Chase Foster isn't afraid to say it. The country is sliding down the slope to socialism with all this talk of health care reform and such, and it isn't fair to the rich people whose fortunes are, well, not even safe in an offshore account any more.
And the 26-year-old Foster doesn't just say it. This summer, he hit the streets with his trust-fund troupe in defense of the status quo. Billionaires for Wealth Care was Foster's brainchild, a variation of previous "billionaires for" groups he's been part of and a forerunner of new ones across the nation. "Tax wages, not wealth," they cried.
Champagne glasses in hand, Foster's Billionaires joined with the local tea baggers at their anti-reform rallies, literally rolling out a red carpet for anyone griping that the insurance companies won't cover them due to a pre-existing condition.
"We said, 'Tell us your disease.' Then we invited them to walk it off on the red carpet, which was fun," Foster explains, "and we offered them an Advil. That was our answer to health care—walk it off!"
It was parody, of course, though, as Foster says, a lot of people didn't get it right away—and when they did, some didn't appreciate being the butt of the Billionaires' humor.
On the other hand, the Billionaires were well appreciated by the millions of progressives who'd worked to put Barack Obama in the White House, only to watch helplessly as the right wing ripped his health care plan apart, before he even had a health care plan.
The millions part is no exaggeration: After a shaky "opening" at a town hall meeting in Rocky Mount, where they weren't quite over-the-top enough, Billionaires for Wealth Care hit their stride at a Durham town hall hosted by Congressman David Price. Video of their antics went viral, leading to more appearances and coverage statewide and on CNN and MSNBC.
Finally, folks said, someone on the left was calling out the tea baggers for their offensive views, in a way that competed with—no, aped—their frightening tactics. "No health care for poor people!" the Billionaires bellowed.
Clad in formal wear, flaunting fake jewelry and chomping cigars, they thanked the baggers personally for protecting insurance industry profits and opposing anything that might discomfit the comfortable.
It was great theater and deadly serious, which is a fitting description for Foster, the ringleader. By day he's executive director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, a coalition of groups lobbying for campaign reforms in the General Assembly. He's known as a hard-working organizer who's passionate about his social-justice goals. He's also funny and engaging, with an interesting combination of fearlessness and—just when you think he's gone off the deep end—an ability to laugh at himself and get along with almost anyone. "Creative pragmatism," a friend calls it.
Fellow "billionaire" Louisa Warren, a senior policy advocate with the N.C. Justice Center, knows Foster's two sides well. She still laughs in amazement at the time, at a pro-health care event in Raleigh, when Foster took his act into the teeth of a tea baggers' counter-rally. When they figured out that his sloganeering was a put-on, they got angry and tried to shout him down, and one of them blew a bugle into his ear for a good 20 minutes, Warren says. All the while, Foster stayed in character, reciting his lines. "It was just hilarious to watch."
But if Foster's a first-class agitator, she says, he also has an insatiable curiosity about what people think and why, a sincere interest that comes through across the political and sociological spectrum. "He just has a unique way of engaging with people, and it's not that he's malleable, but he's always respectful, because he really does want to know what the other side is thinking."
Rob Thompson, executive director of Covenant with North Carolina's Children, is another who thinks Foster's brand of purpose and curiosity is something to behold.
Thompson's group is part of Foster's coalition, and Thompson serves as chair of his board. In that capacity, he's watched Foster at work at the General Assembly. One minute he's parsing the details of a bill with a brainy policy wonk like Sen. Dan Clodfelter. The next he's swapping stories with another legislator who's not into the bills so much as "relationships." Foster's efforts helped enact public financing for some of the 2008 Council of State elections, a measure that passed only after uphill battles in both legislative chambers and for which many others deserve more credit, he says.
"He knows the issues inside and out," Thompson says of Foster. "He's also the kind of person who can talk to anyone. It's one reason he is very effective in the legislature."
Foster comes by his interest in conservatives honestly. His parents are conservative Christian Republicans, he says, and growing up in North Raleigh, so was he—at first.
At an early age, Foster says, he reckoned that the way the country's run wasn't fair to the average family. He simply attributed the problem to the wrong causes. His views changed at Enloe High School, Raleigh's top academic magnet, where he helped produce a radio show that aired on WSHA, the Shaw University station. It was mostly run by gay kids; they interviewed social-justice leaders in the community, which broadened Foster's horizons.
That's one reason he's been outspoken in recent weeks about the need to defend Wake County's school diversity policies, joining forums organized by the NAACP and others. Exposing students to different ideas and to people with different experiences than their own—which was his experience at Enloe—is critical to their ability to succeed in modern society, Foster says. He's started to organize a group of Wake schools alumni to speak up when a new "neighborhood schools" majority takes over the school board in December.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Foster majored in public policy and African studies and studied in South Africa, where he remembers being told by a black veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, "Go back and make the United States more committed to peace and justice."
He took that advice to heart, but Foster never lost his playful side. He hosted a spoof house party in Chapel Hill for the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, and while most of the "guests" were lefties in on the joke, a leading student Republican who attended wanted Foster to help with the Bush-Cheney campaign. Foster went to the '04 Republican National Convention as one of the "Billionaires for Bush."
Such satire, Foster says, is part of a long American political tradition. It helps to expose what the other side is saying, not by changing their message but rather by carrying it to its logical conclusion. (No health care for the poor.) At the same time, it "enlivens" politics for reformers on the left, who can oftentimes be so serious that ordinary people can't take them seriously.
That's not Foster. "He's a character," Thompson says. "He's kind of the life of the party whenever he walks into a room."
Says Foster: "I do have a lot of fun."
Correction (Nov. 26, 2009): The correct Web site is www.billionairesforwealthcare.com.