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Can the Rhode Island tea party brew a revolution?

 The movement strives to be a coherent force for change. But is it just blowing steam?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 21, 2009

 RITEA_StateHouse_main

DON’T TREAD ON ME Populist revolt on the State House steps. PHOTOS: RICHARD MCCAFFREY

The Rhode Island Tea Party, local wing of the national uprising against all things Obama, has some reason for hope.

Bailouts, health care reform, and the predilections of the Nobel committee have inspired frothy outrage among a sizable segment of the population, even in this bluest of states.

Add years of economic stagnation closer to home and a television and talk-radio media desperate for some form of opposition in this one-party state, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a populist revolt with staying power.

But after an early, euphoric wave of public-relations triumphs — a larger-than-expected tax-day protest on the State House steps, a made-for-TV battle over the right to hand out copies of the Constitution during the Bristol Fourth of July parade — the Rhody rebellion is at a turning point.

The Tea Party’s opening act, a sort of adrenaline rush for the state’s beleaguered right, has come to a close. And now, the hard part: turning a motley band of political outsiders into a coherent force for change.

“Right now, it’s just a lot of people frustrated or venting,” said Colleen Conley, one of two lead organizers for the group. “I want to turn it into a vision of what this state could be.”

Of course, the Tea Party is not the first conservative uprising in Rhode Island. And the group’s progenitors have a less-than-stellar track record: the General Assembly is the most Democratic state legislature in the country.

Indeed, the state’s power brokers are not exactly quaking before the newest surge from the right. “It’s these angry white people, they’re crazy,” said one Democratic insider. “They always say they’re going to make a difference in the next election and they never do.”

Still, these are extraordinary times. The angry white people are growing in number. And a small cadre of dedicated volunteers at the center of the organization says the group can change the state’s entrenched political culture. This time, they say, things will be different.

But will they? Can the Rhode Island Tea Party brew a revolution? Or is it just blowing steam?

GRASSROOTS OR ASTROTURF?
The liberal critique of the national tea party movement, offered up by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, among others, is that it is artificial. A product of corporate-backed Washington advocacy groups. A creature of the conservative press.

It isn’t grassroots, they say, it’s AstroTurf.

That reading sells the movement short — tea parties in Rhode Island and across the country are fired by a genuine, if inchoate, anger at the direction of American politics. But the conservative bigwigs called out by those on the left have undoubtedly fueled, and capitalized on, the tea party ferment.

The phenomenon took off in February with MSNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s on-air call for a “tea party” protest against the government’s mortgage bailout plan. And the right-wing media has played a central role ever since, with Fox News in the lead.

Commentators Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity played hype-men in the run-up to the Tea Party’s tax-day protests. But the boosterism also crossed into the station’s “fair and balanced” news report.

One anchor said the protests would center on “how much of our hard-earned money is going to the federal government.” A news ticker on the bottom of the screen whipped up support for the events. And the network dispatched its stars — Hannity, host Neil Cavuto, and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin — to protests in Atlanta and Sacramento.

Conservative advocacy groups also got in the game. Among them, FreedomWorks, led by former Majority Leader Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, and Americans for Prosperity, which has taken money from the tobacco industry, campaigned against smoking bans, and decried “global warming alarmism.”

Conley, of the Rhode Island Tea Party, says the group has charted its own course. “We have had, and have, almost nothing to do with the national movement,” she said. But if the organization is a local animal, it has undoubtedly drawn sustenance from out of state.

Ron L’Heureux, a contractor active in the group, participates in weekly strategy calls with Tea Party Patriots, a Georgia-based umbrella group for tea partiers nationwide that joined with FreedomWorks and ResistNet to organize the conservative 9/12 march on Washington last month.

And when members of the Bristol Fourth of July Committee sought to ban the group from future parades after tea party sympathizers, running alongside the group’s float, distributed copies of the Constitution in violation of a ban on soliciting, the organization tapped into another network of activists — Tea Party Nation — to generate thousands of protest e-mails.

The parade fiasco, which ended with reinstatement of the group, even made its way onto Beck’s radio show.

THE NEXT PHASE
The Tea Party has also taken advantage of a sort of Rhode Island version of the conservative infrastructure that helped undergird the national movement. The Ocean State Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank, provided logistical and financial support for the tax-day protest.

The Tea Party has joined with the right-leaning Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, among other groups, in a campaign against union-backed legislation governing the resolution of contract disputes.

WPRO, the most prominent talk radio station in the state, has supplied the group with plenty of air time. One of the station’s personalities, John DePetro, spoke at the Tea Party’s tax-day protest. And Helen Glover, a conservative talk radio host with WHJJ, emceed the protest and appeared on the Tea Party float.

Maintaining the local media’s enthusiasm for the movement will be vital, especially as the national press moves on to the next thing. And with little in the way of prominent political opposition in this state, the Tea Party has a chance.

Conley appeared on the Dan Yorke Show on WPRO just this week (disclosure: I am an unpaid, weekly guest on Yorke’s show). And Yorke, who distances himself from colleagues actively supporting the movement, tells the Phoenix he will continue to give the Tea Party a platform as long as it has something interesting to say.

But the talk radio host says the organization’s success will ultimately depend on its ability to learn the political game. To be more than provocateurs. “Mad has to [be joined with] smart, and I’m not sure they have smart yet,” Yorke said. “Not to say they won’t.”

Indeed, the group is still deciding how to engage. Marina Peterson, 66, an on-line bookseller from Bristol who has been the main organizer alongside Conley, says the rush of events in the first few months left the Tea Party in “reactive” mode. “Now it’s time to really settle in and go back and do the organizing we never really had time to do,” she said.

Peterson and Conley, who count about 1500 people on their mailing list, recently met with a core group of supporters in a bid to spread the workload. There is talk of turning into a voter education group. Doing a bit of lobbying. Even endorsing candidates. But becoming something other than a mouthpiece for the disaffected could prove difficult.

The group has no real budget, few ties to Smith Hill, and a fierce belief in autonomy and ideological purity that makes alliances with the political class a challenge. “There’s this antipathy to being formally organized,” said Conley, 44, of the Tea Party membership. “They don’t want to be co-opted by any political people.”

Indeed, while Conley, a former biotech saleswoman, has held friendly talks with the state’s tiny GOP, she has made it clear that her organization isn’t interested in a serious entanglement with any party. Conley says the group, if it does endorse candidates, would consider backing members of the emerging Moderate Party and even Democrats who pledge to hold the line on taxes and spending.

“The basic core issue is, they don’t want to be in a fold — any fold,” said Giovanni Cicione, chairman of the state’s Republican Party. “They’re not just anti-government, they’re anti-establishment.”

The state’s pols might have reason to steer clear of a full-fledged alliance anyhow. While the group has avoided some of the most egregious excesses of tea party activists elsewhere, some of its members are partial to a rhetoric that could turn off the centrist voters key to election here.

In a recent interview, L’Heureux, the contractor active in the group, referred to the president as “Barack Hussein Obama,” in a conservative formulation meant to suggest a Muslim tie, and called the president’s recent speech to school kids an attempt to “indoctrinate our children.”

That sort of talk makes the tea party’s populist energy a fraught commodity for Republicans nationwide. Indeed, the movement’s impolitic ideology is proving a serious liability for the GOP is some places.

Nowhere is that more evident than in upstate New York, where tea party types are backing a hard-right, third-party candidate in a special election for a Congressional seat, siphoning support from the hand-picked GOP candidate and thrusting the Democrat into the lead in the polls.

That sort of result presents a real quandary for tea party activists trying to shift the country to the right. But figuring out the proper approach to electoral politics is not the only challenge for the movement.

There is also a question of focus. “The group is too diffuse,” said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, of the local tea party organization. “There’s really not any core of issues that holds it together.”

Indeed, the Rhode Island group seems divided between local and national concerns and besieged by ideas: revive a conservative push for a state constitutional convention, hop on board an effort to apply Toyota’s lean management model to government operations, press the local and national media to better cover the right-wing insurgency.

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  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, Culture and Lifestyle, Ocean State Policy Research Institute,  More more >
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