people who support him, this is not a one-shot deal,” said John Green, executive director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “Committees are a venue through which conflicts are worked out. No matter who becomes chairman, the struggle may have implications for how the party proceeds.”
Zawistowski had a whole other life before he entered politics.
He and his wife, Nanette, or “Nan” as he calls her, spent more than 20 years living and raising their two children in Kent. A few years ago, with the kids out of the nest, they left the college town and moved to a smaller home in Springfield Township, a community he thought was a better fit for his blue-collar, neighbor-loving values.
Zawistowski said his children aren’t interested in politics, but neither was he for most of his 57 years.
“Until the tea party came along, I was the most apolitical person you could meet,” he said.
Zawistowski’s early passion was sports, which his parents forbade him from participating in when he was young. He got his start in his senior year of high school in Erie, Pa., when he forged his father’s signature and joined the football team.
At Edinboro State College, he served as the women’s sports information director and women’s sports editor and helped assist with the women’s track and basketball teams. It was during that time that he first experienced what he felt was a well-meaning federal government policy run amok.
“I fought for Title IX,” he said, referring to the 1972 law that sought to end discrimination against female athletic programs. “I knew women’s athletics were underfunded.”
But he said, he saw Title IX become “this beast that was attacking people. It became a tool for the left to attack men’s sports. It became a quota system that was illogical and grossly damaging.
“It was the first time I ever saw government injected into my life forcefully and changing it in a way that wasn’t smart. I guess that was a wake-up call to me in some way,” he said.
While the Title IX experience wasn’t enough to push him into politics, his love of sports turned him to the world of business. It started during his time as associate athletic director at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., when he heard out-of-state alumni say they wanted to hear university games broadcast locally.
His quest began with holding his phone up to the radio for a frustrated sports fan to hear a broadcast and eventually morphed into a company, TRZ Sports Services in downtown Akron, that broadcast sports over phone lines for people who couldn’t access TV or radio coverage. At one point, he had exclusive contracts with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and several colleges.
When the Internet emerged, his company began offering video and audio streaming and expanded its customer base to companies and churches. He said the company, which was renamed TRZ Communications Services and moved its headquarters to Brimfield Township, developed what is now called “robocalls” and wrote the program that allowed schools to notify parents of closings.
In 2009, he used his company for another purpose: politics.
The robocall he made that year to Portage County residents, hoping to draw them to a tea party rally in Cleveland, grew out of his frustration with the direction the country was headed.
Until then, his political activism was limited to a single $50 check he wrote to support George W. Bush for president in 2000. While he supported Bush again in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, he stopped sending the Republican National Committee money.
“When I sent that [original] $50, they spent a hundred dollars trying to get me to give more,” he said. “What they did was stupid, and I didn’t respect that.”
Zawistowski was disappointed the conservative candidate didn’t prevail, then wasn’t happy with what he saw happening under President Barack Obama. The final straw that pushed him into politics was the bailout of General Motors. He said he hated how the bond holders were treated.
“One of the fundamentals of our nation is we are a nation of laws, and the foundation of laws are contracts,” he said. “Those bond holders had legal standing. They deserved their money. President Obama attacked them, embarrassed them, challenged them and basically disobeyed the law and screwed all the bond holders. If you’re willing to say that about those contracts, what are my contracts worth?”
In the spring of 2009, Zawistowski and his wife learned there was going to be a tea party rally to mark tax day in Cleveland. They were not tea party members, but liked the message.
“My wife and I were afraid it would fail. There was no media coverage,” he said. “My wife says, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ ”
That’s when Zawistowski turned to what he knew: his business. He used his communications system to send a recorded message to every household in Portage County, alerting them to the rally. When 5,000 people attended the Cleveland event, with many from Portage County, Zawistowski took credit for spreading the word.
The local Republican Party took note, as well. Zawistowski started getting calls from local officials, asking him to start a local tea party.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m definitely not interested in working with the Republican Party, because I don’t trust you,’ ” he recalled.
But the party leaders kept calling, and he eventually agreed to meet with four other people to talk about it. They got together at the Cracker Barrel in Rootstown Township and planned a local rally for July 11, 2009.
Even after leaving that meeting, Zawistowski was reluctant to get involved. But he felt like he had stepped onto a roller coaster that was taking him, almost unwillingly, on a ride “so fast, it was amazing.”
The newly formed Portage County Tea Party attracted 345 people to the lawn of the county courthouse in Ravenna.
Then, the group started organizing bus trips to Washington, D.C., hosting local speakers and having regular meetings. Zawistowski, who the group elected its executive director, proposed creating a political action committee that would raise money and support candidates. Everyone discouraged him, saying “no tea party could ever become a PAC,” he said. “But if we were going to play, we were going to play to win.”
His group raised $32,000 for the 2010 election — not a “big deal overall,” he said, but a lot of money for a fledgling citizen’s group.
But the Portage County Tea Party — which has grown to 2,300 members and might be the second largest in the state, behind Cincinnati — has become well known for other reasons. The group has hosted candidates’ nights, publicized endorsements for candidates and local school issues, and organized a half-dozen bus trips to the Capitol.
When Obama visited Kent State University in September, the group built a 12-foot chair and several others — symbolic of the empty chair that Clint Eastwood spoke to at the Republican National Convention — and set them along state Route 43 in the path of the president’s motorcade.
“I’ve had consultants say it was the single most effective counter-demonstration that they’ve ever heard of in their lives,” Zawistowski said. “I’m extremely proud of our group for that effort. It was a smart idea.”
The success of Zawistowski’s tea party group propelled him onto the statewide stage. He headed up the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of 80 tea party groups, for a little over a year, and started an annual We the People Convention.
Zawistowski never dreamed, however, that he’d be running for state chairman.
A couple of things happened that made Zawistowski want to take charge of the state party.
Kasich proposed an expansion of Medicaid in his original state budget proposal this year, which Zawistowski saw as an insult to himself and thousands of others who had worked hard to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures for a successful ballot issue in 2010 that symbolically rejected the Obama-backed federal health-care law.
Kasich’s proposal, which the Republican-controlled House took out of the budget, would bring Ohio about $13 billion in federal money over seven years.
“How could you hurt those people [who fought against the federal health-care act]?” asked Zawistowski, wiping tears from his eyes. “How could you insult those people more. How could you be so insensitive?”
Then, Sen. Rob Portman announced in mid-March that he had changed his stance on gay marriage and would support it because of his son, who is gay. Zawistowski thinks Portman owed it to his constituents to maintain the platform he ran on through the end of his term.
Finally, Borges emerged as the choice of Kasich and other statewide office holders to replace Bob Bennett as party chairman. Borges has some issues in his past, including state and federal tax liens (some have been paid or are being disputed), a 2004 conviction on misdemeanor misuse of public office that later was expunged, and lobbying activities that bother some in the party.
Zawistowski was sure another party leader would step forward to challenge Borges, but when that didn’t happen, he decided he had to take the lead.
“I don’t think there is another person in the state of Ohio that has the full trust and faith of all the parties,” Zawistowski said, referring to the grass-roots, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. “It almost has to be me because I can stand up to the governor because I don’t owe him anything.”
Scott Nichols, a new state Central Committee member from the Cincinnati area, will nominate Zawistowski, who he knows because of his involvement in the Ohio Liberty Council and the tea party.
“We need more inclusion of people outside of Columbus,” Nichols said. “I think Tom brings that to the table. I hope a lot of Central Committee members think about that.”
Other supporters of Zawistowski have let their feelings be known through letters emailed to Central Committee members and the media.
Chris Long, who heads the Akron-based Ohio Christian Alliance, called Zawistowski “a worthy candidate to lead the Ohio Republican Party into the future.” A group of five Right to Life members from across the state called the chairman vote “judgment day” for the party and called Zawistowski the “only viable candidate.”
“We are confident that Tom’s proven leadership over the past several years will unify social and fiscal conservatives who are motivated by issues and not by party affiliation,” they wrote. “This unification around issues will halt the push by many grass-roots Christian and social conservatives to form a third party.”
Another letter signed by more than 150 conservative leaders from across the state warned, “We’re at the turning point in our relationship with the Ohio GOP.”
Many of the party faithful, however, are supporting Borges and, by extension, Kasich.
Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff, who isn’t a member of the party’s Central Committee but whose opinion holds sway with the county’s delegation, said he supports whoever the governor and four other Republican statewide office holders support. That means Borges.
“The important thing is to re-elect them next year,” Arshinkoff said.
Lauren LaRose, wife of state Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Copley Township, and the Central Committee member for the 27th Senate district, said the party is “blessed to have two good candidates for chairman.”
“I support Matt Borges because I feel he is the best fit to lead our party,” she said in an email. “But, no matter the outcome, I know Matt and Tom will work together to keep our GOP family strong.”
LaRose, who spoke at the first tea party rally Zawistowski organized when LaRose was getting his start in politics, said he’s looking forward to this fight being over and hopes the party will be able to regroup and move on after the vote.
“As is our history, once the decision is made, we will coalesce and work as a party,” he said. “That’s what a party is all about. The faster we get beyond this internal contest, the better. That doesn’t mean the conversation stops.”