The “tea party” movement quickly came to a boil and before you knew it the incredible started happening.
A Republican took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. The GOP governor of Florida was forced to run as an independent for the Senate. An establishment conservative Republican senator in Utah was run out of the reelection campaign. A libertarian with curious ideas won the Kentucky GOP Senate primary against the party leadership’s favored candidate.
Now with tea partiers flexing more muscle in Republican Senate primaries coming June 8 in Nevada and California, and a Republican House primary the same day in the Hampton Roads area, it seems worth asking: How did it all begin? Who dropped in the first bag of something strong, steeped the potent brew — and inquired of the powers that be: “One lump or two?”
That would be Mary Rakovich, 53, an unemployed automotive engineer, an anti-abortion vegetarian with nine cats and a dog and a fierce concern about where this country is heading. She has two bad hips and so attends demonstrations with a walker. A yellow sticker on the back of her Chevy TrailBlazer warns: “CAUTION: Right-Wing Extremist onboard.”
On Feb. 10, 2009, Rakovich and her husband, Ron, took a cooler of water and a few signs they had made the night before — “Real Jobs Not Pork,” “Stop Stealing Our Children’s Future,” etc. — and went down to a convention center in Fort Myers, Fla., near where they lived. President Obama was holding one of the first town hall meetings since his inauguration. Rakovich objected to the $787 billion stimulus plan, which looked to her like an expensive, misguided big-government overreach.
Rakovich had never been to a protest before, much less organized one, and she didn’t know much about how to do it. She and her husband had been laid off from automotive contract jobs in Detroit and moved to Fort Myers to take care of Ron’s parents in 2006. The couple had married in 2002 and they have eight children from previous marriages living outside the house.
Before her first protest, Rakovich sent out some e-mails, tweets and Facebook messages, and she called a conservative radio program. She wondered if anyone would show up.
One person did. Julie Flynt, now 50, a software instructor who supports abortion rights, drove from the other side of the state to join the demonstration. A few other sympathizers floated by, but they seemed reluctant to hold signs.
The three demonstrators waved their placards and tried to engage Obama supporters in conversation as the supporters waited to go inside for the town hall. The conversations were civil, Rakovich says.
“When it was basically over, I got a phone call from national Fox News,” Rakovich recalls. “They wanted to know if I would go on Neil Cavuto. And I’m like, huh? Prior to this event, I had never spoken to the press regarding anything, ever.”
Over the next seven days, incrementally larger protests broke out in Seattle (estimated more than 100 people), Denver (nearly 300) and Mesa, Ariz. (500). Then on Feb. 19, another signal moment: The movement got its name.
It sprang from the lips of Rick Santelli during the CNBC on-air editor’s spontaneous combustion on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, reacting to the mortgage bailout plan: “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? . . . President Obama, are you listening? . . . We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party. . . . “
Santelli’s unscripted performance was a million-plus YouTube hit. Within hours, the tea party label was adopted by conservative activists.
On Feb. 27, the first protests styled as “tea party” actions took place in more than two dozen cities. Another series occurred on tax day, April 15, and another around July 4.
The largest tea party rally took place in Washington on Sept. 12, when tens of thousands of demonstrators marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and rallied outside the Capitol.
Now 27 percent of Americans say they are supportive of the movement, including 17 percent who are “strongly” supportive, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll in late April. Among supporters, 8 percent say they consider themselves “active participants” in the movement; this group is 2 percent of all adults.
Hundreds of tea party groups, or tea-party-sympathizer groups, are listed with the Web site TeaPartyPatriots.org, including 22 from Maryland, 38 from Virginia and five from D.C.
As anthropologists of the movement explore its origins and prospects, they cite the gathering of Rakovich’s lonely crowd of three as the earliest stirring on record.
“Mary’s was the first protest that happened,” says Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, the Washington-based advocacy group that has supported and promoted the tea party movement. There had been growing unease about big spending, bailouts and federal power during the latter part of the Bush administration, but “her event was the first street protest of the stimulus and what was going on,” Steinhauser says. “These were the first people to take to the streets . . . which was a paradigm shift among fiscal conservatives.”
Even though the tea party moniker was not an explicit part of the identity of Rakovich’s protest, nor of the handful of other rallies that week, Steinhauser and other students of the movement say those seminal demonstrations burst from the same constellation of concerns, though they didn’t have an organizing theme yet.
Santelli improvised the theme on camera. He says he has no idea why it popped into his head.
“How do I feel 15 months later? Pretty damn proud,” Santelli says, noting that he is not active in the movement he helped inspire. “Having Americans get off their couches and be active because they feel their future is at stake and their kids’ future is at stake . . . is terrific.”
Charges of deception
Critics of tea party enthusiasm say the movement has been manufactured and orchestrated by professional conservative activists. The seeming grass-roots passion is more like Astroturf, they say — fake grass roots.
“The Republican Party directs a lot of what the tea party does, but not everybody in the tea party takes direction from the Republican Party,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC News in February, summarizing what she said was her original view of the movement. “And so there was a lot of, shall we say, Astroturf, as opposed to grass roots.”
Rakovich says she is a registered Republican whose first political activity was to volunteer for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Weeks before her first protest, she attended an activist training session held by FreedomWorks. Steinhauser called her before Obama’s visit to Fort Myers, but by that time she and her husband had decided to try organizing something. The only time FreedomWorks gave her any material support was in securing insurance for a tea party protest she organized in April 2009, she says.
Steinhauser, for his part, says he and his professional activist colleagues only helped channel a widespread passion that was already simmering. The day of Santelli’s rant, FreedomWorks created the Web site IamWithRick.com.
FreedomWorks and other groups organized some tea party protests, including the big one in Washington, and served as clearinghouses when folks from across the country wanted to plug into tea-partying in their own communities.
After organizing several tea party protests last year, journeying to Washington for the big one in September and becoming something of a celebrity in Florida tea party circles, Rakovich is proud of her footnote in history.
“I was just a person. I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than to be heard,” she says. “If I inspired one other person, who could inspire one other person, and show that you didn’t have to be anybody special to do this, yes I feel good about that.”
She says she’d like to go back to work once she gets her hips replaced, which she hopes will be after her Medicare kicks in later this year. But she’s worried because she’s convinced the new health reform law will cut Medicare.
In her spare time since she stopped working, she has been reading the Constitution and other founding documents for the first time.
“Spending is out of control, and then we have the whole other issue of our Constitution being chewed up and spit out on a daily basis,” she says. “Which is actually even more important than the financial issues going on. They’re tied together.”
She considers herself an environmentalist — “I believe God made us stewards of this earth, including animals; I was a kook carrying my bags to the grocery store in the 1980s” — but she considers global warming “a farce.”
Recently, she and her husband moved a couple hundred miles north to Cedar Key, Fla. She formed a meet-up group called Nature Coast Patriots.
“This is the very beginning up here,” she says. “I’m not stopping.
“It feels good to have been part of something and still be a part of something. . . . I call it restoring our republic.”
Staff polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.