As tens of thousands of angry conservative voters began protesting big government and federal spending, Fred O’Neal decided to tap into that energy and create a state-recognized political party – the Tea Party. The party now has a candidate on the 2010 ballot to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.
But many tea party activists don’t agree with the strategy. They want to be a force of change that backs candidates who share their beliefs – not a third party that could split votes and benefit Democratic candidates.
“There’s been a steady campaign to try to drive a wedge between the Tea Party and the other people in the tea party movement,” O’Neal acknowledged. “They’re trying to basically discredit what we’re doing.”
While O’Neal is hearing from some local groups interested in connecting with the party, he’s also facing a lawsuit filed by other leaders who don’t want him to have the rights to the name.
“The tea party movement at some level was supposed to transcend parties, not turn into one,” said Willie Lawson, who runs a Tampa-area conservative Internet radio talk show. “They’re really fashioning their whole paradigm after something that doesn’t work. That seems insane to me.”
Rather than form a party, many just want to push the Republican Party further to the right, which they say returns it to the principles it became know for during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Trying to field candidates is a mistake, they say.
“The one thing that people talk about over and over again is Ross Perot. Ross Perot is the only reason that Bill Clinton became president,” said Michael Caputo, a political consultant who is helping movement leaders challenge O’Neal. He was referring to the 1992 election when Reform Party candidate Perot syphoned off votes from President George H.W. Bush, allowing Clinton to win with less than 50 percent of the vote.
While there’s a split over how to cause change, the goals are essentially the same – to steer political leaders, and particularly the Republican Party, back to fiscally conservative principles.
“We’d love to be out of business. We’d love for Republican candidates and the Republican Party to re-embrace Reaganomics and the positions and the philosophies that Reagan had,” O’Neal said. “It’s strayed.”
O’Neal is encouraging Republicans to stay registered with the GOP so they can support conservative candidates in the August primary. For example, he backs former House Speaker Marco Rubio in his Senate campaign against Gov. Charlie Crist.
So far only 116 voters have registered with the Tea Party. Its organization consists of O’Neal and a handful of volunteers and its headquarters is in a small, sparsely furnished office 15 stories above downtown Orlando. Wall art includes a print of George Washington and scenes from the Revolutionary War and a Tea Party banner.
Money is tight – the party raised about $20,000 the first three months of this year. The focus during this election cycle is supporting candidates like Peg Dunmire, a financial adviser and former hospital administrator who is convinced she can top both Grayson, the Democratic congressman, and the eventual Republican nominee.
Dunmire says, “I was born a Republican.” But she, like others in the tea party movement, became frustrated. She started participating in local rallies and traveled to Washington for an event. She believes the message of the tea party movement will win voters over.
“I hope to run a campaign that really shows people that there’s an alternative and that they will select that alternative,” she said. “They have to stop drinking the Kool-Aid.”
The tea party movement has gained a reputation for attracting an extreme anti-government crowd. Lawson said one goal is shedding the image that it’s a disorganized group of wacko, anarchist, racists. Lawson, who is black, says he has never seen a racist element to the movement, and if he did, he wouldn’t subject his wife and children to it.
“We’re not looking to overthrow the government. No one’s got pitchforks or torches and heading toward Washington or Tallahassee,” Lawson said. “Most people just go to work, go home and raise their kids and go to church and try to do the right thing.”
But because of its disorganized nature, Lawson likens the movement to a college party that starts to get out of control. It begins fine, but you never know who’s going to show up once word spreads.
“The next thing you know, it’s 4 a.m. and the campus police are at the door. I don’t even know who these people are!” Lawson said with a laugh. “That’s the kind of danger that you have when you throw these tea parties. You can’t control who comes, you can’t control how they dress, you can’t control what the media sees.”
Most tea party activists are serious people concerned about the government getting out of control. Their concerns boil down to six points, Lawson said: lower taxes, less government regulation, promotion of a free market system, transparency in government, responsible spending and adhering to the Constitution.
So Lawson has advice for people who want to get involved.
“Please don’t go to the tea party events dressed like Yosemite Sam,” Lawson said. “The camera goes to you and they ask you ‘Why are you dressed like Yosemite Sam?’ And the whole idea of what people are talking about and trying to get across is lost. Even if you have the right to, please don’t. Go as George Washington, and maybe your wife will be Martha, that will be cool.”