'Tea Party' Members Offer a Ground-level View

A year ago, the political hurricane known as the "Tea Party" erupted in made-for-YouTube confrontations at congressional town hall meetings on the pending health care overhaul.

This August, the movement's supporters seem less rowdy — perhaps because they're pounding the pavement and dialing phones, trying to alter the balance of power in Congress in the fall elections. While Tea Party-favored candidates have lost in contests including the California GOP Senate primary, they have won Republican Senate primaries in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah.

They say it's just the start.

"We're not in this to make noise and to saber-rattle," says Dan Blanchard of the Louisville Tea Party, which helped Rand Paul claim the Senate nomination in Kentucky. "We're in this thing to win."

The test now: Whether Paul and others can prevail under even tougher scrutiny and win over the broader electorate that votes in November. That will require a sustained commitment from a network that revels in its bottom-up nature and loose organization.

"That's part of the verve and vibrancy," says Rep. Michele Bachmann. At the first meeting of the congressional Tea Party Caucus last month, the Minnesota Republican underscored the primacy of the grass roots by having members of the public sit on the dais normally reserved for members of Congress. Lawmakers sat in the audience.

Because the Tea Party is so determinedly decentralized, USA TODAY reached out to activists from New York to California, Ohio to Louisiana to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the movement's motivations, priorities, concerns and aspirations.

While it's difficult to generalize about any group, especially one still in evolution, the interviews provide a ground-level glimpse in their own words of the passions that drive the movement.

Among consistent themes, they:

Keep it local. Chris Littleton, head of a Tea Party group in Cincinnati, says the activists he knows are driven by "this sense that you have to own your backyard first."

"I can't fix what is happening in D.C.," Littleton says. "But I can fix what is happening in my backyard. I can affect my township, my county, my city, my congressional district and my state."

Those interviewed reject the idea of national leaders or centralized organizations running things.

"The normal thing that people are looking for is some sort of organized structure, driven from the top down," says Mark Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg Tea Party in Virginia. "But ... it's more of an attitude, and the attitude is of course just visceral patriotism, and a focus on limited government, fiscal responsibility, constitutional government or governance and personal liberties."

Focus on fiscal issues. These Tea Party supporters say they emphasize fiscal conservatism and limited government over social issues.

In founding the congressional Tea Party Caucus, Bachmann says she focused on three ideas that she thinks unite the "various flavors" of the movement: "Act within the Constitution; we're taxed enough already; and don't spend more than you bring in."

"We don't get involved in the abortion issue, the gay-marriage issue, because we feel like that's when it starts dividing people," says Nita Thomas, leader of a group in Cincinnati.

Reject forming a third party. "I don't like third parties," says Melanie Morgan, a former talk-show host who has been working with the Tea Party movement in California. "They don't work. Ask the people who supported Ross Perot. We ended up with Bill Clinton for eight years."

"There are plenty of alternative parties out there," says Bradley Rees, a factory worker in Lynchburg who writes a blog and hosts an Internet radio show. "The Tea Party is best served by being a watchdog group independent of all parties."

Resent their portrayal in news stories.Liberal commentators including Eric Boehlert of Media Matters argue that some news organizations have overstated the clout of the Tea Party, but the activists USA TODAY interviewed call coverage in many newspapers and TV outlets unfairly negative.

They bristle in particular at stories that portray them as racists. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said they were subjected to racial epithets during a demonstration by Tea Party activists on Capitol Hill earlier this year. Last month, the NAACP asked Tea Party activists to disavow the racist rhetoric of some members of the movement.

Mark Meckler, a California lawyer and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, says his group and others have denounced those who have made racially inflammatory remarks. "It's demonstrated that the movement has matured," he says.

C.L. Bryant, an African-American pastor of a church in Louisiana who has made frequent appearances on television and at rallies to defend the Tea Party, says attributing the views of a few fringe elements to the entire movement would be akin to assuming that all NAACP members agree with the New Black Panther movement's hostility to whites.

"No matter which side of the aisle you're on, we do have to admit there are nuts among us," Bryant says.

Have no consensus on or much enthusiasm about the 2012 presidential field.

"I've got some people I think have some promise, but we've got a lot of time between now and then," Lloyd says. "I have been disappointed so much by the Republican Party that I'm just not prepared to put a lot of hope in any one person."

Littleton accuses GOP politicians of "pandering" to the Tea Party. "There's tons of rhetoric out there from all of these born-again conservatives," he says, "but I've yet to see anybody who's really standing tall on all of this stuff."

Many Tea Party supporters are Republicans or Republican-leaning voters who felt betrayed by the GOP during George W. Bush's presidency and since. They cite the Wall Street bailout known as TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit as the sort of expensive, big government programs they decry.

"I got angry when I was watching them pass the TARP bill," signed by Bush in October 2008, says Howard Hellwinkel, a New York businessman.

Some worry that their success may attract what Bryant calls "unscrupulous political operatives" who will try to co-opt the movement.

There also has been squabbling among Tea Party groups. "If some of these individuals don't tone it down and back off and play nice with one another, they are going to take a perfectly good movement and ruin it," Morgan warns.

Yet most Tea Party members describe their experience of the past year — for many, their introduction to activism — as overwhelmingly positive. Like the liberal Internet activists who powered the rise of Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic presidential race and then of Barack Obama four years later, this new conservative movement has sparked a new wave of activists who are determined to be a factor this year and in campaigns to follow.

"We're a bunch of citizens who want to hold officials accountable," says Joe Thompson, who is working to defeat veteran Democratic Rep. John Spratt in South Carolina.