By Noah Fowle
On its 20-day tour across the United States, the Tea Party Express had a simple goal: to show its distaste with the current direction of the federal government in Washington D.C.
While the route for the tour was set earlier this year, organizers paid significant attention to Michigan, planning 10 stops. Momentum swelled behind the movement as it traveled through the Upper Peninsula the same week that Rep. Bart Stupak made his announcement he would not seek re-election this year. It also stopped in Petoskey, Charlevoix and Traverse City.
The Tea Party has been gaining momentum ever since the February 2009 rant by financial commentator Rick Santelli on CNBC. During the recent tour, the Tea Party movement pledged to spend upwards of $250,000 in an ad campaign aimed at defeating Stupak, including multiple events in Northern Michigan. It hit a high point prior to its Traverse City stop last week when Stupak, an 18-year member of Congress and lynchpin to the health care bills passage, bowed out of this years race.
While Stupak denied the Tea Party movement factored into his decision, Joan Fabiano, a constitutional conservative activist behind Grassroots in Michigan and speaker at the Traverse City rally, credited the public outcry following the passage of the health care reform bill with helping retire Bart Stupak.
Yet, she urged the crowd -- estimated at over 1,400 -- not to become complacent with the congressmans announcement. She said much still needed to be done to defeat certain politicians and progressive policies and pointed out those campaigning as constitutional candidates need the proper support to pull through in both the primaries and the general election.
There is a war over Michigan in 2010, she said. Campaigns need people and money, and you need to give it. Were all in this together.
Eschewing any direct political alliances, the Tea Party movement keeps itself focused on a few central values: God, family, country and fiscal conservatism. This self-determination strategy remains a source of the movements strength, as well as an avenue for critics to lob an array of accusations.
By painting itself in such broad strokes, Tea Partiers portray themselves as Americans fueled by equal parts of patriotism and dissatisfaction. However, those same broad definitions leave the opportunity open for some to seize on fringe elements of the group and use generalizations to classify the rest of the movement. Besides the president and Democratic leaders in Congress, a popular target for the Tea Party remains the mainstream media, whom they claim does not understand the movement; nor does it provide accurate or fair coverage of their rallies.
Mark Williams, a radio personality and chairman of the Tea Party Express, called the latest machinations of the Tea Party a human rights movement.
Yet although the Tea Party may label itself as an apolitical organization, it does not shy away from labeling itself as a right-of-center movement.
Wasnt it great to wake up to a Stupak-free Michigan? Williams said in his opening remarks to a crowd roaring with applause. Next up is Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Hussein Obama. Whats happening in Washington is government is usurping the rights of God.
A reoccurring theme at the rallies is a loose straw poll that a speaker leads by asking attendees to self-identify their own political preference. The crowds often give the largest feedback to calls of either Republicans or independents, however, there are a brave few who will indicate themselves as reformed-Democrats.
Sure I would say the people who are getting involved are more closely aligned with the Republican Party. Although there are some Democrats participating, it is primarily a conservative base, Jason Gillman, a small-business owner who helped organize the April 10 rally at the Grand Traverse Civic Center, said. Its an educational thing as much as anything too. People who are becoming involved are educating themselves.
Still, not everyone in the crowd was there to throw their support behind the conservative ideals espoused by the Tea Party. Regis McCord of Traverse City came to demonstrate against the demonstrators and carried his own sign: The only thing we have to fear is fear mongering itself. Despite his contrarian message, McCord said he was treated with civility but was not swayed in his own beliefs, remaining opposed to the Tea Partys core message.
The hypocrisy is crazy. The people drove their gas guzzling vehicles on public streets to a public park to trash a government that supports all of this, he said. I believe wed be in a lot worse situation without the current administration.
Following the rally, McCord added that Stupaks recent announcement was even more disheartening than the lack of a vocal opposition to the Tea Party rally.
It bums me out, he said. It opens the way for any one of these wingnuts to represent the area.
TEA PARTY DEMOCRAT
Rep. Gary McDowell, who said despite Stupaks announcement his focus is still on his current run for State Senate against former Republican House member Howard Walker, is one Democrat with a solid working relationship with the Tea Party. Not only have some Tea Party organizers reached out to him, he has attended and even spoken at past rallies.
The majority of people are concerned and frustrated about spending that took place in Washington eight years ago. We should all be concerned about national debt, he said. I may have a different philosophy on how to change things, but I dont question their motives. The Tea Party is being heard and I respect them for that.
Signs at the rallies range from patriotic to humorous to disgruntled, and although certain sensibilities can always find something offensive, most draw from a similar parlance of todays more conservative political cartoons.
Ann-Marie Awrey, of Traverse City, was in attendance at the TC rally and hoisted a sign championing Stupaks recent withdraw: 1 down 534 to go. Awrey did not indicate a preference over the growing list of candidates vying for the now-open seat, but said she was disappointed with Stupaks role in the final negotiations of health care reform.
I think he sold his soul to the devil, she said. Hes been in politics for so long, he felt the pressure.
Gillmans motivation to join the Tea Party and attend both local and national rallies were simple, and described the movement as a collection of loose-knit packs working toward a common goal.
Im concerned about the direction the country is going. If we keep going in this direction, we wont have many liberties left, he said. Its a group within each community that will help affect elections that will guide us back to what our founding fathers truly wanted.
ELECTION YEAR INFLUENCE
Like so many other aspects of the Tea Party movement, its future is wide open and varies between the state and local level. However, there does not seem to be any movement either locally or nationally to raise the Tea Party into a full third-party.
Levi Russell, a national spokesperson with the movement, said the groups focus remains a strict adherence to the principles outlined in the Constitution and that it will continue its current fundraising and promotion efforts in order to target specific national campaigns for the upcoming mid-term elections in Congress.
We want to effect real change and we understand all the rallies in the world cant truly change anything, Russell said. Our eventual goal is to remove the worst offenders in Congress and replace them with better candidates.
In Michigan, Gillman said the movement still faces considerable opposition and he hopes it will combat what he characterizes as failed liberal policies. He said the movement is supporting current bi-partisan efforts to put a right-to-work measure on the November ballot, but that it is still shying away from making any endorsements among the ballooning field of candidates for Governor.
Michigan is still a very blue state. But people are conflicted and there is a high level of skepticism and distrust, he said. All we know is we cant afford someone who is willing to sell us out to the federal government.
McDowell believes Michigan will remain a competitive state and said despite the grassroots surging of the right behind the Tea Party, the Democratic Party will not crumble. Instead he hopes another competitive election cycle will ultimately yield a political culture aimed at solutions and not finger-pointing.
People are going to vote based on what candidates stand for and what they work for and what their personal beliefs are, I dont see that changing, he said. There is no question we are going through tough times, but we have to do it together. The Democratic Party has a strong future and we will continue to fight. But when you are shouting you cant hear the other side.
There is also a segment within the movement that wants to turn up the pressure at the local level. Linda Garcia of Battle Creek is promoting the National Precinct Alliance, whose aim is to reorganize the way power flows in the two-party system from the bottom up, rather than the top down. As a national spokeswoman for the alliance, Garcia is trying to educate people about the upcoming May 11 deadline for filing to become a precinct chair; and as the Calhoun County coordinator, she is trying to recruit other constitutional conservatives like herself in hopes of putting forth candidates with similar ideals and reshaping the Republican Party platform.
This is why we have terrible candidates that all look the same, because were not sitting in these seats, she said. The political party does not control the precinct. the people in each precinct do. First, we take the precinct chair, then the precinct, then the county, then the state, then the party, then the nation.
While Garcia is a conservative, she said the Alliance is open to anyone interested in exerting some influence on their national party of choice.
Were helping both Democrats and Republicans. Of course our goal is to take back the GOP; thats easiest. The DNC will be much harder to hijack back, she said.
With a simple strategy aimed at increasing citizens awareness of their local precincts, Garcia said she hopes to empower people so that they do not feel party politics is out of reach.
If you dont like the personnel, become the personnel, she said. Turn off your TV; its not giving you any solutions. This is the last solution to take back our country peacefully. I want to pass this to others so they are not scared or frightened. There are a lot of people waking up at these Tea Parties and I look at those people and my heart bleeds.