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Florida politics haven't been the same since a fleeting bipartisan semi-hug between President Obama and Gov. Charlie Crist at a stimulus rally in Fort Myers one year ago today.
National politics have changed as well — and the same Fort Myers event provided a little-noticed sneak preview of the tea party protests that have since altered that landscape.
Outside the Harborside Event Center that day was a woman named Mary Rakovich who was fresh off a few hours of activist training from the Washington-based conservative group FreedomWorks. She had recruited six to 10 people to carry signs ridiculing the stimulus bill that Obama and Crist were promoting inside.
The stimulus foes were outnumbered by anti-abortion protesters. But they attracted the notice of Fox News, and Rakovich was interviewed live that afternoon.
Nine days later, with CNBC's Rick Santelli's rant heard 'round the world, the term "tea party" would become indelibly attached to such protests.
Even without the label, some now-familiar elements of the tea party movement were present that day in Fort Myers: citizen outrage at federal spending, some coaching from a national conservative organization and the validating presence of cable TV cameras.
"It was actually the first protest of President Obama's administration that we know of. It was the first protest of what became the tea party movement," said Brendan Steinhauser, the director of state and federal campaigns for FreedomWorks.
FreedomWorks, chaired by lobbyist and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, has been an influential presence in the tea party movement, offering training and advice and maintaining contact with thousands of activists across the nation.
Despite the national group's role, Rakovich and other activists say their protests are authentic and homegrown.
"It's all real people — just regular everyday people," said Rakovich, who since her Fort Myers debut has organized rallies in Lee County that drew hundreds.
"This is true grass-roots," says Tom Gaitens, an Apollo Beach commodities trader who said he gets paid $250 a month as a FreedomWorks organizer in Florida.
"I don't hold anybody's hand. I don't light a fire. … The fire's already there. We just help provide some direction to the flames," Gaitens said.
Rakovich, 52, is a Michigan native who moved to Fort Myers in 2006 after being laid off from an electrical engineer's job in the auto industry. She said she never paid much attention to politics until 2008, when she became alarmed by the anti-American pronouncements of then-candidate Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Her interest soon expanded to other issues, including concern about federal deficits and debt and an embrace of limited-government philosophy. She volunteered for GOP presidential nominee John McCain's campaign, though she wished McCain were more conservative.
She also discovered FreedomWorks on the Internet and learned the group was putting on a training seminar for activists in Tampa in January 2009. Rakovich and her husband, Ron, joined about 80 people for the 2½ -hour session. They got advice on writing letters to the editor, calling talk radio shows and preparing press releases. Aspiring activists were also encouraged to use Facebook and Twitter and social-networking sites to organize communities of "like-minded people."
Less than two weeks after the seminar, the White House announced Obama's trip to Fort Myers, his second outside-the-Beltway public appearance as president.
Rakovich said she and her husband were debating whether to organize a protest when Steinhauser called to encourage them.
"He gave me the real confidence to do it," Rakovich said. "He said, 'If you get two of you, you're good to go.' "
Rakovich said she stayed up late the night before Obama's appearance, reading up on specific provisions of the stimulus bill and hand-lettering signs. She said Steinhauser and Gaitens advised her to focus on policy rather than Obama.
"Real Jobs, Not Pork" said one sign, with a photo of a pig on it. Other signs said "Stop Selling Our Children's Future" and "Not Pork? $850 Million for Amtrak."
The fact that there were fewer than a dozen protesters didn't matter, Gaitens said.
"The size was never as important as being there. The reality is, if no one shows up, people believe it's 100 percent approval. If a handful of protesters show up, then there's a juxtaposition of one side versus another," Gaitens said.
Rakovich talked to some local reporters during the day and gave out her cellphone number. Then, after Obama and Crist had left and as she was preparing to go home, someone from Fox News called asking to set up a live interview.
Rakovich's brief appearance on national TV encouraged other activists around the United States and helped build early momentum for tea party protests, Steinhauser said.
"That was the beginning of the whole thing — people watching what other people were doing and saying, 'Hey, I can do that, too,' " Steinhauser said.
A year after her debut as a protest organizer, Rakovich plans to return to the Harborside Event Center tonight. FreedomWorks Chairman Armey will be there for a rally with Marco Rubio, who has criticized Republican U.S. Senate primary rival Crist for his stimulus cheerleading last year.
Pondering the tea party movement's growth over the past year from a few protesters to a potent political force, Rakovich said: "I feel good that I've had a part in helping people understand that they can do something."