Teresa Oelke: Making an Impact

Teresa Oelke was ready to make an impact. Motivated by strong opinions regarding where she perceived health care in the country was headed, Oelke wanted to get off the sidelines and get involved in making a change.

Americans for Prosperity approached her about founding a chapter in Arkansas, and she was very interested. First, she just needed to figure out what the heck a robocall was.

Oelke, who began serving as head of Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas in 2009 and is now considered one of the more influential figures in the state’s political scene, freely admits she needed a little time to grow into her current role. She wasn’t exactly a mastermind of grassroots politics right out of the gate.

“I had to Google ‘robocall’ the first time it was mentioned to me,” said Oelke, who was recently appointed as AFP’s national vice president for state operations. “I learned a lot that first year.”

Americans for Prosperity, which describes its focus as “advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity” now boasts of 64,000 members in the state, growth that can be attributed in part to Oelke’s efforts. AFP-Arkansas reportedly spent $1 million in the lead-up to last year’s elections. Oelke has led rallies and worked to develop “citizen leaders” who are seeking to limit what they see as government “overreach.”

It all began with Oelke getting upset about health care reform. She’s since led local events like “Hands Off My Health Care,” “Spending Revolt,” “The Cost of Hot Air” and “Impact Arkansas.” Some credit AFP’s influence in Arkansas with helping establish the new Republican majority in the state Legislature.

Oelke, 41, is quick to deflect credit for the organization’s growth to its individual members. “Those 64,000 people are the influence. Their willingness to stand up and work is the influence. It’s not me.”

Others aren’t as hesitant to praise Oelke and her involvement.

AFP President Tim Phillips agrees with the idea Oelke has grown into her role but said she was a great pick from the start. AFP’s faith in Oelke is evident from the recent promotion she received to oversee all 30-plus state chapters.

“She may have been new to the public policy side of it, but the skill set translated. She has work ethic. She has a personality that brings people from different walks of life together for a common goal. She’s humble. People at the donor and volunteer levels sense that.”

Elizabeth Aymond works as the communications director for AFP-Arkansas. She began with Americans for Prosperity as a volunteer for a bus tour stop that was aimed at highlighting perceived government spending and policy problems with the Affordable Care Act. One afternoon of volunteering turned into another and then another until Oelke brought Aymond on full-time.

“Teresa doesn’t attempt anything she doesn’t fully believe in,” Aymond said, describing Oelke as “driven like no other person I’ve met.”

Naturally, Oelke is a magnet for more than praise and like-minded volunteers. The Kansas native receives her share of criticism, a byproduct of being the very public face of an organization.

Oelke, who moved to Arkansas in 1998, has been a frequent target of letters to the editor, columns and opinion pieces in local publications. One writer dubbed Oelke as “hypocrite of the day” because the federal stimulus programs she’s fought helped fund a project for Crossland Construction, the business founded by her family.

While she doesn’t enjoy the backlash, Oelke said she has learned to deal with it. Not responding to negativity with negativity is critical because she and her husband, Tim, have three teenage sons at home.

“It is not my favorite part of the job, but, I mean, it’s part of the job,” she said. “I think it initially did [hurt]. I hate to say, but you just kind of grow used to it.”

Thick skin is something Oelke developed as the ninth of 10 children in a competitive and work-oriented family.

By watching her father, who grew up in a welfare household, build Crossland Construction, Oelke said she learned many of the philosophies that drive her today. She tells a story from childhood of two of her brothers coming home after failing to complete a job. They cited cold weather as a deterrent, prompting Ivan Crossland to tell them, “Freeze to death or starve to death. It’s your choice.”

Her brothers figured out how to finish the job, and Oelke absorbed a lesson that has helped her grow AFP-Arkansas.

“The idea that you don’t accept defeat and figure out how to get the job done are absolutely fundamental to who I am and how we were brought up,” Oelke said. “That attitude is helpful when you have some impossible battles to fight.”

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