Barbara Haselden has a pocket U.S. Constitution booklet, a Liberty Bell figurine and a distrust for the establishment media, politicians and political parties. The tea party organizer from St. Petersburg woke up a day after the election to find out that she's not alone. Fueled partly by tea party energy, conservatives swept to wins in the Nov. 2 election. "It was a relief," said Haselden, 58.
Local Republicans single out people like her for helping their party take over legislative and county races — "no doubt," Pinellas Republican chairman J.J. Beyrouti said on election night.
Not that he or other leaders should settle into complacency, thinking Haselden is now forever comfortable in her belief that the country is safe. She espouses a view that America is at risk — whether it's rising entitlement spending, immigration or corruption — and conservatism is the only solution. She supports the unorthodox view of repealing the 17th Amendment — the one giving voters the choice of a U.S. senator but allowing governors interim replacement. Why? It opens up corruption and takes away state rights.
Is the country corrupt, a reporter asked.
She paused to choose her words carefully. "I think the corruption is pretty widespread. I think a lot of the most corrupt ones lost elections, or at least they did Tuesday. But they're still there. There's plenty of snakes in the woodpile."
Some Democrats accuse tea party activists like Haselden of fear-mongering at the expense of the facts, such as President Barack Obama's birthplace. But after last week's election, they acknowledge that the party reflected the most strident end of public anxiety, causing Democrats to lose and upending efforts like Hillsborough County's sales tax referendum to build light rail.
"I think one of the issues out there is that there is a real frustration, a real frustration, with government," said Ramsay McLauchlan, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.
Haselden, an Indiana native who moved to Florida in 1987, is a registered Republican who wasn't that involved in politics until recently.
"I held a sign for Ross Perot years ago on Gandy Boulevard," she said, "and then I woke up the next morning and said, 'Oh, my God, what did I do?' "
In the previous decade, she didn't contributed to a single Florida campaign. She wrote a few letters to the editor, one supporting Jeb Bush and another bashing Hillary Clinton. This year, she gave $70 to newly elected state Rep. Larry Ahern. He was a favorite of her tea party group, whose leaders include Ahern's wife, Maureen.
But Haselden, a mother and grandmother who works in the insurance industry, heard TV and radio host Glenn Beck's call to act, and she went for it. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the McCain-Obama presidential race, the economy and federal bailouts were too much for her, she said.
She attended her first South Pinellas 9/12 Patriots meeting at Ferg's sports bar in March 2009. She said 200 people came. Now, 940 people are members.
The South Pinellas 9/12 Patriots website warns against the "hijacking of our government" and says you're not alone in fearing for the future of the country. Message board posts trade on Obama and the mosque near ground zero.
"If You Are Tired of Yelling at the TV, You Have Come to the Right Place!" the front page shouts.
But even some of her tea party kindred spirits can make her say "whoa!" — like when former Florida House candidate Marg Baker suggested illegal immigrants be forced into camps.
Indeed, the extreme examples of tea party members worried some Republicans and left some Democrats dismissing them as more noise than results. Then the results appeared Nov. 2.
"Can you hear us now?" Haselden asked, smiling.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.