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Having their tea and drinking it, too

by Jordan Green

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While the Guilford County Commission wrangled with a difficult budget inside the Old Guilford County Courthouse last Thursday, conservative talk-radio personality Bill Flynn exhorted thousands of Tea Party supporters outside to let them hear “another full-throated roar of liberty and freedom…. On the count of three,” he said, “will you remind our leaders that we are here and we are not going to calm down?” So directed, the crowd gave a spirited yell. “We are going to put the fear of God into our leaders,” Flynn exulted.

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The message of the Tea Party movement in North Carolina, boiled down to its essence and strained of its fringe elements, almost perfectly corresponds to the Republican Party, its standard bearers and zealous new candidates: outrage about the healthcare reform bill passed by President Obama and the congressional Democrats, and an embrace of low taxes and limited government. And yet the Tea Party has been holding the Grand Old Party at arms length and jealously guarding its independence.

A heated discussion took place at the Guilford County Republican Party executive committee meeting attended by local party leaders and members of Conservatives for Guilford County three days before the April 15 Tea Party rally in Greensboro. John Blust, a former chairman of the county party and an outspoken conservative who has served in the NC House for the past decade, played the role of peacemaker. Blust said the two groups needed to coordinate and discuss each other’s respective roles and agendas.

Conservatives for Guilford County drew a hard and fast line, refusing to allow the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Clubs and the Libertarian Party to display banners at the Tea Party event. The grassroots group created a “Statement of Constitutional Conservatism” that they are requiring candidates to sign in exchange for their support, leaving open the option of supporting a Democrat or unaffiliated candidate instead of a Republican, depending on his or her concurrence with the statement. As of April 16, the statement had been signed by North Carolina 6th Congressional District candidate Dr. James Taylor, NC House candidates John Blust and Jon Hardister and Guilford County Commission candidate Myrene Stanley. And with one exception, candidates for office were not allowed to speak from the stage at the Tea Party, but were instead consigned to an area behind the audience where they were encouraged to answer voters’ questions.

Jeff Hyde, a Republican candidate for NC Senate District 27, met Bret and Jodi Riddleberger through Lawndale Baptist Church. Hyde was introduced by Flynn as “a great American” and “one of the founding fathers of Conservatives for Guilford County” at the Tea Party rally. Hyde did not mention his candidacy during his remarks.

“This group, Conservatives for Guilford County, is a group that incubated out of a Sunday school class,” Hyde said. “We would come together every Sunday, eat our donuts and drink our coffee, and gripe about the government until one day, one of our wives said, ‘What are you all going to do about it?’ “A small handful at first,” Hyde continued, “in four short months we have grown to a fairly large group of like-minded individuals that are passionate about identifying, recruiting, supporting constitutionalists and getting them elected to office, then holding them accountable to the promises they make.”

Tea Party activists have been annoyed by Democratic US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remark last year that the movement is orchestrated and funded by highly placed “astroturf” organizations whose purpose is “to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”

Americans For Prosperity NC publicized last year’s Tea Party event in Greensboro, but earlier this year the loose affiliation of individuals united through Facebook in Conservatives for Guilford County concluded that unless they organized it them selves, there would be no April 15 rally.

“Everybody thought there was going to be a Tax Day Tea Party, and it was going to be at Governmental Plaza,” organizer Isabella Adkins said. “Somehow we realized that nobody was planning it, and we decided we needed to do it.”

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The rhetoric at the Greensboro Tea Party focuses on a sense of aggrieved outrage, a fear of creeping socialism, an exaltation of the Constitution, and the notion that the current leadership lacks legitimacy and is no longer accountable to the people. A sense that the news media is maligning and misrepresenting the Tea Party only antagonizes them further.

“The folks in Washington DC can’t figure out who all you Tea Party people are,” Hyde said to the crowd assembled in the plaza in the perfect springtime early evening. “They keep scratching their heads, wondering: Where did you all come from? Well, if you’re here from the newspaper — and I know you’re here — the television or the radio station, let me make that clear for you. Take out your pencil and write this down: We are Americans.

“The folks in Washington and Raleigh, they think we’re a bunch of extremists….”

Wry laughter rippled from the crowd “… hatemongers…” Several groans came in unison from the audience. “… right wingers…” “Right,” a woman responded with a tone of resignation. “… racists and spitters…” “Woo-hoo.” “Nancy Pelosi says that we’re…” Hyde couldn’t even finish the sentence before the crowd erupted with boos.

“Nancy Pelosi says that we’re ‘unsophisticated cave-dwellers.’” In an e-mail message on Sunday evening, Hyde said he couldn’t say where he got the Pelosi quote. “However, whether she said the specific quote or not, I believe it is her sentiment,” Hyde wrote. “I also believe it is the sentiment of our president, our governor and a lot of other politicians. When I wrote the speech, I did so from my heart, not the research library.”

At the rally, no one seemed to doubt that Pelosi had said it, and wild cheering erupted.

“I take exception to that,” Hyde said. “I’d like to set the record straight with the speaker. I did not evolve out of some cave. I was divinely created by a mighty God.”

An April 16 statement by Phil Berger, Republican leader of the NC Senate, denouncing Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper’s refusal to make the state a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the federal healthcare reform legislation, includes language that comes straight from Tea Party scripture.

“With this decision Attorney General Cooper has made clear that he is unwilling to stand up to Washington mandates that will raise costs, reduce quality and limit the choices of North Carolina families as they seek access to healthcare coverage,” Berger wrote. “If the attorney general is willing to allow the federal government this kind of overreach of its authority, you have to wonder if there is anything he won’t allow Washington to force on North Carolina.”

Howard Coble, the 13-term incumbent who is the target of a fervent cohort of Tea Party-friendly challengers, drafted a letter himself urging the attorney general to join the suit against the federal government.

The lawsuit attacks the requirement that every citizen purchase healthcare insurance mandated in the legislation, arguing that it “represents an unprecedented encroachment on the sovereignty of the states” and “violates the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution and the notion of states’ rights — cited by secessionists in the days leading up the Civil War and resurrected by Strom Thurmond with the segregationist Dixiecrat Party in the mid-20th century — have enjoyed renewed respectability in the national discourse of late.

Bill Randall, an African-American retired Naval commander who is part of a quartet of Republicans vying for their party’s nomination and the opportunity to challenge liberal Democrat Brad Miller in the North Carolina’s 13 th Congressional District in November, told an audience at NC A&T University on April 17: “I’m all for the Tenth Amendment — states’ rights.”

Going beyond the vague term “constitutional conservative,” a handful of other candidates on the ballot in Guilford County aligning themselves with the Tea Party movement embrace the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights, ranging from Coble challenger Cathy Brewer Hinson, who describes herself as “a strong advocate for less big government and more states rights,” and NC Senate District 28 candidate Jeffrey Brommer, who says on his website that “the US government should not stick their noses into bona fide states’ issues.”

Randall said the relative silence within the Tea Party on subsequent constitutional amendments — most notably the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law — should not be taken as an indication that they’re valued any less.

“The Tea Party movement tends to concentrate on the articles of the Constitution that have been significantly downplayed and abused, overemphasized or restricted,” Randall said. “We’re actually touching where it hurts. If there was a movement afoot in Congress to limit firearms, you would see an emphasis on the Second Amendment.”

Charges of racism naturally antagonize members of the Tea

Party movement. Randall, who reminds Tea Party activists that he “was there with all of you during the dark days before Virginia, before New Jersey and before Massachusetts,” said in an interview that in all the rallies he has attended, he has never heard a racial slur.

He tackled the issue of race head-on during the Tea Party rally in Raleigh on April 15.

“Back in the sixties with the civil rights upheaval, those things were wrong and you know that that’s a scourge on America,” he said. “That’s’not the condition of today. The thing I want to tell you is, that situation has been pretty much turned on its head when you have freedom-loving, Constitutionabiding citizens that say, ‘We will not take it,’ and, ‘You will not take this great republic,’ to turn around and be called racists and bigots and every other name. I want equal treatment like white people. Call me a racist. Why don’t you? Why don’t you call me a bigot?” Randall invoked President Kennedy’s declaration that the nation was “confronted with a moral issue” in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and then roughly equated the two movements.

“Patriots who love this nation are being called names that are reprehensible,” he said. “But I’m going to tell you something: We’re going to stand for this country. We’re going to stand for it all the way. We’re not going to relent. Make it known today in Raleigh, North Carolina this day, April 15 in 2010 — we will not be denied.”

The states’ rights argument and the post-bellum civil rights amendments are, of course, densely interwoven with the both the question of race and the gradual expansion of the powers of the federal government.

Peter Irons, author of A People’s History of the Supreme Court, writes that opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, whose language was eventually incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment “charged that it violated the Tenth Amendment, which ‘reserved to the states’ those powers not granted to Congress. Even its advocates recognized the bill’s replacement of state with federal authority. ‘I admit,’ Senator Lot Morill of Maine said, ‘that this species of legislation is absolutely revolutionary. But are we not in the midst of a revolution?’” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, undertaken during the Great Depression, marked a subsequent period when the scope of the federal government dramatically broadened, this time on the basis of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court backed a decision by the National Labor Review Board ordering Jones & Laughlin Steel to rehire 10 fired employees in a landmark 1937 decision, in which the Justice Charles Evans Hughes reasoned that the federal government had the right to intervene in Jones & Laughlin’s labor dispute because “the steel industry is one of the great basic industries of the United States, with ramifying activities affecting interstate commerce at every point.” Five years later, the court upheld the Agricultural Adjustment Act and backed the federal government’s right to impose production controls to maintain a price floor for wheat in another signature New Deal program.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law in March by President Obama was also enacted based on the Commerce Clause.

The talk of states’ rights makes at least one Republican candidate uncomfortable.

Bernie Reeves, the flamboyant and politically conservative publisher of Raleigh Metro Magazine and the founder of Spectator weekly — described as “the first city weekly in the Southeast” — decided to run for Congress in North Carolina’s 13 th Congressional District after forecasting to the NC Bankers Association that the stimulus program would not benefit small business owners.

Like Randall, Reeves is vying for a shot at tangling with Democrat Brad Miller in the November general election. Reeves has retained the services of veteran Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn, who helped arch-conservative Jesse Helms win several US Senate campaigns in the last century.

“The dogmatism is difficult to take,” Reeves said. “I was on a forum for the Tea Party movement, and they asked a question about the Tenth Amendment. The other candidates said, ‘Yes, Tenth Amendment. Yes, we’re going back to states’ rights.’ That kind of ignores history doesn’t it?

“The two documents that founded the United States were the Articles of Confederation, in which the states had complete sovereignty, which did not last and was compromised into the Constitution of the United States,” Reeves continued. “The Tenth Amendment recognized the remaining rights and sovereignty of the states. After that, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments changed the original Tenth Amendment of certain autonomies to where the federal government is the arbiter. I was trying to say at the meeting that there are

people on the far right who want to enforce the Tenth Amendment, and they are not aware that it is limited by the Civil War amendments.”

Reeves shares a belief in common with the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party mainstream in detecting a creeping — or rampaging, as the case may be — socialism in the policy goals of President Obama and the Congressional Democrats, particularly with the passage of the healthcare reform bill.

Observing the political process as he contemplated his run for Congress last year, Reeves said he concluded, “Obama is truly on an agenda that is a socialist construct.”

A general feeling of unease pervades the Tea Party movement connected with a sense that the federal government has exceeded its constitutional limits and the deficit has ballooned to perilous proportions that threaten the stability of the republic and open the door for onerous tax increases. That uncertainty accounts for the proliferation of Republican candidates and is 70 percent of the job creators in America because they shut off their funds because of their concerns over their reserves because of their reckless spending, they think they need to regulate us. I don’t think so, Congress. You just made a big mistake.”

Yow took a jab at Sam Turner, a proponent of universal, single-payer healthcare and the only Democrat in the race.

“Today, ladies and gentlemen,” Yow said, “your kids and grandkids owe the federal government $40,000. Ride by the hospital and go by the maternity ward and look at each and every baby laying in that crib because of irresponsible actions of the — Sam, sorry — Democrats, we are not securing the future for our kids.”

Beyond the notion that Democrats are squandering the future, Randall and Dr. James Taylor — a Moore County anesthesiologist running in the 6 th Congressional District — outline a vision of malevolent forces working towards the destruction of the nation. Both candidates the state of upheaval within the party.

“People are seeing a lot of things over the last few years,”’directly identify with the Tea Party movement.

Taylor said during an interview before the Greensboro Tea Party Wrenn said. “You’ve got the government buying car companies and banks, bailing out Wall Street, a stimulus plan, a national healthcare plan, changes in our war on terrorism. People are plenty worried and not sure where we end up.”

Jon Mangin, one of Howard Coble’s Republican challengers, strikes this chord on his campaign website: “Big government change agents are attempting to force us to accept a socialized system….” Otherwise, some of Mangin’s positions are unorthodox for the Republican Party. For example, he supports making cuts to the military to help balance the budget, and imposing tariffs on countries whose labor and environmental standards fall below those of the United States to offset their ability to produce cheaper goods.

Perhaps no candidate fits the Tea Party mold quite so well as Billy Yow, a Guilford County Commissioner and professional well driller whose fiscal conservatism, plainspoken presentation and defiant style long predates the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“Our government healthcare — they have taken this country in a socialized way like we never dreamed it would go,” Yow thundered before a Tea Party candidate forum in Moore County on April 10. “When a kid has to go to the president or the government to get a loan to go to school, it’s a sad state of affairs. When the government takes over the banking industry and they destroy the small business, which event on April 15 that the mounting debt from entitlements such as Medicare could trigger a societal collapse.

“Part of me makes thinks that’s what the elite power behind this country wants,” Taylor said. “They want the country to collapse so they can take over the banking system.”

While declining to specifically describe what elite is running the country, the candidate mentioned the Federal Reserve, the Bilderberg Group and the Council on Foreign Relations as components of the apparatus.

“We don’t even know who they are,” he said. “There are people up there pulling these strings.”

During a phone interview granted while the candidate drove to a campaign taping session last week, Randall outlined a plot to bring about full-scale socialism in the United States in terms that were far more insistent.

“The government is charged with protecting us from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Randall said. “We have some domestic enemies who are trying to corrupt and destroy us from within. Look at Rules for Radicals [a book written by community organizer Saul Alinsky]: Overwhelm the system and collapse it. They’re doing it right now. It is by design. It is not an accident. You have TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program]. Now they want to move to illegal immigration. Cap and trade is going to be something that’s going to put a stranglehold on things.

“It’s an assault,” Randall continued. “We are under assault right now. We are under siege from within. It’s not an accident. I’m going to call it as it is. They are being open about it, so I’m going to come out and call it as it is. It is not an accident. I believe they would like to see a state of anarchy. Once you get to a state of anarchy, the people who want peace will say, ‘Peace at any cost.’” The ultimate end? “They want absolute power in the hands of a few so that they can take control of things,” Randall said. “I don’t think they would mind seeing things like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, so that all the private companies are controlled by the government, and all the press.”

The Republican Party has not quite figured out how to harness the Tea Party movement, which has largely resisted cooptation and, not counting straw polls, has yet to endorse specific candidates in the Piedmont Triad.

Taylor found himself frustrated after conferring with Bret Riddleberger about Conservatives for Guilford County’s policy of not allowing candidates to speak at the April 15 gathering.

“We want this movement,” Taylor said, “but this movement is saying, ‘We might not want you.’” Rallies are fine, said John Blust, a veteran member of the NC House who is known for his uncompromising conservatism, but lawmakers can easily ignore them after the headlines fade away.

“They have to get involved in winning elections,” Blust said. “They need to be campaigning, working and organizing at the precinct level. I think it’s going to be time for people to roll up their sleeves and go to work.”

Many of the Tea Party faithful are likely already active voters, and it’s difficult to gauge whether the rallies will do anything to expand the rolls of registered Republicans. Some evidence to support the notion that the Tea Party movement has enhanced Republican voter registration comes from a recent analysis by the John W. Pope Civitas Institute in Raleigh, which found that the GOP added 960 new voters across the state from March 6 through April 10, while Democratic registration dropped 3,648 during the same period. Yet new Republican registrations were dwarfed by the addition of 12,199 new unaffiliated voters.

The long-term trends appear to be more favorable for Democrats. Between 2003 and 2010, the Republicans have lost percentage share in every legislative district that includes any part of Forsyth and Guilford counties, while the same districts have increased their share of unaffiliated voters. Democrats, meanwhile, have made modest to dramatic gains in most districts that already leaned their way and have even expanded their share in NC House District 61, which is currently uncontested Republican territory.

Since the slaughter of 2008, local party organizations such as the one in Guilford County have adopted a long-term strategy for rebuilding.

“A lot of the problems in 2008 were that they [President Bush and the Republican majority] blew it with the spending policies and lack of fiscal restraint,” Guilford County Republican Party Chairman Bill Wright said. “That was the public taking the party to the woodshed and spanking them. And deservedly so.

“The trend for awhile will be unaffiliated voters who don’t want to be bound to either party,” Wright continued. “But I believe that if the Republicans win a majority in the General Assembly and in Congress and they govern with fiscal conservatism, then I think you will see a movement back to Republican registration. I think most people, now that they’ve been bitten by both parties, they’re anti-party structure.”

The Tea Party movement has made a dramatic appearance on the political stage by finessing a creative tension between party discipline and unruly insurgency, but one wonders whether an uncomfortable moment of truth is at hand.

Staying neutral risks forfeiting an impact on the May 4 Republican primary, but laying down its banners of independence might mean surrendering the movement’s vitality. For now, the battle continues.

“This is war,” Randall said at the Raleigh Tea Party rally. “Sound the alarm. This is not an accident. They’re trying to take our country down. And we are not going to stand for it.”

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