GRAPEVINE — When the Tea Party movement swept the country in 2009, Julie McCarty was a 38-year-old mom staying home to care for her two-year-old daughter. Her involvement in politics was “next to nothing," she says. “I voted, and I knew that Obama was going to be trouble for America."
That spring, she and her husband Fred attended a national Tax Day rally on the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse. The event’s leaders wanted a Tea Party chapter in every city. The McCartys signed up to start the Grapevine Tea Party that day.
“For me when I want something to relax or unwind, I organize. It was exciting to think that ‘Ooh, I get to organize this,'” McCarty said. “We called our first meeting. We had people who showed up and they intimidated the heck out of me because they knew everything."
Before each of the group’s first several meetings, McCarty said she would find herself sitting in the car “freaking out because people are going to find out I’m a fraud."
What began as McCarty’s almost accidental plunge into politics has evolved into what is arguably the state’s most influential Tea Party group, supplanting some of the power held by traditional Texas centers of conservative gravity.
Telegenic and unafraid to regularly deliver sharp-tongued denunciations of elected officials who disappoint the conservative faithful, McCarty is a natural spokeswoman.
In her role as president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, she has gone to war with a school board looking to enact an anti-discrimination policy for transgender students; backed an attempt by a local elected official to prohibit Shariah law; and fiercely attacked a Republican governor’s signature legislative priority. Lately, she has become one of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s most outspoken champions as he faces three felony charges related to claims he committed financial fraud.
As the 2016 election cycle kicks into gear, McCarty's group has succeeded in ways that most conservative grassroots groups forged in the year after Barack Obama’s election can only dream about.
It has helped secured a state senate seat for one of its own, former vice-president Konni Burton, who won a five-way primary to gain the seat previously held by Democrat Wendy Davis. Its members helped recruit and elect a delegation of state legislators deemed the most conservative in the state — including one of the most visible and bombastic members of the Texas House, Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford.
The group's monthly meetings and regular events have become a mandatory stop for Texas candidates paying fealty to the right. Gov. Greg Abbott gave the first detailed look at his policy platform in a speech to a church full of NE Tarrant Tea Party supporters during his campaign for governor. In 2011 and 2013, group events made national headlines when two separate elected officials — first U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, then former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — called for Barack Obama’s impeachment.
“Without a doubt the NETTP is the most experienced Tea Party, the most powerful Tea Party in the state of Texas. I think they set the standard and everyone else is following their lead,” said Stickland. “They are a well-oiled machine from the top down to the bottom and I have never seen that anywhere else in the state.”
Outside her life in politics, McCarty operates a real estate business with her husband and home schools her daughter. But her work for the group, which includes lining up speakers for Tea Party events and communicating with the public, is never far away.
“I get emails all day, every day,” she said. “I think in a lot of ways people look at me in a role as what a state rep should do. I direct them to where they can get help."
She also frequently holds forth in postings on her active public Facebook page, covering not just politics but topics ranging from home renovations and parenting to her thoughts on Scripture.
A recent, characteristic post excoriated Abbott for saying Irving high school student Ahmed Mohammed should not have been arrested for bringing a clock to school.
“Say what? Abbott strikes again. Wonder where he stashed that yellow Gadsden flag after campaign season ended...” she wrote, referring to the Revolutionary War emblem declaring “Don’t Tread On Me” the governor incorporated into his campaign signage.
It is difficult to pin down her group's full reach. McCarty said she does not track membership because there is no application required to attend meetings. In the first six months of 2015, its political action committee brought in $21,359, mostly in small sums from about 130 individual donors.
As the group has grown, it has also earned a reputation for hardball tactics — and at the local level, at least, injecting its brand of politics where they are not welcome.
Mindy McClure faced a NETTP-backed opponent during her campaign for the Grapevine-Colleyville School Board last year, ultimately winning the race in a runoff.
McClure, who considered herself a Republican, had no political experience before deciding to run based on years of being an “involved mom” at her children’s schools. She suddenly faced attacks alleging she was in collusion with the progressive political group Battleground Texas.
“I had no idea going into this that we had this going on in our local elections. I thought people genuinely just ran because they thought they could make a difference. I came to find out that I couldn’t have been more mistaken,” McClure said. “I think they made a real big push, and they are going to do it again. I don’t think they are going to go away.”
By the time the NETTP’s second election cycle rolled around, McCarty’s own profile had begun to rise as well. She served as a delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention. In 2013, McCarty represented the group with appearances on Fox News as it waged a high-publicity battle against the Internal Revenue Service, which was later found to have improperly targeted conservative organizations for investigations. During the 2015 legislative session, she was a common sight in the gallery of the House chamber.
Heading into 2016, McCarty has plans to expand the NETTP’s involvement in legislative races across the state. The group has begun hosting what it calls “Shark Tank” events, where in exchange for donations of any size, conservative voters can talk with and privately vet candidates.
“A big difference between the NE Tarrant Tea Party and a lot of the others is that we don’t want to just get people angry, we don’t just want to have a gripe fest, we want them to be able to do something about it,” she said.
The group is also facing its first major defection: state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Southlake Republican who had ousted a GOP incumbent with the group's help in 2012. At a November 2014 meeting, Capriglione, who declined to comment for this story, stunned McCarty and others by saying he would not back a Tea Party picked candidate for speaker of the Texas House over state Rep. Joe Straus, a chief target of the group.
As the relationship between Capriglione and the group continued to deteriorate throughout the legislative session, McCarty, who lives in Capriglione’s district, took to her Facebook page in late May.
Declaring it was time to replace Capriglione, McCarty described in detail the close relationship their families shared, including her memories of working with Capriglione at the 2014 State Republican Convention — while she was in the midst of a miscarriage — to block a measure conservative activists believed would allow amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
McCarty’s disavowal of Capriglione immediately led to speculation that she herself might become his challenger.
After first declining to talk about Capriglione or her political aspirations, McCarty later followed up with a statement. She explained that the NETTP had made a strategic decision not to find a candidate to oppose him.
“We've got 30 races we're focused on across the state and didn't want to use up resources on Gio's race. He would be tough to beat right now, but we know that no one gets MORE conservative in Austin. Give him another session and people will continue to see his conservative rankings plummet.”
She left open the question of whether she might run against him herself.
“This time next election season, Gio will be much easier to beat, and we've got a candidate just itchin' to run,” she said. “I can be patient.”