By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
SMOKEY POINT — The political signs featured simple and to-the-point slogans, but the tea party activists making them were a much more complex bunch than the messages let on.
A half-dozen people gathered in borrowed office space near I-5 recently to prepare for an upcoming tax-day rally. Some of the hand-drawn placards read “Party Like it’s 1776” and “War on RINOs” — that’s Republicans In Name Only.
Kelly Emerson, 45, of Camano Island, helped plan last year’s tax-day protest on Everett’s waterfront. As she prepared for a second tax-day event scheduled for Thursday, she marveled that the tea party movement is still going.
“It really has gotten bigger and stronger,” Emerson said.
Emerson, aka “Jane Citizen,” said she grew up a loyal Democrat because of the party allegiance her blue-collar family instilled in her. Though her attitude toward Democrats changed about 10 years ago, the electrician by trade said she still pays her union dues to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
As she worked on signs, Nancy Taft, an attorney who lives in Arlington, summarized what she believes the movement is about: “Nobody’s too big to fail, reasonable taxes, more liberty, less tyranny.”
Taft, 54, said the last time she was politically active was during the Vietnam War, “When it became clear that the government didn’t want to win.”
She joined the tea parties last year as she grew alarmed about what she saw as out-of-control government spending and a move toward socialism. Though much of her displeasure is aimed at President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress, she also was critical of President George W. Bush’s performance at the end of his second term.
“Personally, I hope that Republican candidates and Democratic candidates listen to what the tea party has to say,” she said.
Pegge Bennett and her husband, Dick, a couple in their mid-80s, said they were once were Benton County campaign leaders for former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. For about a dozen years, Pegge Bennett said, she and her husband “just sort of sat back and started voting.” Obama’s election, and worries about federal cap-and-trade programs and a value-added tax, brought them back into the thick of things.
“We’re not a bunch of kooks like they’d like to make us out to be,” she said. “We have been working very hard to represent our country and keep it America.”
Some regard Seattle as the birthplace of tea party protests, when blogger, math teacher and improv comedian Keli Carender held some of the first rallies against the federal stimulus package, before the tea party name caught on. Tax-day rallies soon popped up all over the country.
The rallies have drawn praise from many Republicans for energizing conservative voters, though tea party rallies have turned against some GOP politicians. Antics by some attending the rallies, including supporters of perennial fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche who carried posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache, have invited condemnation and ridicule.
On tax day 2009, hundreds thronged around a podium at Everett’s 10th Street Marina Park, some with Revolutionary War costumes or carrying “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, first popular during the Revolutionary War.
Edmonds resident Elizabeth Scott, now a candidate for the Legislature, held out a cell phone so the crowd could roar its displeasure during calls to the offices of U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Washington state Democrats.
Another speaker last year, Everett attorney Stephen Pidgeon, talked about challenging Obama’s citizenship, and therefore his eligibility to be president. Pidgeon also told the crowd the federal government had been cutting military spending, so AmeriCorps, the national community-service network, could build “a civilian para-military program,” to police American citizens.
“You will be wearing a red shirt and you will not be able to speak out on your religious beliefs,” Pidgeon said.
Democratic Party leadership remains dismissive of the tea party movement. State chairman Dwight Pelz called it a “right-wing flank of the Republican Party” that helps Democrats by pulling Republicans to a conservative extreme. When Democrats lost big in 1994, he said, the Democratic Party learned a lesson about moving to the political middle ground.
Yet Republicans continue to move rightward, he said, after defeats in 2006 and 2008.
“It’s hard to take the tea party movement seriously on any given issue, frankly,” Pelz said. “Bush threw us into a war and cut taxes for the rich and there was no tea party at the time.”
One middle-of-the-road Republican said Democratic leaders aren’t acknowledging the frustration that fuels the movement, because if they do, it means their policies have failed.
“The real tea party movement is much more diverse and frankly centrist than a lot of people would like to admit,” said Alex Hays, Mainstream Republicans of Washington executive director.
Still, Hays said all social movements have a “distasteful fringe element,” whether they result in anti-war protests or tea parties. And because some tea party adherents are new to political activism, they can be “a little rough around the edges.”
Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser plans to speak at a Bellevue tea party rally Thursday.
“I think it’s a very healthy movement at this point in time to have people expressing concerns about their government and holding elected officials’ feet to the fire, Republicans and Democrats, especially when it comes to fiscal issues,” Esser said. “At the end of the day, they’re going to be more approving of the behavior of Republicans than of Democrats.”
Thursday’s rally in Everett starts with a march from Everett Station to the Snohomish County Courthouse Plaza. A rally at the plaza lasts from noon to 1:30 p.m.
This time, Emerson wants to focus on political candidates who represent tea party values. She’s one of them; she is running as a Republican against Democrat John Dean for the Island County Board Commissioners.
Other speakers are Snohomish County Councilman John Koster, a Republican challenging Democrat Rick Larsen for Washington’s 2nd District Congressional seat. There’s also Republican James Watkins, a business-development consultant running against Democrat Jay Inslee in the 1st Congressional District.
Beyond rally turnouts, local tea parties are trying to find other ways of getting people involved. A candidates’ forum in Smokey Point in January drew a standing-room-only crowd. The Monroe group Seeds of Liberty has conducted classes on the U.S. Constitution at the Monroe Public Library, in addition to regular sign-wavings on the side of the road.
Seeds of Liberty leader Julie Martinoli, a 48-year-old business owner who home schools her two teenage children, said it was Obama’s campaign in 2008 that ignited her activism. That resulted in her pulling together the county’s first tea party rally, along a heavily trafficked Monroe intersection, in March 2009.
Recent local issues have added to her frustration. They include Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democrats in the Legislature suspending voter-approved Initiative 960 to make it easier to raise taxes. She’s also urging voters to reject two propositions for the Monroe School District in the April 27 special election, but supports the district’s transportation levy.
Martinoli also has a side that flies in the face of tea party stereotypes; she loves to plant trees and calls herself a “tree hugger.”
“We have libertarians, we have Republicans, we have Democrats,” she said. “We’re not a political group, we’re just for smaller government. We’re pro-Constitution.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tax day protest
Protesters are staging Tax Day Tea Party II at the Snohomish County Courthouse Plaza from noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The plaza is at Rockefeller Avenue and Wall Street in downtown Everett. People who want to join a march to the courthouse should gather in the parking lot of Everett Station at 11:15 a.m. The half-mile trek is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. For more information, go to www.renewliberty.com.