How Far Can Tea Party Rise?
By Dawson Bell
There's plenty of evidence to support the everyman theory of the Tea Party, expressed above by the chairman of the Metro Detroit Freedom Coalition, a self-styled Tea Party organization. His comment came at a packed meeting of the group Tuesday evening in St. Clair Shores.
On a snowy, midweek gathering with no special agenda, people still showed up -- about 150. Tea Party demonstrations in Michigan and around the country have routinely drawn hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants. National polls have suggested the general public views the Tea Party, which is not a formal political organization, more favorably than either the Democratic or Republican Party.
And its members have become the public face of voter dissatisfaction and have been given a large measure of credit for delivering a body blow to President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats for the role they played in the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown in the special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts last month.
Since the Brown election (coming on the heels of Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey last fall) politicians of every stripe have been less inclined to dismiss the Tea Party as a phony grassroots outfit of fringe bigots and haters, as some on the left did when the movement took off last spring and summer.
Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to enclose the Tea Party in a warm, albeit self-serving embrace. State Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican and 2010 candidate for attorney general, was on the agenda of speakers in St. Clair Shores. His speech was peppered with kindred-spirit language.
"It's our responsibility to take back our country."
"This is America right here."
"You all have to stand up and say, 'No.' "
'We have a common goal'
In Oakland County, 9th District GOP Chairman Glenn Clark has taken on an alter ego as a Tea Party activist, organizing protests mostly aimed at the district's Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters. Clark said it's a natural fit. The Tea Party, he said, is "bringing together the former pieces of the Reagan coalition."
"We have a common goal -- to put a check on government," Clark said.
But it remains to be seen what impact the Tea Party movement will have on campaigns and elections in Michigan. Clark and his Tea Party cohorts helped defeat a millage increase in Troy last week. But voters approved some other tax issues around the metro area and the state that were opposed by Tea Party activists.
Last August, Tea Party activists served a crucial role in mustering opposition to a public subsidy for Hurley Hospital in Flint.
The election should have been stacked in favor of Hurley. It was the only issue on the ballot in most out-county communities, which should have depressed turnout. Backers of the measure heavily outspent opponents. Yet the activists cobbled together a campaign of voter contact, homemade signs and loud vocals to narrowly reject the hospital tax.
Whether that kind of energy can be harnessed by candidates in this year's election is another question.
Jeff Timmer, a former Republican Party official who works as a political consultant in Lansing, said it's hard to gauge the potential impact Tea Partiers will have in Michigan with a governor's election and every seat in the Legislature up for grabs.
"People aren't sure whether or not they will matter," Timmer said. "But they're being super cautious. Nobody wants to end up being the guinea pig" -- the focus of Tea Party anger.
Dissatisfied with Dems, GOP
Wendy Day, a Tea Party activist from Howell, masterminded an antitax protest at the state Capitol in which supporters rolled a large group of snowmen on the lawn outside the state Capitol.
They bore licorice stick frowns and held antitax placards. Day said it was "a fun and peaceful and pointed way" to get across the idea that: "There are so many people who feel that Lansing isn't listening."
Day, a mother of four who teaches community college classes part time and serves on the Howell School Board, said the Tea Partiers need to stay vigilant because "we're getting close to the time when (the Legislature) is going to be pressured into thinking they have to raise taxes."
Tea Party activists aggressively assert their independence from traditional Democratic and Republican politics, pointing out that both parties are to blame for the government overreach and over-spending that sparked the movement.
"All longtime officer holders are tainted," says MEDEFCO's Bill (Wild Bill) Hollister.
But Hollister, a self-employed machinist who said his political participation was limited to paying attention and voting before joining the Tea Party, doesn't rule out that at least some factions of the Tea Party movement could coalesce around a Michigan candidate, a la Scott Brown or New York's Doug Hoffman, who rallied conservatives against a liberal Republican in a congressional race last fall (he forced her out, then lost to the Democrat).
Hollister said it's more likely to happen in the August primary, rather than the general election in November. But, he said, it's still early.
"All I know is they want our votes."
Contact DAWSON BELL: 517-372-8661