Tea Party Activists Harness Anger To Push Message Ten months after the Tea Party movement formed, organizers are trying to figure out how best to capture the angry energy that has fueled their protests. In Dallas, the local party is trying to locate like-minded, fiscally conservative people, educate them about future candidates — and make sure they get to the polls.
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Tea Party Activists Harness Anger To Push Message

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Tea Party Activists Harness Anger To Push Message

Tea Party Activists Harness Anger To Push Message

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, a report from Dallas on what's become of a phenomenon that commanded a lot of attention earlier this year: the Tea Party. The first we heard of the Tea Party movement, it was all tantrum, rant and hyperbole. CNBC's Rick Santelli, surrounded by angry traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, incensed at the government bailouts back in February.

Mr. RICK SANTELLI (Reporter, CNBC): You want to...

Unidentified Trader: We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July.

SIEGEL: Then invoking the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, rallies of protesters bursting with anger at the TARP, the stimulus and taxes in several cities, among them Dallas.

(Soundbite of protesters)

SIEGEL: Even the occasional leap from protest to intimations of rebellion.

Ms. KATRINA PEARSON (Dallas Tea Party): And if I had my way, Texas would close the borders and secede from the nation.

(Soundbite of cheers)

SIEGEL: That's the sort of thing that got Tea Parties noticed on talk radio, on cable television and on the evening news. Well, now Tea Party movements around the country are trying to figure out what to do with the angry energy behind those protests. In Dallas, the Tea Party is evolving into a grassroots conservative network that local candidates for office have to pay attention to, especially Republicans. You could see an example of what they were up to last week outside Legacy Books in Plano, Texas.

JANE EVANS(ph): And we're trying to collect signatures for the Dallas Tea Party here. All we're asking for is your ZIP code�

SIEGEL: Jan Evans was canvassing a crowd that was waiting for Sarah Palin's book-signing. Palin's arrival was still three hours off. The temperature was in the 30s, and the crowd already exceeded a couple of hundred.

B.J. BJORKLAND(ph): Did you sign up for the Tea Party already? I saw you with this lady.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.


SIEGEL: That's B.J. Bjorkland(ph) of nearby Frisco, Texas. This is all in the northern part of the Dallas Metroplex.

B.J. BJORKLAND: Are you in a Tea Party now?

Unidentified Man #2: No, but I would like to help.

SIEGEL: B.J. Bjorkland was one of about 70 Tea Party activists at a dinner meeting the night before. It was at Spring Creek Barbecue in Richardson. Bjorkland and the others are ZIP code coordinators for more than 30 ZIP codes in the Dallas area. At the dinner, they got a briefing on the health-care bill in Washington, which they seemed to oppose unanimously as a government takeover of health care. And they got guidance on how to register and canvass voters for the coming Texas primaries on March 2nd.

Mr. KEN EMANUELSON: All right. It's 7 o'clock and so we're going to - I promised everybody we'd get started on time, so we're going to go ahead and try to do our best to do that. First of all, I would like to welcome all of you to this meeting tonight. For those of you that don't know me, my name is Ken Emanuelson, and I am the guy that sends you all those emails.

SIEGEL: Ken Emanuelson is a 38-year-old patent lawyer and a veteran of many conservative Republican campaigns. Last year, he says, he was a Fred Head: a coordinator for Fred Thompson's unsuccessful presidential effort. Here is the mission for these Tea Party coordinators as Emanuelson sees it: Locate like-minded, fiscally conservative voters in their ZIP codes, educate them about the candidates, and make sure they get to the polls - not just in the general election, in the primaries.

Mr. EMANUELSON: If you plan on doing something in November of next year and that's when you're going to get started to get things back on track, you're going to find that most of your options are foreclosed. If you want to have a real say in the direction that our - especially in the state legislature - of the direction things go, you need to be focused on three months from today. That's March 2nd.

SIEGEL: The Dallas Tea Party has five principles: limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, the rule of law and national sovereignty. It's creating scorecards for candidates on issues that express those principles. But calling it a party is a misnomer. It doesn't run candidates of its own, and it doesn't even endorse candidates - a strategy that doesn't sit well with Jane Mozer(ph), a 38-year-old school teacher from Garland, Texas, and an activist from ZIP code 75043. She was also at the barbecue dinner.

Ms. JANE MOZER: How come we're not sticking together? I think that's a big mistake.

Mr. EMANUELSON: Well, and we've had a lot of discussion about that. We have. And that's been a point of contention. Some people say we should be more aligned with one party or the other. Some people say we should be nonpartisan. Some people say we should be not endorsing candidates, some people say we should. And I'll tell you, folks, the verdict was, as far as getting closer to, say, the Republican Party, the verdict was almost unanimous: no. We should not cleave any closer to the Republican Party. We should maintain our independent status.

SIEGEL: I met Ken Emanuelson for a lunch at a downtown Dallas cafe, where he talked about the Tea Party movement. He says the model for success of the Dallas Tea Party's nonpartisan, nonprofit role was the race for Congress in New York's 23rd congressional district. People like him contributed to the conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman, and opposed the moderate Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava. Hoffman didn't win - he came close - but Scozzafava lost. Tea Party members applaud Sarah Palin for backing Hoffman, and they criticized Newt Gingrich for saying the Republicans need moderates like Scozzafava.

Mr. EMANUELSON: That will be a little bit of a litmus test.

SIEGEL: Remember New York 23.

Mr. EMANUELSON: Yes, where were you on New York 23?

SIEGEL: That will be a ralling cry.

Mr. EMANUELSON: Exactly. And I think the next one is going to be the Florida Senate primary on the Republican side. There's some folks who have stepped up and backed Crist. That's going to be sort of an albatross around their neck if they're seeking support from that center-right coalition.

SIEGEL: This is where Governor Charlie Crist is running for the Republican Senate nomination, is being challenge by the former speaker of the state house, Marco Rubio.

Mr. EMANUELSON: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Who was really the favorite of many conservative groups, right?

Mr. EMANUELSON: Absolutely. We talk a lot about issues where, say, the Tea Party movement may have divisions within it on where to go, here or there, but when you come to a case like Florida, 10 out of 10 Tea Partiers are going to be backing Rubio.

SIEGEL: And now back to the Tea Party dinner at Spring Creek Barbecue.

Mr. EMANUELSON: Without anything else, I'm going to go and hand this off Lorie.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Lorie Medina is an emerging leader of the Dallas Tea Party.

Ms. LORIE MEDINA (Dallas Tea Party): Like Ken said, if you've got any emails�did you have a good day at school?

Unidentified Child: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MEDINA: What's that thing you're carrying?

Unidentified Child: It's almost Christmas and�

SIEGEL: She is a 43-year-old, stay-at-home mother from Frisco, Texas. I visited with her as she drove her two young daughters home from the local Christian school.

Ms. MEDINA: Oh, so every day? Is that what -

Unidentified Child: Yeah.

Ms. MEDINA: OK. So, do you want put it in your room or�

SIEGEL: Lorie is the daughter of a Baptist preacher from Missouri. She went to Baylor, then worked in telecommunications. That was when she met her husband, a retired West Point Army officer. He now runs a small telecom company of his own. Lorie Medina is a lifelong conservative, a Reagan voter and early subscriber to The Weekly Standard. She is thoroughly pro-life, but she says that her work as a Tea Party organizer is focused on a narrower, fiscal conservatism, which she says appeals to many people who disagree on other matters.

Ms. MEDINA: We have people that are Republicans. We have people that are Democrats. We have people that are independents. We have people that are nothing, that have never considered themselves anything. We have such a broad spectrum of individuals that have joined our movement. I think for the very reason that we are not tied to a party is what has interested them in being part of our organization.

SIEGEL: One association that your detractors from afar have with the Tea Parties is rowdiness. It's being willing to shout down other people.

Ms. MEDINA: Yes, definitely, definitely anger. I think some people were scared. They're scared about where the country is going, and so I think it was a lot of emotions that erupted this last summer. And I think if the politicians think that that was the end of it, I think they've got another thing coming.

SIEGEL: Is Barack Obama a lightning rod for all this? I mean, does he infuriate the people who�

Ms. MEDINA: Yes.

SIEGEL: Yes. Why? What it is about him that annoys people so much?

Ms. MEDINA: You know, it's like I wake up every morning, and there's something new on the news that's upsetting that I read about that he does. I mean, if you said, Lorie, list for me everything that he has done that has upset you since he's become president, I don't think there's any way I could list it all. There's so much. You know, the fact that he apologizes for our country every time he goes overseas. I don't know that I've ever heard him say anything good about America. If you look at the way he speaks, the way you - he talks about our country, if you look at the programs and the things he tries to put into place, it really appears that he does not love our country like most Americans do � and like past presidents do.

Anyway, thank you all so much and again, appreciate all the work that you guys do on a daily basis. And anyway, just please keep me in my mind if you know of anybody. Thanks.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: If Lorie Medina and Ken Emanuelson are people with the sort of background you might expect for this group. Katrina Pearson is anything but. Even so, she's one of three steering committee members of the Dallas Tea Party, and she was one of the speakers at last week's dinner.

Ms. PEARSON: �last couple of weeks, but I really encourage all of you to have at least one ZIP code meeting before the holidays to take all this information, gather all�

SIEGEL: Katrina Pearson is the woman we heard at the beginning of this story, in what she now regards as a moment of dramatic overstatement: talking about Texas seceding from the union. That was at the party's April 15th rally. A video of her speech went viral.

Mr. PEARSON: Do you know the diagnosis code? Did you link all your goals?

SIEGEL: Katrina Pearson is an administrator at a Dallas hospital. She's 32 and African-American, the daughter of an absentee black father and a white teenage mother. Last winter, she was laid off, and she was appalled at the Bush administration's bank bailout and the incoming Obama administration's philosophy.

Ms. PEARSON: I just remember sitting on my couch and watching the news and just - I literally took off my flip flops and started throwing them.

Ms. PEARSON: I just remember sitting on my couch and watching the news and just - I literally took off my flip flops and started throwing them.

Ms. PEARSON: Statistically I should be, you know, with two or three other children, maybe a couple of different men, in, you know, some run-down apartment on the other side. Statistically that is what it is. That's what gets me, and that's what keeps me moving in the Tea Party movement - is because I -that is the welfare state. That is the redistribution of wealth. And to think that the country can go through a redistribution of wealth is just - I just can't, I just can't.

SIEGEL: Katrina Pearson was inspired to contact the Dallas Tea Party by a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. She is the extremely rare black member of the group. One question for the Dallas Tea party is how well it can focus public anger on fiscal policy as opposed to a broader right-wing agenda. The party's principles of limited government, sovereignty and the rule of law extend to gun rights, immigration policy, and opposition to a global warming treaty. Dallas Tea Party leaders say the party's concerns do not include Barack Obama's birth certificate or Texas secession. But they are respectful of those causes, and that respect may make them less palatable to social moderates who are also fiscally conservative. The Dallas Tea Party claims more than 14,000 members, and that could be enough to influence the direction of the Republican Party in typically low turnout primaries for state and local office. That is precisely what Ken Emanuelson told the coordinators who showed up at Spring Creek Barbecue.

Mr. EMANUELSON: Everything we do needs to be about getting people to the polls that agree with our points of view, and to help those candidates that are aligned with our five principles. That's what we have to be focused on and if we do that job, we're going to make headlines. We're going to make some history.

SIEGEL: If not, he said, the Dallas Tea Party will go down as just another group of paper tigers.

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