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I Went to Rand Paul’s Liberty School, and All I Got Was a Free Cup of Coffee

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The view from the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership training in on a recent Saturday — before I got the boot. (Christina Bellantoni/CQ Roll Call)

“You Owe It to Yourself to Learn How to Win,” Sen. Rand Paul told me in an email on Tax Day.

The message came with an invitation to attend a one-day political leadership school, led by an instructor with “years of experience running and winning campaigns and legislative projects in multiple state legislatures.” The course would teach how to pressure lawmakers and how to “work effectively” in the Capitol by getting sponsors for legislation.

I am fascinated by both the senator’s political ambition and his seemingly inherited ability to excite young people. And anyone who has listened to me speculate about the 2016 presidential campaign knows I believe the Kentucky Republican will appeal especially to Iowa caucus-goers, in addition to the voters up north who proudly “Live Free or Die.”

Critical to that happening is a grass-roots organization, a network of believers who can, as Paul put it in the email, “advance the cause of liberty.” Could the people attending this May 10 training in tiny Arbutus, Md., be activated to pound the pavement for Paul? What kind of person would devote an entire Saturday to the Foundation for Applied Conservative Leadership?

The answer, it turns out, isn’t much different than other political events.

There was the local liberty leader running to be Charles County Commissioner president, the anti-abortion activist, the man challenging Maryland Rep. Andy Harris in a GOP primary, a young couple, several people from Baltimore and a guy whose cellphone ringtone was set to Coldplay’s “Clocks.” We make small talk over a carton of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee while waiting for the library to open at 9 a.m.

Spread out over a dozen tables in front of a projector screen under fluorescent lights as class gets started, the eager attendees say they are worried about Obamacare, Common Core education standards, free markets and high taxes, and they feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Harford County tea party activist Patrick McGrady gets things going around 9:15 a.m. by promising me and the 17 others in the room, “This will change your political destiny.”

Campaign for Liberty’s Michigan State Coordinator Tony DeMott is our day’s professor. He knocked on doors for ex-Rep. Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, and says his goal this Saturday is to give the group “the tools to beat up the bad guys” — metaphorically, of course. After all, DeMott says, politics is “confrontational by nature.” He tells us to read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” and to pay attention to techniques used by political rivals, because technology is “ideologically neutral.”

The Navy veteran who built his name back home on right-to-work outreach and gun rights says the lessons will be “very, very simple,” and that some of the techniques he’ll share have been “around since Goldwater.”

The course will take us “from complete political novice to being the most dangerous political force in your state,” DeMott promises. Once we’ve completed their 8 hours, the foundation will give us access to “invaluable” strategy emails, he says.

DeMott is motivational in nature from the beginning, telling our crowd we have the ability to force change, and that sometimes state and local governments provide more opportunities to “fight back” on issues such as the health care law and even the National Defense Authorization Act. Our mission should be seeking roll call votes, he says, adding: “If you are not getting politicians on record, then you are not doing it right.”

I wish I could tell you more, but I got kicked out before my coffee even had the chance to cool off.

DeMott begins his presentation with a slide outlining his three rules: turn phones off, no texting and do not record.

When it comes time to introduce ourselves, I tell them I am Christina from Washington, D.C., and I am studying organizing techniques. Then I sit down.

That’s when the commotion starts. Two of the staffers planning the session whisper furiously at the back of the room. One leaves the room in a hurry, probably to do a quick Google search on the library computers.

An organizer returns with a piece of paper, and interrupts DeMott, who is just on a roll talking about local opposition to the Real ID Act. She announces she wants to see me and another attendee outside.

I had figured I would never make it in the door, so I actually was a little surprised, especially since someone else also was being called into detention. As I stood up, the organizer orders us, “Collect your things.”

It turns out the foundation had already refunded my $35 at 9:56 a.m., before the organizers even hauled us from the room. Outside, they tell the other guy the class is for conservatives only. He is protesting, saying that the fact his group backs clean energy doesn’t make him liberal.

Maybe he was an infiltrator. If so, he was sort of taking our instructor’s advice. (Early in the session, DeMott had admitted that conservative groups had “flat out stolen” the idea of including a line at the bottom of emails asking people to chip in $5 from

I argue my case for awhile, but don’t stick around long enough to find out whether he is rightly feeling aggrieved.

For the record, Paul might have driven me there, but he isn’t really involved with the organization. I asked about it, but an aide wanted to talk about how he’s doing outreach to as many different types of groups as possible. Team Paul is tight-lipped about on-the-ground organizing, though staffers acknowledge this group is a “liberty-minded” network the senator could tap into should he run for president.

So, how had I ended up sitting at the tables with these true believers?

Showing up as a journalist at this sort of thing isn’t usually met with wide open arms. But I’ve done it before as a reporting tool. I was transparent about my identity and goals from the get-go, though I didn’t exactly wave my press badge around.

In 2006, I signed up for a MoveOn watch party for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” disclosing to everyone there what I was up to. I did it for both GOP and Democratic debate watch parties in 2008. If I didn’t already have plans, I totally would have tried to crash a Ready for Hillary house party this past weekend, and if I were in Texas, I’d see if I could spy on this Wendy Davis fellowship program.

The foundation’s registration email triggered an online survey gauging my position on the political spectrum on guns, recreational marijuana legalization, whether 9/11 was an inside job and union organizing. “Pre-emptive, unilateral military action is never appropriate policy for the U.S.,” read one of the questions offering a range of agree/disagree for answers. (I chose “neutral” on all but one of the 20 questions; when not allowed that option for question No. 17 about abortion, I answered honestly that I am pro-choice.)

In the end, I put 100 extra miles on my Honda, and gave up sleep on a Saturday morning. I still think the exercise was worth it as we report on grass-roots organizing ahead of the midterms and members of Congress eying the White House.

And the coffee wasn’t bad.

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