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Tea Party On

Santa Fe in no place to launch a conservative uprising—or is it?

March 3, 2010, 12:00 am

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.

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A February survey by Public Policy Polling showed that 42 percent of voters disapproved of first-term US Rep. Ben Ray Luján. He recently introduced Santa Fe’s Mayor David Coss and labor activist Dolores Huerta.

“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.

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