Meet the new face of the Republican Party in northern New Mexico.
The face is engraved on a silver coin that is available for a $50 donation, but worth approximately $15 melted down.
The face is smiling. The face has a neatly trimmed beard. The face belongs to a man wearing a necktie. He stands beneath the Statue of Liberty. His rolled-up shirtsleeves reveal tattoos on each forearm. One says USMC. The other says IVAW, which stands for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The arms hoist a banner that says "R3VOLution."
The face on the coin belongs to Adam Kokesh. He is the underdog in a race to unseat Democratic US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, son of the speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives and, to conservatives, the personification of what's wrong with politics.
Sitting in a plush chair, under a portrait of himself in uniform, Kokesh catches the coin bearing his face, flipped across his office by a visiting reporter. Seeing his own face on a coin, he says, has been the strangest experience of his campaign. More than a fundraising gimmick, the coins carry a symbolism for those in the know. The 1-ounce silver pieces were minted by a Texas company, the American Open Currency Standard, which promotes the hoarding of precious metals as a hedge against the declining value of the dollar.
Kokesh belongs to a nationwide group of so-called "liberty candidates." These are candidates who are affiliated with the anti-government Tea Party, yet who are running as Republicans, the party in control of the White House for 19 of the 28 years Kokesh has been alive. The "R3VOLution" slogan is borrowed from the 2008 presidential campaign of US Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.
What is this promised revolution? Kokesh calls his philosophy "voluntarism," but his views, like Paul's, are better understood as radical libertarianism. Both men believe membership in the United Nations threatens US national sovereignty.
Both question the constitutionality of the federal Department of Education. Both doubt the future of the Federal Reserve's "fiat currency"—better known as the US dollar.
"I keep my savings in gold and silver," Kokesh says. "Within our lifetimes, we are going to see the end of the dollar as we know it. I can promise you that."
If it seems strange that Kokesh has based his campaign in a city as famously liberal as Santa Fe—where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 4-to-1—think again. The perceived impotence of President Barack Obama, combined with the perceived corruption of New Mexico's Democratic leadership, presents an opportunity for unorthodox Republicans like Kokesh.
Among his admirers is Asenath Kepler, who led a vigorous mayoral campaign in the race that ended March 2 with help from local Tea Partiers and fellow Republicans.
"I like Adam a lot because what he is doing is asking big questions. He's not just walking in lockstep with the Republican Party," Kepler says.
Indeed, she thinks "Young Turks" like Kokesh are redefining the party as one more focused on financial issues, like taxes, than on social ones, like abortion.
Perhaps the highest-profile exponent of New Mexico-style Republicanism is former Gov. Gary Johnson, who occupied the Roundhouse from 1995 to 2003. Reflecting on his time in Santa Fe, Johnson tells SFR it is a city not of liberals, but of "undiagnosed libertarians."
If that seems dubious, consider the improbability of Johnson's re-emergence. A decade ago, his anti-establishment views put him at odds with national Republican leadership. Now he's touring the country in what looks like the early stages of a presidential bid.
"What's changed is that people are genuinely outraged," Johnson says. "I happen to be one of those that are angry."
Just as Barack Obama's "hope" and "change" message resonated with idealistic college students and jaded trade unionists alike, the Tea Party's simple "liberty" platform broadens its appeal.
Liberal critics have dismissed the Tea Party as "astroturf"—a front for old-guard corporate Republicans hoping to derail Obama's domestic agenda while poisoning the national debate with subtle racism. It may indeed have begun as hype, but even outsiders now acknowledge the Tea Party's Pinocchio-like transformation from an imitation grassroots movement to the genuine article.
According to its own myth, the Tea Party movement began in February 2009, when CNBC's Rick Santelli, reporting from the Chicago Board of Trade, went on a tear about the federal policy of "subsidizing losers." Santelli didn't mean Wall Street banks, which President George W Bush had gifted with a $700 billion bailout.
By "losers," he meant homeowners facing foreclosure, whom the recently inaugurated President Obama had proposed aiding with a relatively modest $75 billion program. "This is America," Santelli said. "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?"
Watching Santelli from home was Sheryl Bohlander, the retired vice president of a temporary legal staffing firm and, with her husband Jim, a retired Cargill executive.
Both are leaders in the Santa Fe County Republican Party. Inspired, Bohlander organized Santa Fe's first Tea Party protest on April 15, 2009: Tax Day. It drew approximately 700 people, by Bohlander's count—enough to fill the Plaza.
Some held signs with the party's acronym, "Taxed Enough Already." A few were dressed like Colonial-era Bostonians, looking out of place—if not out of time—on the historic Plaza. (Bohlander says the most flamboyant Tea Partiers hailed from out of town. "Whether we will openly, aggressively invite them back, I don't know.")
Among the invited speakers was former state Sen. John Grubesic, a Democrat whose animosity toward Gov. Bill Richardson gives him something in common with the Tea Partiers. But when Grubesic started talking about the need for taxes in a civilized society, he was not merely booed—he was shouted down. Afterward, Grubesic says he received anonymous, threatening messages at his office.
"They didn't like that I didn't just sit up there and bash Richardson. That's what they'd thought I was going to do," Grubesic recalls. "They just didn't want to pay taxes at all."
As Grubesic took his seat, Gary Johnson, who was waiting for his turn, shook his hand. Grubesic got the impression that Johnson felt the Tea Partiers were "out there."
"I'd never really witnessed a reaction like that to anyone speaking politically. It was vociferous, and it was—it wasn't pleasant at all. I was surprised by that," Johnson tells SFR. "What surprised me was just how angry it was…Since then, I'm seeing it everywhere."
In the 10 months since the first protest, Bohlander says the Santa Fe Tea Party's email list has doubled to 1,500 people. Admittedly, it's a loose-knit bunch. Reached by SFR, one Santa Fe Tea Partier was unaware he was listed online as a local coordinator.
Yet, as public anger rises, their ranks grow. It's an anger that's about more than taxation. There is also the widespread fear of impending economic collapse. Among some, there is fear of civilian disarmament, martial law and—no joke—concentration camps. But mostly, the anger springs from a sense of marginalization, however justified.
"A lot of us don't feel like we have our voices heard," Matt Kennicott, chief of staff for the New Mexico House Republican Caucus and Santa Fe Tea Party participant, tells SFR.
More so than their allies in Washington, DC, conservatives in Santa Fe know what it's like to be out of power.
The cultural contrast between Santa Fe's ruling political party and the minority outcasts is stark.
On Feb. 21 inside the cavernous Elks Lodge, a few hundred Dems gathered to raise money for the re-election of Mayor David Coss, a former union organizer.
The audience is a who's who: There are lawyers, judges, gay and lesbian activists, local business advocates, artists, city councilors, county commissioners, state representatives, the new city manager, the outgoing county sheriff, retirees and recent college grads. There too is Ben Luján, the powerful state representative, and his son, Ben Ray Luján, the freshman US congressman. And taking the microphone to wild applause is the guest of honor, Dolores Huerta, who organized the United Farmworkers Union with César Chávez and is a board member of the Democratic Socialists of America. That's right—a socialist.
The attitude is festive. Disdain for the opposition flows freely. "They're all in the insane asylum—that's where the Teabaggers are going," a local businessman says, using derogatory slang for the Tea Party.
The previous day, a far smaller crowd of Republicans had gathered at the women's club across the street. In contrast to the Democratic fundraiser, with its cash bar and free enchiladas, the menu is bland: bottled water, potato chips and mild cheddar cheese cubes. And whereas the Dems can boast a clear diversity of ages and races, this group is overwhelmingly white and elderly. "The type is too small!" an 80-something man shouts during a slide show presentation on the party's finances. When the subject of outreach on Twitter and Facebook comes up, someone else shouts, "Don't want it!"
Finance Chairwoman Joanne Morrissey announces the recipients of the 2010 Patriot Award for service to the party: Jim and Sheryl Bohlander. There is, unfortunately, no plaque. "The engraving place lost the plate. I think they were Democrats," Morrissey says.
This group has a camaraderie forged by experience living in the minority. The Santa Fe Federated Republican Women like to tell a story about a member who found it harder to come out as a Republican than as a lesbian. Another lady "moved back to Texas because her car got keyed one too many times," Morrissey tells SFR. Such tales of adversity are commonplace.
"I have been laughed at for how I could possibly believe that life begins in utero," Barbara Damron, an organizer of the defunct Buckaroo Ball whose husband, JR, is running for lieutenant governor, says.
Local cabinet-maker and Tea Partier Dan Bergman keeps his views quiet for fear of blacklists and boycotts.
"I wouldn't go out and tell people you're Republican in Santa Fe. It's like asking for a fight," Bergman says. "If you go down to the Cowgirl and start talking about politics, they'll gang up on you."
A liberal dog pile can happen anywhere. Michigan resident Toni Lee Fiore, who owns a time-share in Santa Fe with her husband, was chatting with strangers recently at a shop in the Railyard. The subject turned to politics, and it emerged that Fiore was "more libertarian" than liberal. The news prompted an "odd guy" from Antiques at the Railyard to pipe up: "This guy said, 'Yeah, all of the conservative groups are in mental institutions here.' I thought, 'That's kind of nasty,'" Fiore recalls. "I say, 'Well, you don't like capitalists? Who's going to come in here and buy your painting, or your silly-ass sculpture for $10,000 or $20,000?"
Fiore, who expects to retire in Santa Fe, posted her reservations about the city's "in your face" liberalism to an online forum. She tells SFR she got several sympathetic replies from local conservatives, who hide their identities "for fear of reprisal." For right-leaning Santa Feans like these, the Tea Party brings hope that a change is going to come.
"I don't think Santa Fe will ever be considered a conservative or libertarian city, but…if you would've told me that Massachusetts would vote in a Republican senator, I would've said, 'No way. No way. It'll neeeeeevvver happen there,'" Fiore says. "I think 2010 is going to be a real eye-opener…There's going to be an awakening."
Such confidence is premature. But it's true that Republicans, particularly the libertarian breed, have an opening.
To understand conservatives' opening, one must look beyond voter-party head counts.
Of Santa Fe County's 87 electoral precincts, there are only three in which Republicans hold the narrowest possible majority: 51 percent of registered voters. Countywide, they are outnumbered by those who "decline to state" a party affiliation.
But as former Gov. Johnson notes, the rise in registered independents is part of a nationwide trend—a trend that favors Tea Party allies.
"There's a migration away from the Republicans and a migration away from the Democrats into that independent category. And that independent category is first and foremost about common sense," Johnson says.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, Inc. in Albuquerque, says New Mexico independents tend to vote with the "political winds." Those winds are eroding the turf Democrats conquered in 2008.
"The Republicans have some opportunities in 2010, for a number of reasons," Sanderoff says. "First, there's a frustration with incumbents and, in New Mexico, most of the incumbents are Democrats. Two, the liberal base is somewhat deflated. Three, the conservative base is more energized—partially because they're mad at the president."
Hypothetically, even if every independent in Santa Fe County allied with the Republicans, such a coalition would comprise only 25 percent of voters. That's too small to take over elected offices. But the minority has already proven itself strong enough to shape policy—particularly when Democrats fail to inspire.
At the Feb. 20 party convention, Santa Fe Republicans applauded themselves for having defeated two recent proposed tax hikes at the polls. One would have raised money for affordable housing projects, another would have aided the cash-strapped Santa Fe County Fire Department.
While many Democrats surely voted against those taxes, what Santa Fe Republicans lack in numbers, they likely make up for in motivation. Assuming most anti-tax votes came from Republicans, they presumably rallied their base at many times the rate of Democratic tax supporters.
Beyond policy, elected Democrats have done themselves no favors.
To wit, here are a few names Tea Partiers frequently bring up:
• Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr: on trial, with his father, for embezzlement, conspiracy and elections-law violations
• Former Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon: sentenced to more than five years in prison for corruption
• Gov. Bill Richardson: under a cloud of alleged pay-to-play scandals in state pension funds during his administration
“A year ago, there was so much hope for the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party had become so marginalized. Now, it’s sort of reversed. Some of the problem was the Democrats’ own fault because we did ignore this anger of the voters,” former state Sen. Grubesic says. “The Tea Party of New Mexico, their voice is amplified because we’re so corrupt.”
The Tea Party has already succeeded by one measure: It has forced candidates of both major parties to acknowledge its existence. On the Republican side, it is giving libertarian hopefuls like Johnson an edge. Even in ostensibly nonpartisan local elections, like Santa Fe’s just-concluded City Council race, mayoral candidate Asenath Kepler scored points with a platform echoing the Tea Party line against government corruption and waste.
Among Democrats, the reaction has been a mix of confusion, dread and retreat. The absence of a comparable left-wing activist group has, in Grubesic’s mind, forced even elected Democrats to shift rightward. And so the Tea Party proves yet again the superiority of Republican branding:
“These catchphrases—liberty and the Constitution—that’s something Middle America can grasp,” Grubesic says. “At the core, I think there’s a lot of hate. Hate for domestic partnerships. Hate for different races. I think it’s a dangerous, dangerous message, when you start scratching a little harder.”
Casting the Tea Partiers as a racist mob can pay off for Democrats, but only up to a point.
In a press release targeting Santa Fe’s 74 percent Democratic audience, Mayor David Coss’ campaign decried the presence of Tea Partiers high up in the Kepler campaign. “The Tea Party is a fringe group. They don’t represent the majority of Santa Feans’ moral values,” Coss campaign manager Sandra Wechsler tells SFR.
The problem is, that fringe element is hard to find locally.
Santa Fe Tea Party organizer Sheryl Bohlander is the picture of a boomer-age Republican woman—pleasant, polite and traditional, she even edited a GOP women’s cookbook. “We’re just normal folks. We’re not some radical group,” she says.
Bohlander says the Santa Fe Tea Party decided to focus on taxes and government spending rather than divisive issues like God and guns. That makes it something of an anomaly.
Bob Wright of Lea County claims to represent a purer manifestation of the movement. Wright’s idea of a Tea Party is a weekend of paramilitary training in the “basic infantry skills that will allow you to survive an encounter with the forces of darkness,” as he told a rally last year. Those forces presumably include agents of what Wright, a New Mexico Constitutional Militia leader, calls the “usurper” federal government.
“The Tea Party is a culmination of decades of frustration,” Wright tells SFR. That frustration extends to “the first Bush,” who raised taxes against his campaign promise, and “the idiot Bush,” who “cut the throats of all conservatives.”
The Santa Fe Tea Party’s focus on fiscal issues—rather than, say, the right to bear arms—is “an isolated thing,” Wright says. “It’s probably because you all have been Californiacated out so bad that [Santa Fe is] not even part of the state anymore.”??
Extreme as he is—he includes Republicans among the agents of “Marxist infiltration”—Wright’s analysis of the Tea Party may be the most astute. In his view, allowing Republicans to lead the Tea Party—as they do in Santa Fe—threatens its integrity. And so the internal struggles of Santa Fe’s conservative minority mirrors the identity crisis throughout the national Republican Party.
“This is how you corrupt a real grassroots movement: When people start becoming effective, you go to them and you say, ‘You’re a freaking genius. And you are the future of our party. However, we’re not quite ready to be this radical yet, so why don’t you come on in, start attending our fundraisers—let people get to know you,’” Wright says. “In three months, they’re so enmeshed in that party crap, they become worthless.”
Even mellower activists such as Bohlander fear the Tea Party could lose momentum. The movement’s future is inseparable from that of its members, hence the importance of Adam Kokesh: Here is a passionate and apparently sincere young radical who could, with luck, taste power for the first time. Will he stay true to the R3VOLution? Or will he become just another hack?
“I don’t have any use for Adam Kokesh,” Wright, who appeared with Kokesh at a Jan. 30 “patriot summit” in Albuquerque, says. In fact, about the nicest description the militiaman has for the candidate is “little fucking weenie.” (“I’d like to hear him say that to my face,” Kokesh tells SFR.)
Kokesh’s antiwar stand may not endear him to the far right.
His departures from orthodoxy may make traditional Republicans wary. Nevertheless, Kokesh had raised $143,000 at last report. That’s more than three times the haul of his Republican primary opponent, Tom Mullins, an oil-and-gas consultant from Farmington.
“I like him,” Santa Fe Tea Partier Dan Bergman says of Kokesh. “He’s a good Jewish boy.”
Bergman also notes what may be an indicator of public opinion: His Kokesh bumper sticker on his car has failed to inspire left-wing vandals, whereas the old McCain sticker prompted someone to key it.
During the campaign, Kokesh is living in a rented two-story house with his “purebred shelter dog” Balloo and several campaign staff, part of a devoted entourage of young libertarian men who seem to follow the candidate everywhere—and who all dress like preppies.
The house is near the Santa Fe Country Club and approximately three miles from the horse park on S. Polo Drive, owned by his father, the venture capitalist Charles Kokesh, and now facing foreclosure.
Kokesh headquarters has the feel of a frat house, albeit a tidy one composed of paranoid poli-sci majors. Alongside the usual campaign paraphernalia, there are brochures for the Oath Keepers: police officers and soldiers who have sworn to disobey any orders "to impose martial law," to force Americans into "detention camps" or to "invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty."
Despite such grim visions, Kokesh comes off as cheery and earnest. "For a frat house, we're a bunch of nerds," he says. Indeed, there's no evidence that girls have been anywhere near the place. The only booze in the kitchen consists of two bottles of cheap red wine and a decorative bottle of Iraqi gin.
The bookshelf in his office is full, but Kokesh says he mostly reads the internet. He calls it hitting "the Truth button." One of his favorite sites is Freedom's Phoenix, which recently featured articles about the evils of socialized medicine, the 9.11 "inside job" and, of course, the Tea Party.
Kokesh recognizes that the Tea Party's program is unformed enough that it could go any direction. And he acknowledges that its vagueness is similar to that of the Obama campaign, which attracted liberals from all walks of life with its all-things-to-all-people approach.
But there's an important difference, he says.
"There's no philosophy behind 'change,'" Kokesh says. "But there is a philosophy behind 'liberty.'" SFR
For SFR's extended interview with Adam Kokesh, click HERE.
Extended interviews with Gary Johnson and Bob Wright will be posted over the coming week.