Tuesday, November 09, 2010

THE TEA PARTY, HOW IT ALL STARTED

By Natalie Sirkin

It was originally feared that the tea parties might turn into a third party, but that has not happened, at least not yet. Not a third party, they present no threat the Republican Party. With luck, they may turn the Republican Party into a major party; the Republican Party may turn the Tea Party into a ghost.

So far, they have helped, garnering 63 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate (two more in doubt) and a huge 680 in local legislatures, giving the Republicans the advantage in the next election by gerrymandering their states into voting districts. They supported 116 candidates, including Marco Rubio (won by 19 points), Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Dan Coats, Ron Johnson and Pat Toomey, who won. They backed some who lost, including Carl Paladino in N.Y., Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.

Where did they come from? Commentators have not found their intellectual leaders. It is because the tea partiers are not in Washington. Among the Tea Parties, there are no party chiefs, no conventions. There is a theme: stop the spending.

Two women in Georgia in their ‘30s were alarmed at the direction in which the country was going in 2009. One was Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant, and another was Jenny Beth Martin, a software manager doing house cleaning since her husband’s business crumbled.

Mrs. Martin was volunteering for Sen. Saxby Chambliss when President George W. Bush bailed out the banks, for which Chambliss voted. She was outraged. In the next month or two, a conference call brought the two women together.

Thereafter they formed the first national organization of the Tea Party. They have a theme: Obama, and overspending. What are they not? They are not racists, not religious nuts, not uninformed, nor stupid, nor against all taxes.

What are they against? Illegal immigration, a national sales tax. They support gun rights. Some question whether Obama is legally the President. Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal thinks they have pushed aside high-profile Republican leaders, but they haven’t. The Republican Party appears to have deserted solid conservative principles.

Conservatives were angry with President Bush’s bailout of the banks and the take-over of part of the auto industry. With the advent of Barack Obama, they opposed the $787 billion stimulus bill.

Enter Michael Patrick Leahy, a technology consultant, who set up on Twitter a list of 25 conservatives whom he called “Top Conservatives”—“#tcot”—and began a series of Monday night conference calls. He got up to 1,500 conservatives on Twitter within weeks. One was Eric Odom, who had compiled a long list of conservatives from the off-shore drilling ban.

Enter Mrs. Stacy Mott of New Jersey, a mother of three infants. She started “Smart Girl Politics,” a blog for conservative women. Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Kremer did not yet know each other at the time. They met through Mrs. Mott’s blog.

Next in Seattle, enter Mrs. Carender A blogger who was frustrated she could not reach either of her senators and alarmed at the Obama $787 billion stimulus, she planned a protest. She promoted it on a local talk-radio show and e-mailed her plan for a rally to Michelle Malkin, who wrote about it. She was shocked on Feb. 17 to see many people show up at a local park, 120. It was the first actual protest of the movement.

Obama announced a $75 billion program for home-owners to pay their mortgages. The next day, Feb. 19, Rick Santelli, a reporter covering financial markets from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, grew agitated. He yelled, “This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Traders cheered. “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July,” he shouted. It wasn’t planned; his youngest daughter was studying the Boston Tea Party in school. “Smart Girl Politics,” 400 strong, went wild. But “what can we do”?

Mr. Leahy twittered a phone number for a conference call. On Feb. 20, over 20 activists dialed in with lists of names, including Mrs. Martin and Mrs. Kremer from Georgia and Mrs. Carender from Seattle, and others attached to other causes. The call-conferees thought up simultaneous rallies in cities nationwide, imploring others to start right away.

They threw themselves full time into organizing. On Feb. 27, about 50 rallies across the country took place. Mrs. Carender drew 300. They called the office of Senator Patty Murray and yelled “Boo” into the phone.

For their next event, they chose April 15, tax-pay day. Expecting 40 cities to join in, they got over 830. They set up a wikipedia to give advice. Local groups popped up like mushrooms, 2,000 within a year, announcing they had joined the Tea Party. Conference calls sometimes drew 100,000 people. Phones crashed. Groups started up all over the country declaring themselves a part of the Tea Party movement. (Late radio news: a labor union in a New Jersey city has become a Tea Party.)

Wealthy sympathizers started contributing, among them Americans for Prosperity and Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks.

Mrs. Kremer’s husband came up with the name, “Tea Party Patriots.” Mrs. Kremer and Mrs. Martin and Mark Meckler, a Grass Valley California Internet marketer, hired a lawyer to incorporate them and trademark the name Tea Party Patriots.

Soon they were helped in publicizing their April 15 planned rallies by Glenn Beck, who also organized his own 9/12 initiative, and by Michele Malkin and Sean Hannity. On April 15, hundreds of thousands—no one knows how many—the New York Times says 750,000—gathered in front of state houses, in parks, in busy streets. Where to go? “We were just people who didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Mr. Meckler.

Enter Sal Russo, an adviser for Ronald Reagan. He attended the Apr. 15 rally in Sacramento and was astonished at the attendance, 400. He was about to shut down his political action committee for Reagan when he decided to use it for the Tea Party. He organized a cross-country bus tour, which became the Tea Party Express and raised $7 million. The Express’s bus tour made it to Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.

An incident raised the specter of racism, which split the group. Mrs. Kremer joined the Tea Party Express, which backed Massachusetts Scott Brown for Senate and raised millions. Mrs. Martin and Mr. Meckler opted for the Tea Party Patriots. Mrs. Martin became the coordinator of 3,000 local groups networking online.

By all accounts, the Tea Party was a significant factor in the 2010 election outcome and in the history of elections. For the eventual outcome, we will see.

Natalie’s e-mail: sirnat9@gmail.com
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