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The tea party roared and the nation noticed; now what?

RICHMOND, Va.

From tense town hall meetings in Tampa to sprawling demonstrations outside the Capitol in Washington, the tea party has exploded from nothing into a political force already affecting the midterm election cycle. ¶ But the venom driving this early success often overshadows the message. The legions are angry, that is clear. Less understood is why.

The answer can be found on a patch of grass and dirt on a sweltering evening in Richmond, Va., where over Subway and Miss Vickie's kettle chips 50 people came together to preach a common distrust and fear, one that used to keep Wanda Wall up at night.

"Literally, I could not sleep," the 53-year-old middle school French teacher said.

"I found myself getting angry and depressed. Government was growing so large. Spending was getting out of control and the bailouts. Basically it's a disrespect for the Constitution. I'm really afraid for my rights." She worries the government will crack down on free speech to smother criticism about its growing role in everyday life.

Wall, a friendly woman with streaks of auburn through her short gray hair, had never been involved in politics. But then Barack Obama was elected and he started up with the stimulus and health care. The tea party is her sedative, and her adrenaline.

"It's made me a better American," she says. "It's made me a better teacher. I'm a more responsible, engaged citizen. And that's really what democracy's supposed to be."

There were many stories like hers in the park on Flag Day. Alarmed by the national debt, now at $13 trillion, taxes and mandatory health care coverage, a segment of America has found a voice in the tea party.

They stand together as a movement and as individualists, convinced the government has made people too dependent and is trying to take over the free market.

"Socialism isn't cool," read a bumper sticker in the parking lot.

Running through it all is a concern about the economy, either their own struggles or fear for the future.

"I can remember watching the stock market tumble every day, watching our 401(k) and thinking how are we going to put our kids through college, pay for weddings?" said Jamie Radtke, who homeschools her three children and is president of Richmond Tea Party, which has a mailing list of 7,000 people.

About 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as tea party supporters. Ninety-two percent believe Obama is moving the country toward socialism, an opinion shared by more than half of the general public, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

• • •

The vocal minority has been heard — elevating awareness of the debt in Washington, sowing concern over the new health care law. And it's translating into election success, starting with the boost to Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

In Utah, activists forced Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett out of office, largely because of his support for the bank bailout. "Their message is 'Leave me alone, get out of my way,' " said Bennett, who feels the economy more than anything is driving the angst.

In Kentucky, Rand Paul won the Republican Senate primary on a tea party platform of cutting spending and raising the age of Social Security eligibility.

In Nevada, tea party favorite Sharron Angle emerged as the Republican challenger to Sen. Harry Reid. She wants to eliminate the federal departments of education and energy.

And in Florida, Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate campaign got a jolt from tea party enthusiasts, helping him force Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican primary on a strong antistimulus message.

"It's being driven by everyday people," said Rubio, who has attended eight tea party events in Florida. "I think there's also sentiments among the tea party that have existed in America for quite some time, but the emergence of social media has allowed anybody to become an organizer. In essence, any individual now can reach thousands of people with the click of a mouse."

Still, the success is early and limited. Some Republicans worry the hard pull to the right will alienate voters once primaries are over. And despite some high-profile victories, the movement has struggled elsewhere. In the crowded Republican primary to take on U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, candidates who identify themselves with the tea party have failed to gain traction.

"It's more noise than numbers," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The fine line exists for Rubio, who has gained national attention for his ties to the group. His photo was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in January under the headline, "The First Senator From the Tea Party?" But as the buzz grew, Rubio made sure he was not too closely associated.

"Let me back you up on that for just a second," he told a CNBC host who identified him as a tea party senator. "When you talk about the tea party, remember, I'm a Republican."

• • •

The movement has roots in Florida.

In February 2009, a Michigan native who lost her job in the auto industry and moved to Fort Myers got a few people to hold signs at the stimulus rally Obama held in her new town, Crist at his side. "Real Jobs, Not Pork," read one of Mary Rakovich's signs.

Rakovich, as the Palm Beach Post reported, got interested in politics after hearing anti-America comments from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, and wound up at an activist training seminar in Tampa put on by the conservative group FreedomWorks.

The group, run by former Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey, has provided organizational support to the tea party movement and helped stage its biggest protest in Washington. Critics say this undercuts the notion that the tea party is truly grass roots.

"We're a service center for the movement," acknowledged spokesman Adam Brandon. But he said converts are coming in droves because of genuine worry about the size of government. "They get it in their gut, this sense of fairness."

Rakovich's tiny protest earned a spot on Fox News Channel, and a week later, the movement took off when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli took to the airwaves with a rant against mortgage bailouts.

Now there are hundreds of tea party groups across the country, and like-minded organizations such as the 9/12 Patriots inspired by TV host Glenn Beck.

Populist uprisings have existed since the original Tea Party. Some have spun into militias or fizzled into a web of conspiracy theories. Participants in the current rebellion push against the conventional two-party system but their views align with conservative Republicans.

Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla wrote in an essay last month in the New York Review of Books, "It was galvanized by three things: A financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs and savings; the Obama administration's decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the president himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media."

The mood has been brewing for decades, Lilla wrote, with many Americans convinced that educated elites are controlling their lives, from what their children should be taught to which guns they can buy and when they have to wear seat belts.

In Richmond, tea party member Paula Nachman lamented that Obama's health care reform push was a ruse to dictate how much salt and saturated fat is in food, and how much exercise one must do. "It was never about health. It was all about control," she said.

"If I want to go to McDonald's and have extra salt on my French fries every now and again," Nachman said, "it's nobody's business but mine."

The attitude is strikingly prevalent. The Pew Research Center found in April that 57 percent of people who identify with the tea party say the federal government represents a major threat to their personal rights and freedoms, versus 30 percent of the total public.

And 71 percent said the government has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives, compared with 43 percent of the public.

"A lot of it has been this fear that folks are being displaced, they are slipping in society," said Christopher Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington who has studied the tea party.

• • •

Noise and anger have brought the tea party this far — now there is a yearning to stand for something more.

Radtke, president of the Richmond tea party, is part of a nationwide push for a more structured organization. As group members ate a picnic dinner in the park on Flag Day, Radtke called for reaching out to small business to spread the message. She talked about a statewide convention a month before the November elections to mobilize and to energize.

The coalition is getting training on how to lobby the Virginia General Assembly and is putting together legislative proposals.

Radtke, 36, describes the movement as bigger than the current administration. "I'm always very leery for people to try to make this about Obama," she said, explaining conservatives were not happy with John McCain, either.

Her group includes a black committee chairman who is reaching out to the minority community and working to dispel the "myths" of the media.

Mostly she is looking to keep the momentum going. "Anytime you have a populist movement, you have a fear it's going to fade out," she said, her red T-shirt displaying the American flag.

"We can advance things and not just protest with picket signs," she said. "We don't want to lose that, that's who we are. But we want to have a proactive agenda."

The crowd nodded in approval then gave her a round of applause.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

Correction: President Barack Obama's former pastor is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. An earlier version of this story misidentified him.

A series of occasional stories exploring the policy, the politics and the people driving the 2010 elections. Read previous stories at links.tampabay.com.

The tea party roared and the nation noticed; now what? 06/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 11:30am]

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