'It takes action': Tea party backers explain their journey from enraged to engaged
YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. – YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Bill Warner is hardly a naive man. He ran his own engineering firm for three decades, and sold the assets just before the economy tanked. He built his dream home on a majestic hill abutting a national park, back when the housing market was steady. While some neighbors have since been foreclosed upon, Warner is resurfacing his flagstone deck.
And so he understands that in the world of politics, his little group — the Lincoln Club of the Morongo Basin — is but a molecule in the figurative drop in the bucket of power and influence.
Its stated purpose is "to promote, educate and advance conservative principles of fiscal responsibility, small limited government, free enterprise, the rule of law, private property rights, and the preservation and protection of individual liberty." The organization has some 25 members and has raised $10,000.
"It's our way of doing what we can do," he says.
Warner is 65 and soft-spoken, the kind who asks questions before making decisions. He doesn't consider himself a rabble-rouser or "tea party-er."
Yet this past March, Warner packed up his motorhome and drove with his wife, Pat, to Searchlight, Nev., to join thousands of others at a tea party rally dubbed the Woodstock of conservatism.
There were, as his friend put it, some "wackadoos" among the masses: The Barrel Man wearing only a barrel and a hat, the guy dressed like Jesus.
There were also plenty of people just like Warner, who held a coffee mug instead of a sign.
Concerned Americans trying to find their voices, and a way to channel their disgust. For some, anger has now turned to action.
It is the kind of action that helped tea party favorite Sharron Angle capture the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Nevada, now challenging Majority Leader Harry Reid. And that helped tea party darlings Raul Labrador in Idaho and Todd Lally in Kentucky win their Republican congressional primaries. And that helped libertarian favorite Rand Paul beat out a Republican establishment candidate in Kentucky's Senate primary.
In Yucca Valley, that action comes from the likes of Bill Warner and a new Lincoln Club.
In Bullhead City, Ariz., it comes in the form of an ex-PR agent who runs the Republican women's club and holds candidate meet-and-greets to help get out the vote.
In Las Vegas, it's an Internet marketer and his friend, the blogger, working from a rented condo to oust Reid and other incumbents.
These four were all in Searchlight that Saturday in March. They've heard, time and again, the characterizations in the news media, from some Democrats and, in certain cases, from their own friends and relatives — about how "those tea party-ers" are just angry voters venting about economic hard times, or they're confused, uneducated and easily influenced, or they're extremists, or, worst of all, they're racists.
Months after Searchlight and other rallies, plenty of questions remain about just what the tea party is, whether it can endure and how much influence it will have on elections this year and in years to come. Part of the answer is this: In communities across the land, citizens-turned-activists are digging in in different ways to wield whatever power and influence they're able to muster over this thing called democracy.
To hear what motivates them is to begin to understand what's going on in American politics in 2010.
Really, in America itself.
Her accent seems better suited for an episode of "The Real Housewives of New York City" than the Chaparral Country Club in Bullhead City. Yet here she is, Hildy Angius, holding court with three men who've just finished a round of golf in this retirement community.
Her hand is filled with fliers for a mixer sponsored by the Colorado River Republican Women, the organization she heads. "It's more like a voter registration. A lot of elected people. It gives you a chance to go out and yell at them if you have any problems or questions," she tells the golfers.
Turns out they have plenty they'd like to yell about. Says one: "Why are we in such dire straits?"
"Democrats!" his buddy exclaims. The first fires back: "How about debt?"
Spotting an opening, Angius launches into a speech: Don't gripe, do something. Vote. Volunteer. Knock on doors. Do what she's now doing: Whatever it takes to move the Republican Party, and the government, to the right.
Angius acknowledges she did little more than complain until September 2008, when she realized Barack Obama was likely to win the presidency, bringing to office a liberal agenda that would mean the kind of changes Angius vehemently opposes. That fall, she found the Colorado River Republican Women — and an outlet for her dismay. This past January, she was elected president of the club. Soon after, she volunteered as a precinct committee person.
At 51 and retired, she now spends her days organizing events featuring Republican candidates, getting ready to go door-to-door to get voters to the polls for Arizona's August primary and writing newsletters that help promote town hall meetings, conservative initiatives and tea party protests. Besides Searchlight, she attended an earlier gathering in Washington, D.C.
But the tea party didn't shape Angius; she's not even a member of any local "chapters." Her views developed long before, growing up on Long Island, the youngest of three children in, as she describes it, an upper-middle class Jewish — and politically conservative — home.
Her father, Ed Linn, was a writer who profiled everyone from baseball great Sandy Koufax to Jack Kennedy. He instilled in his daughter the core tenets of conservatism: hard work, self-reliance, small government and low taxes. He also taught her to stand up for her beliefs, a talent that came in handy for a girl who attended state university in Albany with mainly liberal friends, worked in Manhattan doing public relations and whose childhood chums, not to mention a lot of relatives, are mostly Democrats.
What finally pushed Angius to action was Obama, and it infuriates her when some suggest race is somehow the motivation. For her, it comes down to the divergent ideologies of left vs. right, and a feeling that American conservatives have been marginalized for years.
Ask her to explain, and she talks about a feeling that something is just "wrong."
"This is not the direction that the country is supposed to be going," she says, citing financial bailouts, the stimulus bill, health care, immigration. "Things are changing at warp speed in a way that's not going to be good."
And so, she says, people are getting more involved.
She herself recently attended a Republican National Committee program in Phoenix that teaches advocates to get the party's message out. It was called, "Say It Loud."
Now, when folks around town ask her whom she plans to support in the GOP Senate primary on Aug. 24, she first explains that her views are her own (her club doesn't endorse candidates) and then she tells them, in all likelihood, Sen. John McCain's more conservative opponent, J.D. Hayworth.
"I want McCain to lose for the symbolism," says Angius. "He's like the ring on the merry-go-round. If we can get that, the tea parties have won."
This is how momentum — a "movement," even — can grow. One person, on the ground, talking to others, inspiring action and influencing votes.
When those like Angius and Warner ponder how to go from exasperated to engaged, Eric Odom stands at the ready with an e-mail or a Tweet — and an answer.
This past March, Odom picked up his life in Chicago, put on hold a career as an Internet consultant and moved with his fiancee and a blogger friend into a three-bedroom apartment a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
There, in a dining space turned "war room," the 30-year-old helps direct the assault that is feeding the nation's antiestablishment frenzy.
Some might call him the father of the tea party. He prefers the term "organizer."
Six years ago, Odom was a college student in Reno, Nev., studying graphic communications and quickly becoming an expert in the art of using the Internet to communicate.
He wasn't politically involved. In fact, he says he didn't even vote.
Then Odom got his first real job, and noticed how much of his paycheck went to taxes. Illegal immigration caught his attention.
It was 2004, and George W. Bush was running for re-election. Odom decided to try to get involved by offering to revamp the website for the Washoe County Republican Party in Reno. The leaders, he says, eventually rejected his work because it wasn't "run through their process."
Odom went from apolitical to antiestablishment activist.
He launched his website anyway, then started a conservative political action committee. Soon, he was working for conservative candidates who didn't have the party's backing.
By 2006, Odom had a blog and was organizing citizens to "slam" Nevada lawmakers with phone calls over legislation they opposed. By 2008, he had moved to Chicago and was using his Internet skills to reach out to activists on behalf of the Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit advancing free-market principles.
Finally, in February 2009, Odom, like so many others, was watching when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, ranting about stimulus money and the mortgage crisis and calling on capitalists to converge at Lake Michigan for a "Chicago tea party."
In 24 hours, Odom had a website up to help organize just that, and his tea party career took off.
The culmination of all of that is the new political action committee he heads, Liberty First, and its offshoots, TaxDayTeaParty.com and The Patriot Caucus, which he describes as a coalition of tea party organizers who want to "engage the movement in electoral activism."
Odom spends his days in front of a computer in that Las Vegas condo war room, under a banner that reads "Silent Majority No More!", firing off Tweets, text messages, phone calls and e-mails to tens of thousands of people.
Across from Odom is Steve Foley, a 37-year-old, laid-off mortgage manager who writes the conservative blog, "The Minority Report." On a wall is a whiteboard with a list of U.S. House and Senate races, and the many incumbents, they're targeting.
After dispatching a flurry of fundraising e-mails on behalf of Charles Djou in Hawaii, Liberty First had enough money to buy radio ads and pay bloggers to help Djou become the first Republican in nearly 20 years to win a congressional seat from his state.
Together, Odom and Foley sometimes make hundreds of calls in a day to draw folks out to local meetings to talk about working to get others involved. Or they'll hold training sessions to teach grassroots activists. They've enlisted statewide coordinators in places like Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois and New Hampshire.
"What is our ultimate goal?" says Odom. "To make sure that we're represented by people who are looking out for our rights and upholding the Constitution. ... And, if they don't, to make sure we have infrastructure to really take them out rather than have these thugs that are in there for 30, 40 years."
Yucca Valley, a desert town of about 20,000, survives because of the places surrounding it, the people they draw and the trickle-down jobs they create. There are new installations going up at the Marine base in nearby Twentynine Palms; Joshua Tree National Park, and the visitors it draws; houses that went up over the years for retirees and those who live in Yucca Valley but work elsewhere.
Bill Warner came to this place as a young man of 26, with his wife, Pat, and a 9-month-old daughter. Fresh out of the Navy, he went to work for a civil engineering firm, purchased a house on the GI bill and then bought the engineering business and built it into a solid venture.
A pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps capitalist, he rode the ups and downs of his community. But he now sees the life he's built and the future of his daughter and grandson being threatened by "tax-and-spend" leaders who can't do as he has always believed: Live within your means. As he said in Searchlight: "I'm concerned about the ability of the country to survive."
Having lived all his life in California — today, the most debt-ridden state — Warner has seen what severe budget deficits can do. He's experienced the tax hikes and cuts to services, and now he fears the federal government is following in his home state's footsteps.
And, so, he took his motorhome to Searchlight to show his concern. And when the mayor of Yucca Valley called earlier this year, proposing they launch a Lincoln Club to help raise money to support conservative candidates, Warner didn't hesitate. He helped recruit, mailed out fliers for their first meeting in April and stood before the 80 or so souls who showed up and tried to explain what his club hoped to do:
"It takes action. We can all complain to each other, but we've got to act on our feelings."
Several weeks back, the Lincoln Club board members gathered for their regular meeting and soon were discussing California's budget crisis, Arizona's immigration law and the overall state of the union. Warner and the mayor are joined on the board by an insurance man, a bank vice president, a former mayor of Twentynine Palms, a school board trustee and an optometrist.
"Do you want to see why people are upset?" asked the bank VP, Paul Hoffman. He held up his cell phone to show off a picture making the rounds in viral e-mails. It's of a sign somewhere that reads: "'Change' (equals) More Debt, More Taxes, More Welfare, More Regulation, More Government, More Wasteful spending, MORE CORRUPTION. Thanks Mr. President."
As the chuckles subsided, Warner handed out sandwiches and the group got down to business. They had endorsements to review for California races, campaign contributions to consider, recruitment.
They wanted, quite simply, to keep acting in their own way on the anger they feel.
To do, as Warner likes to say, what they can do.
Pauline Arrillaga is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Phoenix. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.