‘Tea party’ convention a forum for woes, worries


Ask Gail Hathaway, a warm 61-year-old retired nurse from Vonore, Tenn., what she wants out of the “tea party” movement, and she returns the quizzical look of someone worried she’s been asked a trick question.

“What do I want? Well, I want it all to stop,” she said late Thursday night from the floor of the National Tea Party Convention, an event billed as the first major conference for the conservative movement currently reshaping America’s political landscape. “Our way of life is under attack. I truly believe they are trying to destroy this country. It’s just hard to say who ‘they’ is.”

Though tea party leaders recently have tried to redefine the movement as focused on limiting government growth in the age of big Wall Street bailouts and stimulus packages, Hathaway’s remarks and others like them reflect frustrations that spring from a much bigger pool of concerns.

Some conference attendees said they were worried about religious freedom and immigration. They said they sensed a withering pride in American ideals and the country’s place in the world.

Often those concerns were tied to the post-1960s culture wars.

“You took the radicals out of the ‘60s. They came into our colleges, they became teachers and they began to teach our children,” said Alice Moore, 69, who got her start in political activism fighting against what she deemed inappropriate textbooks in her West Virginia town.

“The indoctrination of kids for 35 years or longer, this is what led us to the election of this president. It is why we’re here,” Moore said.

Education was a frequent source of outrage among the tea party advocates, who say too little attention is paid to the Founding Fathers and “first principles” of constitutional government. The Revolutionary War is often invoked as a guiding image for the movement.

Some advocates want to require citizens to pass a civics test before being allowed to vote, a proposal reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws used to keep blacks away from the voting booth.

Former Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, the convention’s opening speaker, raised the issue to enthusiastic applause.

“People who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House -- name is Barack Hussein Obama,” Tancredo said.

The remarks didn’t go over well with everyone.

“I don’t think that’s the way to unite people. You might have thoughts about some things, but some things are better left unsaid,” said Lisa Mei Norton, a defense contractor by day who moonlights as a singer-songwriter of tea party pop inspired by talk radio.

Norton opted to perform her song “A Revolution’s Brewing” on Thursday night, instead of her version of “Where Were You Born?” -- a country-infused song questioning the president’s birthplace.

About 600 people arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville for two full days of workshops and pep talks to be capped off with an appearance Saturday by a tea party favorite, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The convention price -- $560 a ticket, plus hotel and travel -- kept away some of the less well-heeled members of the movement, as well as some leading tea party groups that complained about the costs. The meeting appeared to draw heavily from other Southern states.

Organizers said the meeting was an attempt to help activists pick up the political skills needed to create a large grass-roots force for conservative candidates in the midterm elections.

On Friday, organizer Mark Skoda announced that he had set up a nonprofit and political action committee aimed at supporting candidates who vow to uphold conservative principles.

Skoda said his group, Ensuring Liberty Corp., would stand out for its transparency, though he would not name who would serve on its board. He hoped to raise $10 million.