Taking the Tea Party's temperature

Last modified: 9/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
Started in an anti-tax, anti-bailout fury shortly after President Obama took office, the Tea Party movement's populist conservatism has spawned a bus tour and a caucus in Congress. It was seen as driving a wave of Republican victories in November. Jack Kimball, a leader of the movement in New Hampshire, was elected head of the state's Republican Party in January, then cited a rift between his supporters and the party's establishment as the reason he resigned last week.

Tonight, presidential candidate Mitt Romney is set to speak at 5:45 in Rollins Park as part of the Tea Party Express bus tour. Tomorrow, the Express will host former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin at Manchester's Veterans Memorial Park.

All this Tea Partying begs the question: Two years into the movement, what do average voters make of the Tea Party?

For something of an expert opinion, Corey Lewandowski, state director of Americans for Prosperity, the group that has sponsored the last three Tea Party events in New Hampshire, said his take is "a group of people who want smaller government, lower taxes and less regulations."

"It's really that simple. . . . This is an economic movement," Lewandowski said. "Are there members of the self described Tea Party . . . who think the right-to-life issue is an important issue? Of course there are, but is that the primary focus of the Tea Party movement? No."

Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a conservative advocacy group that has hosted Tea Party events, said any movement that grows organically will naturally become more organized, but the Tea Party was "never built on one person or one organization."

"The Tea Party is no more no less than what it was a year ago today," Smith said. "Its values of limited government, low taxes and low spending are values that are still alive and well today. . . . I'd say the vast majority of Tea Party goers tend to be socially conservative, but I don't think there's uniformity across the spectrum on that issue."

Nancy Barto, a 72-year-old Republican from Pittsfield, said the Tea Party "started out well."

"They have good ideas, but they've gone overboard," Barto said, pausing at a parking kiosk on Main Street last week. "I'm conservative, but I'm not ultraconservative. They've just gone overboard with the Sarah Palins and the Michele Bachmanns. I'd like a good moderate to replace our president."

Barto distinguished the movement from the Republican Party as being "radical."

"Just like the liberals are radical at the other end," she said. "I'm just middle of the road - I'd like our bills paid and I'd like us not to be so badly in debt."

Tina Cuadrado, a 28-year-old from Claremont, offered a demographic observation as she described her thoughts about the group.

"My perception of the Tea Party, I guess, would just be a whole bunch of older, white people who are kind of afraid in a way that the country's turning a little gray if you will - or brown," Cuadrado said Thursday as she took her lunch break in Eagle Square. "Even though they claim that they are not racist and there's not a racist element to their party . . . that's just my general impression of them. I think taxes need to be cut, but I think they're going about it in such an extreme way."

Outside a gun show at Everett Arena yesterday, Matthew Stanizzi, a Republican from Hollis who calls himself fiscally conservative and socially liberal, said the Tea Party is a "movement against a government that felt out of control." Stanizzi, a 35-year-old physician, was accompanied by his father, Tony, as they picked out a .22 revolver for his mother. He said he identifies with the group because America is "a country of the people and not of the government, and if it takes a sort of grassroots uprising or movement to send a message to Washington then so be it."

However, Stanizzi said the movement has "metamorphasized." It is now likely off-putting to mainstream Americans because it "sort of reflects those more conservative social values."

"Initially when the Tea Party came up, I felt like it was regular Joes looking at government, saying 'No, I don't like that anymore, and we're going to make a stand about it,' " Stanizzi said. "I think now, maybe through the media's portrayal of it, it has this sort of feel that 'okay, it's a bunch of people who are in the right side of the Republican Party that have taken it over and now the Tea Party becomes the ultra-right wing body of it.' "

Jeff Diggins, 49, of Fremont, carried a "Don't Tread On Me" flag inside the Holiday Inn conference room in Concord where Kimball announced his resignation this week. A Tea Partier from near the start, Diggins said the group is "getting a bad rap."

"We're just regular Americans working hard," he said. "I work my butt off, I pay my taxes, I love everybody in my life. . . . But the media gets a couple guys that are fruitcakes that say some off-color things - like any other group that gets together - and of course that's the thing that gets focused on."

Diggins said he joined the Tea Party movement because he feels it can bring people together from different ends of the political spectrum. Politics, he said, is like professional wrestling.

"You have a good guy and a bad guy. The crowd is against each other. But at the end of the day, the two wrestlers are sitting in a restaurant eating together, laughing," he said. "That's what they're doing to our people in this country. They're separating us. The Democrats and Republicans, they're separating us."

Yet, as Kimball's resignation highlighted, the Tea Party has not lived up to Diggin's vision of a unifying force. Robert Lovewell, a retired 63-year-old who lives on Pitman Street, said the movement is "dividing the (Republican Party) right now."

"I think they should fall in line with the theories and the ideals of the Republican Party because a splinter group weakens the party," he said. "But I go along with their idea - taxation without representation, I think that's a bad deal."

Mark Frazier, the organist at South Congregational Church in Concord and "very much a registered Democrat," said he would never have supported the Tea Party, but "it was good to see something kind of coming up from the grassroots."

He has now come to question whether the Tea Party is a grassroots movement, citing reports that David Koch, a Texas oil billionaire, co-founded Americans For Prosperity, the group that organized some of the earliest Tea Party events.

"That makes it insidious because then many people who thought it was grassroots, I think, have had the wool pulled over their eyes," Frazier said.

Lewandowski said Americans For Prosperity serves the role of any political organization by giving people the opportunity to hear from candidates and politicians. He pointed to a 600-person event that his group organized to honor New Hampshire "Conservative of the Year" Ovide Lamontagne earlier this year.

"You know how many of the Koch brothers are in that room? Zero," Lewandowski said. "You want to talk about the people who are part of this movement, they're rank and file people."

Frazier said he doesn't see "any dialogue or interest in dialogue on the part of the Tea Party."

The Tea Party Republicans in Congress were seen as holding the line on raising the federal debt ceiling, a prospect that could have caused the country to default on its debt. When Standard & Poor's issued its unprecedented credit rating downgrade of the United States, one reason given was "the political brinksmanship in recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable."

"What we've seen in Congress is complete intransigence, which is not the American way," Frazier said.

Dick Lewis, a retired schoolmaster who lives in Hopkinton, said he hopes the Tea Party "shortly will have run its course."

"I'm hoping the elections of 2012 will put them in their place," he said. "The acrimony that exists in our political divisions right now has sort of emasculated the country in terms of being able to legislate, being able to accomplish, being able to have clear thought. It's really frustrating and saddening."

Don and Ann Brown, semi-retired barbers from Florida who were vacationing at Lake Winnepesaukee this week, said they are fans of the Tea Party.

"I like their thoughts . . . get rid of this Obamacare and make the government smaller," Don said.

His wife, Ann, said "I'd like to see them do something about the illegal immigrants," an issue Don said he felt is both "a Republican and a Tea Party thing."

"My objection is the fact that there are ordinary, working people like us who are in their late 60s and still having to work," Ann said. "These people aren't paying any taxes and they're getting all the freedoms that we have worked for."

The Republican Party and the Tea Party "go hand in hand," Don said.

"I think the Tea Party's a little more stubborn in their ways," he said. "They mean business. They mean what they're saying. They don't fool around. I like it."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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