Advancing a Free Society

In Kentucky, Tea Party Stereotypes Collide with Reality

Friday, May 18, 2012

In many ways, Thomas Massie, a Republican congressional candidate in Kentucky’s heavily Republican 4th district, which holds its primary election on Tuesday, probably fits the liberal—and media--  stereotype of a Tea Party candidate.  He lives in rural Kentucky on a farm and speaks with an accent that quickly reveals his small-town Kentucky roots.  He is the incumbent Judge-Executive (county executive) in his native Lewis County, a rural area of 14,000 whose county seat, Vanceburg, where Massie grew up, has less than 2,000 people.  The closest city in his Kentucky census area is  Maysville, a town of less than 10,000 almost one hour’s drive away.

Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up in very rural Kentucky, Massie is a gun-rights enthusiast, who has had a concealed-carry permit for a decade and enjoys hunting and target practice with his four kids.  Married to his high school sweetheart, he is  strongly pro-life, he’s anti-bailout, anti-stimulus, supports aggressive use of domestic energy resources.  His  anti-Washington, anti-establishment rhetoric mirrors that of Kentucky Senator  and Tea Party champion Rand Paul, for whose campaign he volunteered.

So far, so typical, according to the liberal’s tea party boilerplate.  But there is much more to Massie’s story.  Massie, son of a beer distributor, left Vanceburg after high school when he enrolled as a student at MIT where he became known for his inventive genius, standing out even amongst some of the most outstanding young engineers in the country. Alex Slocum, a long-time MIT engineering professor and a mentor to Massie during his college days, calls him “brilliant” “driven” and “honest”.  In 1995 he won MIT’s Lemelson Prize (and $30,000) as MIT’s outstanding student innovator, an impressive achievement at a campus where some of America’s best young engineers work all hours developing breakthrough technologies in every field.

His twenty-four subsequent patents, most based on inventions he developed before he was 30, were ultimately cited by a who’s who of technology companies  from Google to Microsoft to Apple and are utilized in fields from auto design to surgery.  He founded a company based on his inventions in haptics, a fast-emerging technological field that uses computers and associated peripherals to simulate human touch, and one which has given rise to an vast array of practical applications from biology to video games.

So influential was Massie’s work in this area that a subsequent MIT Master’s thesis exploring his contributions  claimed that “The Modern era of haptics research, began, arguably, in a sixth grade classroom , at the Lewis County Central Elementary School in Vanceburg Kentucky.”  Yet, after making fundamental breakthroughs in the field, and founding a successful haptics company, SensAble technologies that grew to 70 employees, Massie gave it all up to move back to Lewis county a decade ago where he designed and built his own off-grid house, began farming and raising grass-fed cattle and leaving the rat-race behind—or so he thought, until a local tax increase initiative spurred him into action where he joined with like-minded residents to defeat it, thus setting the stage for his surprising political career.

The political road ahead for Massie is still not clear.  While he is seen as the betting favorite in the primary, he faces two strong challengers each with their own strengths and with ties to the traditional party establishment.  His victory is far from assured.  But if he does win he will certainly become the most distinguished inventor and engineer in Congress and a leading conservative voice on science and technology issues.  Massie’s story is a conservative tea party story—but it's not one that liberals want you to hear.

And Massie is not the only tea party Republican candidate with impressive academic credentials.  Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite in Texas, a high-honors graduate of Harvard Law school and the first ever Hispanic to clerk for a U.S. Chief Justice.  At the age of just 41 he has already served as Solicitor General of Texas and argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Tea Party favorite and 2010 elected Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey was also a Harvard graduate and a successful entrepreneur. Rand Paul was a respected physician with a successful medical practice.  Fellow 2010 electee, Utah Senator Mike Lee, another tea party champion, clerked for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  And numerous other tea party candidates throughout the nation, while not all having the academic pedigree of Massie or Cruz are running for office, mostly as first time candidates, after distinguished private and public sector careers.  While there are some less impressive candidates among them, for te most part, they have provided through their candidacies serious and sustained critiques of the Washington D.C. political establishment. The contrast of that reality with the media’s frequent treatment of the tea party as some sort of unhinged, ignorant mob (Combined with their kid gloves treatment of the criminality surrounding the left-wing  Occupy Wall Street Movement) and one has a virtual case study in media bias.

Massie may or may not win Tuesday, and the success of the tea party in 2012 is still to be determined. But the fact that Thomas Massie, and more impressive tea party candidates like him,  continue to emerge on to the local and national political stage, shows how removed from reality the liberal stereotype of tea party Republicans remains.