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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 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.

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Colleen Hayes

The Public Policy Polling survey shows Kokesh is unknown to 77 percent of voters, and trails his Republican primary opponent Tom Mullins in popularity. Kokesh, however, has a distinct fundraising advantage.

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.


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