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.