Tea Party Star Leads Movement On Her Own Terms

Keli Carender attends a tea party protest in February 2009.

hide captionKeli Carender attends a Tea Party protest in February 2009.

Courtesy of Keli Carender

The National Tea Party convention is on Thursday — though it's probably more accurate to call it a Tea Party convention, not the Tea Party convention.

But despite the convention, questions remain for the fledgling movement: Where is it heading? And can the Tea Party become a unified organization?

Liberty Belle: Rising Tea Party Star

Keli Carender, blogger, teacher and star of the movement, organized some of the earliest Tea Party-style protests — before they were even called Tea Party protests. As far back as February of 2009, Carender held a rally against the economic stimulus package in downtown Seattle.

She built a following, and by Tax Day, she had more than 1,000 demonstrators in downtown Seattle. Dressed as Alice in Wonderland, Carender took the stage and channeled Janis Joplin with her rendition of "Obama, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz." The song was YouTube gold.

But her most viral video came last August during the health care town hall protests. In this one, Carender is at a microphone, holding up a $20 bill, challenging Democratic Congressman Norm Dicks of Washington to come get it.

"You come and take this $20 from me," Carender said, "and take it as a down payment for the health care plan!"

Not Your Typical Tea Partier

Months later, that clip still makes Carender smile.

"I tried to boil down in essence what makes me so angry about it," Carender says. "And it was this idea that he and other people decide what the needs are in society. They get to decide. But in order to fund those things, they have to take from some people in order to give to the other people."

Carender is not the stereotypical Tea Partier. She's classic Seattle — hipster glasses, a couple of tattoos, that certain Northwestern fashion sense. She even works for a nonprofit, teaching math and resume-writing to low-income adults. But when it comes to politics, she doesn't really fit Democratic-leaning Seattle — and she knows it.

"I was at a place watching the Scott Brown results, and some of us were cheering it on," Carender says. "And this guy comes over and says, 'Why? Why the bizarre reaction to this?'"

Carender seems to enjoy getting a rise out of people. In her spare time, she does improv comedy. She also likes the social aspect of politics. When asked for an interview, she suggested meeting at the Young Republicans Happy Hour, which she really didn't want to miss.

Young Republicans like Jennifer Fetters are somewhat in awe at Carender's ability to rally a crowd.

"It sounded totally cool, but totally out of my league," Fetters says. "So I was impressed that she was willing to start up something like this."

Rejecting Republicans

Still, there's a potential ideological divide. Most of the young people at this Happy Hour are Republicans, first and foremost, who happen to support the Tea Party movement. For Carender, it's the other way around.

"I think the Tea Party part of me is going to stay," Carender says. "And I think the Republican part of me is the more flexible part."

Republican party leaders would very much like to harness the Tea Party energy. Just last week, former Congressman Dick Armey's organization "Freedom Works" invited Carender and dozens of other Tea Party organizers to Washington for training and networking sessions.

But Tea Partiers don't want to be harnessed. They've shown a willingness to reject Republican candidates they don't like. On the other hand, they're not about to start their own national political party, as evidenced by the backlash within the Tea Party against the Nashville convention. It's a movement without a central organization, and Carender likes it that way.

"If you have a machine, you know exactly how to attack it, exactly how to shut it down," she says. "If you have 3 million machines coming at you, you don't know where to turn."

Carender was scheduled to speak at the convention, but the controversy over the event has given her second thoughts. With only two days to go, she still doesn't know if she'll attend. She says she'd hate to waste her airline ticket, but she's less concerned about missing an opportunity to network and spread the word.

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