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Tea Party activists look to define their role in November elections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2010 - A year after the St. Louis Tea Party held one of the nation's largest anti-tax rallies, activists are hoping for a huge turnout Thursday in Clayton to underscore the movement's clout and commitment.

The event also appears aimed at energizing local supporters who may still be smarting from the St. Louis Tea Party's recent electoral loss, with its April 6 failure to defeat the proposed sales tax increase for Metro, Proposition A.

Gina Loudon, one of the local Tea Party's leaders, believes that critics are focusing on that defeat for a reason. "We are so well aware that people are trying to divide us," she said. "They wouldn't be pointing a finger at us if they didn't fear us."

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, is among the politicians planning to attend Thursday's evening rally in Clayton's Memorial Park across from the county government center. It's the latest in a series of recent Tea Party events around the state that have attracted local conservative officeholders and candidates, including one last weekend in Jefferson County and another Tuesday in Jefferson City. Former President Ronald Reagan's eldest son, Michael Reagan, headlined the latter event.

For -- or Against -- Support for Metro

But Kinder's embrace of the Tea Party movement illustrates the contradictions that some see within its ranks.

Last year, Kinder had been crucial in helping Metro, the region's public transit system, when it needed state money to stem money troubles after St. Louis County voters had rejected a sales-tax hike in November 2008. He had been a key figure in the successful effort to persuade the Legislature to earmark $12 million in one-time aid.

This month, the St. Louis Tea Party was among the most vocal opponents of Metro's second attempt to pass that tax hike. But almost two-thirds of the county's voters showed up at the polls to back Proposition A, along with across-the-board approval of more than a dozen other school tax or bond proposals.

Kinder stayed out of the Proposition A contest, even as he has raised his profile within the Tea Party movement.

Kinder spokesman Gary McElyea said that the lieutenant governor saw no contradiction. "The most important point that can be drawn in last week's elections is the case for local government," McElyea said. "The voters in St. Louis County made their voices heard. Proposition A wasn't a mandate from the federal government. It wasn't a mandate from the state."

Local decisions, concluded McElyea, is what Kinder believes the Tea Party movement is all about.

Kinder now is looking to local Tea Party's activists to embrace, and perhaps help fund, his planned legal fight against the federal health-care law.

Meanwhile, Loudon and other Tea Party leaders note that they were outspent and out-organized by the massive pro-Proposition A coalition, which included corporations, unions, Washington University and church groups. The Tea Party also did not jump in until just a few weeks before the election, leaders say.

Another month and $10,000, said Loudon, the St. Louis Tea Party might have had a good chance of defeating Proposition A. "But not with only $900 against their $1.5 million," she added.

Even so, there is some soul-searching underway. Local Tea Party co-founder Bill Hennessy has written on his blog that the movement has do more than "attract headlines and organize rallies."

"I hope no one got the impression that the Tea Party movement exists to entertain people," he wrote.

"The tea party is out to destroy the left in America. If we're not going to do that -- if we're going to just wave yellow flags and wear clever T-shirts -- then let's go back to our regular programming."

Hennessy is among the scheduled speakers at Thursday's rally, which is slated to focus on how best to organize the audience for action.

"I think we're feeling a bit more impatient for action," said Loudon.

Grand Old Party Vs the Tea Party

At the moment, it's unclear if any politicians or candidates will be speaking at Thursday's gathering -- which also illustrates the concern some Tea Party activists may have about getting too closely identified with the Republican Party.

Loudon -- who's the wife of John Loudon, a former GOP state senator from Chesterfield who also is active in the Tea Party cause -- says that it's understandable that conservative Republicans would be attracted to the movement. Many rallies feature crowds that, via signs and shouts, appear to espouse many of the Republican views against taxes, abortions and restrictions on guns.

Republican congressional candidate Ed Martin, for example, often shows up at Tea Party events. He addressed the crowd at length during Saturday's rally in Jefferson County as he pointed out his differences with U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. 

The Missouri Democratic Party, while not challenging the Tea Party movement, is publicly raising questions as to how much Republican candidates will benefit at the polls this fall.

"I don't think many of the people in the Tea Party are enamored with Roy Blunt," said state Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart, referring to the veteran congressman from Springfield, Mo., who now is the state's best-known Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Late Tuesday, Democrats were circulating a video in which a prominent figure in the Jefferson County Tea Party effort, Ken Horton, was critical of Blunt and endorsed one of his GOP rivals for the Senate seat, state Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield.

Hobart added that it also was "a fair question" to ask Martin, Kinder and other politicians who embrace the Tea Party cause whether they also adhere to the beliefs of some of its leaders. Hobart cited local radio commentator/Tea Party regular Dana Loesch's recent televised comments in favor of doing away with Social Security.

Loudon replied that the Tea Party is not a monolith, and that many activists hold different views, while agreeing with the group's general focus on fiscal conservatism.

She emphasized that the St. Louis Tea Party has no plans to endorse any candidate in this fall's elections, although the national Tea Party and its allies may target contests and help certain candidates.

In her case, Loudon said she personally hopes to see the defeat of St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat, as well as two other Democrats: U.S. Rep. Carnahan and his sister, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

But Loudon said the St. Louis Tea Party has yet to make decisions on exactly what its role will be this fall.

Carl Bearden, a former Republican state legislator from St. Charles, now is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Missouri, a Tea Party ally that organized Tuesday's rally in Jefferson City.

Bearden views the Proposition A loss as simply "a good learning experience" for a movement that is just over a year old.

The key point for politicians, he said, is that the Tea Party and its allies reflect a significant segment of the angry electorate -- particularly within the GOP.

"We're here. We're not going away," Bearden said. "Get used to it."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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