Thursday, August 12, 2010
A diminutive middle-aged woman in a three-cornered George Washington-style hat and full Revolutionary War garb stands vigil at Main Street and Blanco Road in Salinas. Taciturn men in jeans hold signs that warn “Don’t Tread on Me” or inveigh against the local Democratic Congressman with the hand-lettered message, “Expel the Farrt.”
These demonstrators who regularly take to the streets, garnering beeps of support from passing motorists and enduring hurled insults and middle finger salutes, are representatives of Monterey County’s Tea Party movement.
On a blustery Friday afternoon, Loretta Davi is among several dozen sign-waving men and women braving a late afternoon chill to show their opposition to the Obama administration’s health care legislation. “Obama Care Kills,” “You can’t borrow your way out of debt” and “Killing Old People Saves Money” are among the messages that draw the attention of passing motorists.
“These are the moms and pops,” Loretta Davi says. “They see what is being taken away from them.” Davi, a trim woman in a black sweater adorned with a small ceramic teapot clasp, can’t say exactly what is being taken away from whom, but nevertheless she’s quick with a mea culpa. “I’m from the ‘60s. My generation did it.” Now, she says she wants to see the country return to the things she and many of her fellow baby boomers once eschewed: love of God, family and patriotism.
Unlike demonstrators before them who felt shut out of mainstream society because of color, class or sexual orientation, these protesters are the mainstream. Mostly white and prosperous, many have enjoyed middle-class opportunities that movement activists before them in labor and civil rights struggles went to jail and even died for: good jobs with decent pay, a chance to own homes, send their kids to college, and time to enjoy the fruits of their labor and participate in civic affairs. The source of their passion isn’t easy to grasp and the message may not always be clear, but their fervor and sense of grievance is red-hot and their impact on national politics has been swift and searing. The movement has become a grassroots political phenomenon, with 18 percent of Americans identifying themselves as supporters of its ideas, according to a recent New York Times poll.
But Davi says, if you want to know more about the Monterey County movement, talk to Robin.
• • •
In a pink fleece vest and jeans, Robin Kubicek doesn’t look the part of a conservative activist, and with plans to spend part of a July weekend at Monterey’s ReggaeFest, her lifestyle might not fit the stereotype either.
The friendly and talkative Kubicek is the public face of the local Tea Party, the closest thing to a leader of a group that resists formal structure and organization.
Kubicek is new to activism, but no stranger to the public stage – literally.
As a young attorney in Southern California’s Manhattan Beach in the 1970s, she joined an improvisational comedy troupe and enjoyed a brief second career as a stand-up comic.
The daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant mother and an oilman from Texas, Kubicek was born in Colombia, grew up in Bolivia and finally arrived in the United States at 14.
She says the diversity of her circle of friends reflects her international upbringing.
And, although she represents employers now, she started her legal career at the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with enforcing collective bargaining rights and overseeing union elections.
For years, she says, she was too busy to delve into politics.
“I wasn’t a ’60s radical. I was a single mother going to school. I spent my whole life working and benefiting. I had no idea while I’m working so hard, there are other groups undermining it.
“You can’t put a number on it,” she says, of the movement’s local membership, noting that the local Tea Party list includes about a thousand names.
“I can tell you the moment in history that triggered all the Tea Party people. It was February 2009 when (CNBC correspondent) Rick Santelli gave his rant,” she says.
Kubicek was trying to make sense of the nation’s economic implosion at the time, spending late nights trolling the internet for information.
“All of a sudden, everything we believe in collapses. You go, ‘Wait a minute, let’s investigate,’” she says. “I wasn’t sleeping for two months – I wanted to know who this cast of characters was.”
Santelli galvanized Kubicek and bands of Tea Party protesters nationwide with a nationally televised outburst slamming the Obama Administration just as it announced plans to help struggling homeowners with unmanageable mortgages.
“You know, the new administration’s big on computers and technology – how about this, president and new administration?” Santelli demanded. “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages… ”
In just five minutes, Santelli, reporting live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, built the rhetorical foundation of a movement. His words echoed on street corners and reverberated on TV and radio chat shows and Tea Party websites. To the applause of traders on the floor, he mocked the administration’s stimulus program, invoked the Founding Fathers, touted a new emerging silent majority and the notion that “you can’t spend your way into prosperity.” But he also reserved some of his venom for the big Wall Street firms that hedged their bets on the mortgage market, creating investment products designed to wring dollars from its demise. Santelli declared he’d throw a Chicago Tea Party to hurl mortgage derivatives into Lake Michigan.
Just months before, the Bush administration had bailed out failing financial institutions to the tune of $800 billion dollars, another action that set Kubicek’s blood boiling.
“When Congress gives $800 billion with no conditions… nobody in their right mind would hand over that amount of money,” she says. “It wasn’t logical.”
Late on a Thursday afternoon months after the health care protest, Kubicek sits at a long conference table in the book-lined library of her Garden Road office building in Monterey.
Her friend and fellow Tea Party activist, Nan Lesnick, a financial advisor who runs her business in a neighboring office, has come to join the discussion. A sturdy woman with a no-nonsense demeanor and a black and white springer spaniel in tow, Lesnick moved to north Monterey County from Arizona seven years ago where she also helps her husband run their concrete business.
When she showed up at her first Tea Party rally a year ago, Lesnick says she was already angry about what she believes is excessive government spending, too many entitlement programs and overly burdensome restrictions on business in California.
“My conservative values were being trashed,” Lesnick says. “These were the things on my mind.”
Worse yet, according to Lesnick, the nation’s political leaders missed obvious signs of economic collapse.
“These dunderheads in Washington and Sacramento felt nothing could go wrong. We started to realize these people don’t know what they’re doing – throw the bums out.”
Now, she contends they’re mishandling recovery efforts and jeopardizing her prosperity with overspending. “We can’t start over, we’re 62,” she says.
Lesnick is also a local Republican leader who wants to shake up her party. As president of the Monterey Bay Republican Women’s Club, she says, “I have brought Republican women and the Tea Party together by saying what the Tea Party is saying is exactly what we’re saying. But we haven’t had the voice to say, ‘Hey what’s going on?’”
Some local Republicans say they appreciate the new blood, while others keep a safe distance from the activists.
Unlikely rebels Lorne and Sandra Braddock also heeded Santelli’s Tea Party call. They too, want to kick out career politicians who they say are no longer in touch with their constituents.
Retired, college-educated and comfortable, they live with their aging yellow labrador retriever in a two-story New England style home surrounded by lovingly-tended gardens in the Alta Mesa neighborhood of Monterey. Lorne is a retired Cisco Systems exec; both are baby boomers and high school sweethearts who still seem to do everything together.
Sandra protested the Vietnam War, while Lorne vividly remembers absurd but frightening Cold War era duck and cover drills to prepare kids to take refuge under their desks in case of Soviet nuclear attack. Later, both Braddocks voted for Bill Clinton – they even pull out an old Clinton-Gore tee shirt to prove their bona fides. Lorne recalls how relieved he felt when the Cold War ended and later when Clinton announced the world had never been more peaceful.
Then the World Trade towers fell on 9-11, and the Braddocks began to question all their beliefs. Clinton knew about Osama bin Laden, Lorne says, but “he kicked the can down the road.” But despite those feelings of betrayal, Lorne says frustration with the economy is what really fuels his activism.
“I’ve never been more worried,” Lorne says. “I’m doing this for my kids.”
The couple’s son and daughter-in-law, both of whom work 60-hour weeks and pull down six figure salaries at high-tech Seattle companies, sold their Bay Area home at so much less than the purchase price that their son had to borrow from them to pay off the bank. Now the couple has downsized to a much smaller condo while trying to get caught up. “I think their life sucks,” Lorne says.
“I live in a house because I was blessed to be born in a certain time in history.”
It was a time, he says “when John F. Kennedy said, we're going to the moon.”
Now, without a sense of national purpose, he says, “We’re floundering.”
The Braddocks and others in the movement hope Tea Partiers will eventually build a moveon.com of the right, a social networking juggernaut that would borrow from the Obama election campaign’s skillful use of new media to get the word out to their followers and into offices on Capitol Hill and in Sacramento.
• • •
In California, however, the Tea Party movement faces tough obstacles to flexing its political muscle. Among them, says political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, are the size of the state, and the dearth of competitive legislative races. And, as Kubicek laments, “We’re sitting in the middle of Blueville.” Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in Monterey County.
But the local Tea Party has jumped into one local legislative fight where it could make a difference.
Kubicek has urged the faithful to join Republican Sam Blakeslee, a state assemblyman from San Luis Obispo, in his battle for the Central Coast senate seat recently vacated by now-Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado. Kubicek says Blakeslee, who is running as a moderate against Aptos Democrat John Laird in the majority Democratic district, isn’t conservative enough for her, even though he scores 100 percent and 91 percent ratings from the California Taxpayers Association and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association respectively. But Kubicek isn’t splitting hairs – she notes the under-the-radar Aug. 17 special election is one of two contests in the state that could hand the Democrats a state senate supermajority, the two-thirds needed to raise taxes or pass a budget without Republican votes. The other race – which promises to be competitive, will also be fought out partly in Monterey County in November and pits Republican Anthony Cannella, the mayor of Ceres, against Salinas Assemblywoman Anna Caballero.
Lesnick says she’s seen first-hand evidence that local Tea Party supporters have answered the call, supplying the Blakeslee campaign with crucial ground troops.
On a recent weeknight, eight of nine of her fellow Blakeslee phone bankers, she says, were folks she’s rubbed elbows with at Tea Party happenings.
In North Santa Barbara County, local Tea Party activist and radio host Andy Caldwell has also come out strongly for Blakeslee, sponsoring a candidate forum and blogging about the race.
“John Laird scares me to death.” Caldwell writes in his California Chronicle blog.
Still, in most state races and possibly even in the 15th District, the grassroots are secondary to big money advertising, Pitney says. “It’s the air war, not the ground war,” he argues, pointing to Chuck DeVore’s poor showing in the June U.S. Senate primary. DeVore was the closest California came to having a Tea Party candidate on the ballot, Pitney says. But his grassroots push couldn’t overcome heavy TV advertising by the better-funded Carly Fiorina campaign.
On the other side of the aisle, Tea Party activists have acted mostly as a thorn in the side of Democrats, most notably showing up to protest health care reform legislation. They were a regular feature at town meetings on health care sponsored by local Congressman Sam Farr. Farr has become a favorite target of the local movement, whose followers also plan to dog the Congressman at so-called Fire Farr rallies in the district beginning this month. “He’s never had a real job,” Lesnick says. Farr declined to comment on the movement.
Central Coast Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) questions the depth and breadth of the Tea Party’s following, as well as its seeming inability to articulate policy solutions to the issues it raises. Indeed, Tea Party activists cite broad principles that unite them, but haven’t offered solid counterproposals to the status quo.
Monning also decries the public Tea Party demonization of President Barack Obama. “They act like he’s the devil incarnate,” Monning notes. Local activists are livid about charges of racism leveled against them by P.G. native Ben Jealous of the NAACP and others, saying they’re unfounded. Lorne Braddock contends that demonstrators who have shown up at local protests carrying images of Obama with a Hitler mustache are supporters of perennial fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche, not Tea Party activists. As to the charge that an African American in the White House has sparked Tea Party activity, Lesnick cries, “What a bunch of hogwash. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous… I dislike [Nancy] Pelosi more than Obama and she’s a white woman in my age group.”
Local Tea Party activists categorically deny racial bias. But, some toss off remarks that sound offensive or at least divisive: Minorities have spoken more loudly in the public sphere than others, argues one activist, thus have garnered more attention to their issues than non-minorities, while another contends that dependency on the government dole was what made it hard for New Orleanians to escape Katrina and recover afterwards, while a third ventures that welfare has damaged the black family.
• • •
Local Tea Party activists distance themselves from their extremist kin, but the Monterey County Tea Party website features a link to a Tea Party convention speech entitled, “Mr. President, Show us your Birth Certificate,” and another to a speech by Andrew Breitbart, the right wing activist who buffaloed media outlets into believing his doctored Shirley Sherrod video was genuine.
In addition to their work on the Blakeslee campaign, Kubicek’s blog also urges backers to get behind an initiative that would limit public employee unions use of dues for political action.
And local activists are also supporting ideologically simpatico Congressional candidates, regardless of geography.
J.D. Hayworth, who opposes John McCain in the Arizona senatorial primary, is a Tea Party favorite, says Lesnick, because she and others would like to retire the long serving senator. “He’s also never had a job in his life,” Lesnick says of McCain.
She likes Republican Congressman John Boehner of Ohio and Florida Republican senate candidate Marco Rubio. But the 800-pound gorilla in the 2010 midterm elections is the race between Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against arch-conservative Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada.
A group calling itself Tea Party Express, recently expelled from a larger national Tea Party Federation over a so-called satire rife with ugly racial stereotypes penned by its leader Mark Williams, has poured $600,000 into the race. Many contributions came from California, with a few trickling in from Monterey County. But later, it was revealed that the group’s fundraising efforts appeared to be run by long-time Republican consultants Russo and Marsh, who used the Tea Party name to raise a total of $5 million, only a little more than a fifth of which seems to have made it into candidate coffers. The fundraising incident highlights the sheer grassroots power of the Tea Party and its potential for exploitation, says Red County.com blogger Chip Hanlon of Orange County, who has written about the affair.
“It’s an intense, passionate movement,” he says. “There are almost no committees anywhere that raise as much money as that.”
With that sort of Midas touch, Hanlon adds, many groups are likely to want a piece of the movement. But despite the heat it’s generating, Pitney says the Tea Party story will likely unfold like that of many other social movements, with politicos and others eager to capitalize on its mobilizing power coopting or institutionalizing it.
And, as with other movements, factional fights over policy and direction have already broken out both nationally and locally, with Monterey County Libertarians splitting with Kubicek’s Tea Party group and forming their own in a dispute over the Libertarian’s alliance with the anti-war activist group Code Pink.
“The big question is what happens to this movement after this midterm,” says Mike Dimock of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. “Whether this is a new energy… that becomes a factor in future elections or whether the energy fades and ends up getting subsumed into the Republican Party.”
For now, local Tea Partiers are heeding the advice of an old ideological foe, turn of the last century labor leader Mary Harris, “Mother Jones,” who urged, “Sit down and read. Prepare yourselves for the coming conflicts.”
On Kubicek’s list is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a community organizing classic, which she finds useful for tactical tips, movement building ideas and its “know thine enemy” value.
Ironically, Alinsky died the same year he gave a Playboy interview promising to organize the middle class because he worried their frustration would lead them to the right, “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.”