When I say “Tea Party,” what’s the first word that comes to mind?
If so, you’ve identified Don and Patti Woolley’s biggest headache: They’ve been pigeonholed.
The Woolleys head the Sahuarita Tea Party Patriots, a year-old offshoot of one of the most notable stories in recent political history.
They aren’t the only Tea Party group around; Southern Arizona has several, including the Green Valley Tea Party. The Woolleys, who live in Sahuarita, started a new group to reach a younger crowd.
If you think you know what the Tea Party is all about, it’s a good bet you’ve let their detractors shape most of your thoughts. So I sat down with the Woolleys and put it out there: Tell me what you believe.
The Tea Party gets involved in lots of issues but it sticks to three core beliefs: Fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.
What’s also standard is that the movement largely attracts Republicans like the Woolleys. But they’d sure love to expand.
They say 10 to 20 percent of the roughly 100 people in their group are young (we didn’t define “young,” but the median age in Sahuarita is about 36), and they draw a few Democrats and independents.
“Not a whole lot, but some,” Patti said. “We’re trying.”
What do they want?
I asked them to define “limited government,” and how we get there. They were candid in a way that could bring on that “extremists” label — until you think about what they’re saying.
Don takes a simple approach to budgeting: Don’t spend it if you don’t have it.
We’re not quite there in America. To get there, Don would cut the federal Department of Education and put the responsibility on the states. Same with the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s totally out of control,” Don says of the EPA. “It’s too big, too cumbersome and they do whatever they want to do.”
They don’t believe the goals of the EPA are frivolous. They just think we could better build and maintain our environment if the responsibility were on our doorstep, not 2,000 miles away in Washington.
Jumping to that conclusion — that there are key issues the Tea Party brushes aside without a thought — plays into stereotypes the Woolleys say make every day an uphill climb.
“You have to overcome these labels,” Don says, “but that happens in every campaign.”
He says the Democrats were effective — even expert — at painting the Tea Party as extremists during the 2010 campaign. They drove home some points that still resonate today — that the Tea Party is uncompromising and that they’ve ruined Congress. True, a good chunk of the House is tied to the Tea Party, but whether that’s good or bad depends on your politics.
And unbending? Back in 2010, when the Tea Party posted stunning numbers in the mid-term election, they could afford to be. At home, Tea Party backer Jesse Kelly, with zero political experience and no college degree, nearly knocked off veteran Gabby Giffords in a House race that wasn’t decided for days after the polls closed.
Even so, Don says “uncompromising” is an undeserved generalization.
Other areas they’re pounded but don’t deserve it, he says:
Racism: The Woolleys say accusations the Tea Party is racist are driven by “the Democratic machine” and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The only problem is that there just isn’t any evidence of it.
A study released last month by the research journal Race and Social Problems found that Tea Party members aren’t any more racist than anybody else, but their supporters are more likely to be. The article suggests, “What the Tea Party means to its members and what it represents to the large public may, in fact, not be the same thing.”
That’s a scholarly way of saying the occasional offensive sign hoisted at Tea Party rallies doesn’t have the movement’s official stamp of approval.
There is no compassion in the Tea Party movement: Don and Patti dismiss this by asserting, “There is nobody more giving than Republicans and conservatives.”
Not exactly convincing evidence, but again, neither is there evidence that it’s not true. It’s a silly allegation, frankly.
It’s not a grassroots organization: This one is a bit tougher to defend. The Woolleys, who say they weren’t politically active before President Obama was elected, say the Tea Party grew out of a sense of urgency and duty among everyday Americans.
“You’ve got mom and pop who’ve never been political in their lives,” Patti says. “You’ve got people fighting for their country.”
Others insist the movement is financed behind the scenes by rich Libertarian and conservative worshipers of philosopher Ayn Rand (“Atlas Shrugged”) who are disciples of her laissez-faire style of capitalism.
Toss in the Koch brothers and their billionaire friends, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation and you’ve got a mishmash of accusations, some of which hold water, others that don’t. In the end, though, the Kochs and their millions couldn’t put a Republican in the White House last year, so at some level the voters still have a bit of control. For now, at least.
A new party?
But while the Tea Party sticks to its core issues, it ventures out on occasion.
Right now, the immigration plan put forth by the “Gang of Eight” is raising hackles, specifically over its path to citizenship (called “amnesty” by the Tea Party). Sens. McCain and Flake are a big disappointment, Don says, and the Tea Party isn’t happy.
“This could send them over the edge,” he said. “I think if this immigration plan and amnesty go any further, a third party could happen.”
They’ve already got a name for it: the Freedom Party, and Sarah Palin and radio host Mark Levin are leading the charge.
On a local level, the Woolleys say their relationship with the GOP is “cordial” — in fact, Patti handles publicity for the Republican Club of Green Valley/Sahuarita, and that group advertise Tea Party events. A lot of people belong to both.
In the end, regardless of party, the Woolleys will back the conservative candidate who embraces Tea Party ideals.
“People in the Tea Party are anything but extremists,” Don says. “These are everyday, working people.”
“Wanting to have a balanced budget is not extremist.”
— Dan Shearer