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Harrisburg — The Pennsylvania Tea Party took its message of limited government to this capital city Saturday.
Hundreds of protesters from regional groups that came from as far as the Ohio and New Jersey borders gathered at Harrisburg's City Island early yesterday afternoon for a march through the city to the Capitol.
Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," blared over a loud speaker as the protesters, a mixed bag of blue jean-clad participants sprinkled with some activists in camouflage and colonial garb, signed petitions and waved flags while they waited to march. A handful of people wore holstered handguns.
"Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?" they chanted in response to organizer Diana Reimer as she called the group to action with a bullhorn.
The Tax Enough Already Party — TEA — that grew out of a series of April 15 Tax Day rallies, joined forces with more than three-dozen like-minded regional groups, for its first march on Harrisburg. Capitol police estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 protesters ultimately massed on the Capitol steps where the march ended.
Some protesters held balloons emblazoned with the message "vote Libertarian," while others handed out stickers for Republican Pat Toomey's Senate campaign and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey's Freedom Works organization. Others wore buttons supporting former Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and many carried homemade signs protesting everything from abortion to gun control.
Jeff Foutz, a 39-year-old computer circuit board drafter from Washington, Pa., drove 200 miles to attend the rally. While Foutz waved a yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag, his 15-year-old son, Tom, carried a blue banner identifying his father's small group as being part of the Washington, PA 9/12 Project, an organization that attended the Sept. 12 march on Washington.
Earlier this month, Foutz traveled to the nation's capital to protest the proposed health-care overhaul.
"There's too much special interest money influencing our elected officials. We need to put people in office who are responsive to the people, not the special interests," Foutz said, as a rapper on the state Capitol steps urged the protesters to take back their government.
Hundreds signed a petition to Gov. Ed Rendell condemning, among a number of issues, his calls for higher taxes, and the state's decision to funnel a portion of casino taxes for special development projects rather than property tax reduction.
Elected officials, many protesters complained, are out of touch with the people who elected them.
Kathleen McCann, 54, of Linglestown, a small community near Harrisburg, said she is a registered Democrat, but she is fed up with her party and with Congress.
"I'm one of those people just waking up. I hate the double standard. (Congress) has the best health care in the world. ... My pension got cut. Maybe their pensions should get cut too," she said.
Jim Wicker, 54, of Punxsutawney came to the march with about 20 friends.
"They're spending our money. We're calling them, we're faxing them. We're marching on them. They're just not listening," said Wicker, who was wearing a "2010 vote out all incumbents" button.
Jeff Coleman of Churchill Strategies is a former state lawmaker turned conservative political consultant. He said the challenge for political candidates next year will be to tap into the energy such rallies generate.
"The logical conclusion is at the ballot box," said Coleman, watching as speaker after speaker stepped to the microphone to address the crowd on the Capitol steps.
Coleman said political professionals have quietly been asking, "Is this a mature-enough movement that it could elect a governor or a senator?"
Although the Tea Party is conservative, leaders stress that they've made no party alliances. They're bidding for a place at the table when public policy is on the menu.
Reimer said the group will hold sessions in Harrisburg this week to instruct members on how to lobby their elected officials.
Although Armey, the planned keynote speaker for the event, bowed out after a flight delay in Philadelphia, Reimer was buoyed by yesterday's turnout.
"I'm very happy. The people are happy and that makes me happy," the Philadelphia woman said.