There are few pastimes of more interest to the main stream media and political establishment than analyzing the psychological make up of Tea Partiers. In spite of all their huge yet orderly and passionate yet polite gatherings, Tea Partiers often get a bad wrap. To denizens of the political realm, they seem such an anomaly—not single issue, not defending some federal program that inures to their benefit, not foot soldiers of a single charismatic leader. The profile offered by the media and the left is predictable and less than flattering—mean-spirited, racist … throw-backs. Obviously, the ad homonym attacks writ large are intended to discredit, discourage and derail Tea Parties as a growing political force. An extra hurdle of assembled accusations is thrown before Tea Party leaders and followers as they seek to interject themselves into the political process and their foes anxiously await for them to fail to clear it—for any misstep, any inarticulate utterance, any opening to pounce. When Tea Partiers disappoint them and a story about their activities somehow manages to make it past the editorial spike, it is typically reported according to the predetermined script—a meandering rant to a sparse and insignificant audience.
You may have heard recently that Tea Partiers in Virginia choose NJ Governor Chris Christy in a presidential straw poll. Little else, however, managed to pierce the media curtain of the major networks although FOX News provided coverage of the large political gathering in Richmond that attracted national names. For some reason, the national networks passed on this opportunity to find out on a large scale what Tea Partiers, like the event’s lead organizer, Jamie Radtke, were really like.
We first met Jamie Radtke months before at a small tea party gathering. Before 50 or so compatriots squeezed into a room at Chinese Buffet off the interstate between Richmond and Williamsburg, Radtke spoke on a number of issues that escape us now. What was memorable was that she clearly had the confidence of her convictions. Chatting afterwards, she spoke of nascent plans to hold a convention at which all of Virginia’s Tea Party leaders and foot soldiers could gather. She and her allies were planning on renting the Richmond Convention Center and selling tickets and soliciting sponsorships to pay for it. To do so they would have to attract big names but had none committed. They had never done anything of the sort before and it was just six months away. After the official meeting drew to a close, Radtke and her allies set up shop in one of the empty restaurant booths to review the Convention Center contract.
By October 8 it was show time. The affiliates of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, over 30 groups in all, had put together a two-day schedule with dozens of issues-oriented panels ranging from discussions of how to start your own tea party to the threats posed by Federal entitlements and the pending Obama tax hikes on Virginians (See The Heritage Foundation’s flyer on Job Losses in Virginia. Note: Heritage will shortly have flyers like this one for other states as well.) They had secured a long list of notable figures—like Governor Bob McDonnell, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, former Senator George Allen, Dick Morris, and Herman Cain—to speak before the general sessions. They had printed glossy programs and attendance credentials, had put in place a teams of volunteers and contractors to manage everything from complicated light and sound systems and stage timing to media relations and security and they had provided efficient systems for online and on-sight registration. They had put the conference together with the confidence that they were not alone and the like-minded would come. And they did. Some 2,800 of them, many taking off a day from work and paying for the chance gather with compatriots and to enrich their understanding on everything from the general principles underlying the Constitution to the constitutional questions raised by Obamacare. As a whole, they were remarkably informed, energetic, generally optimistic, and patriotic.
These volunteers kept a huge and complicated event running within minutes of schedule over the course of two days but by the time the first day concluded they were ready for a break and had arranged an evening of entertainment in the adjoining Marriot Hotel. There, convention attendees wandered from one themed room to another. The Don’t Tread on Me Saloon featured games of Texas Hold ’em. In the Freedom Fever Dance Hall, the Atlanta Dance Band Mo’ Sol struck up everything from Dave Brubeck’s Take Five to Earth Wind and Fire favorites. Those who ventured into the Liberty Lover’s Lounge & Martini Bar could hear a Dean Martin impersonator crooning classics and sip drinks like the green capitalist pig. In short, they had fun before another day packed with panels and speakers.
Kristin Cooper, one of the organizers, was exuberant though frustrated by the manner in which mainstream media portrayed them: “This is who we are,” she told us during the evening’s celebration.
Colleen Owens had the daunting task of dealing with all the personalities that came with having dozens of political figures and public policy experts speaking over the course of two days. She was upbeat and no-nonsense about the job that had her perpetually traveling from venue to venue in the sprawling convention center. It was going great, she said, but if somebody wasn’t happy, then her view was: “Fire me. We’re all volunteers.”
Near the close, the crowd of Tea Partiers heard from Rep. Steve King, George Allen, Ken Cuccenelli who brought them to their feet when he said: “I don’t think there’d be a Tea Party if the Republican Party had been the party of limited government in the first half of this decade.” The results of the straw poll show that this group was thinking about issues, not who has the best haircut. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christy, who in his short time in office has put together an impressive record of cutting government and standing up to the unions, beat a field that included Ron Paul, Lou Dobbs, and Sarah Palin.
For the Tea Party groups this event, by every measure save one, was a resounding success. You, however, clearly didn’t hear anything about it on network news. But what could you expect? These Tea Partiers have minds of their own and don’t follow the assigned script.
This post was written by Robert Gordon, Senior Advisor for Strategic Outreach at The Heritage Foundation.