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Tea Party activists see anti-Prop A campaign as a test of their strength and organization

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2010 - To St. Louis Tea Party leader Gina Loudon, next Tuesday's election will serve as "a dry run'' for Tea Party activists looking ahead to this fall's congressional elections.

"We thought we'd train our ground troops with a dry run,'' Loudon said, explaining that hundreds of local Tea Party activists have never worked in a campaign before.

The dry run's target? Proposition A, the proposed half-cent sales tax hike for Metro, the region's public-transit system.

For weeks, the St. Louis Tea Party has had its eye on defeating the proposal, which Loudon said represents the type of unwanted tax increase that the group and its allies despise.

On Saturday, for example, some area Tea Party activists are expected to decorate their vehicles with anti-Prop A slogans during the group's latest "Rolling Rally'' through St. Charles County. The rally, which will promote the Tea Party's general themes, follows earlier ones in St. Louis County.

Saturday's anti-Prop A message will be aimed at making a broader fiscal point, since St. Charles County won't vote on the issue. Loudon noted, though, that many St. Louis County activists are expected to participate in the rally, which will feature a parade of vehicles displaying signs and slogans that express conservative Tea Party stances on various issues.

Earlier this week, St. Louis Tea Party activists participated in a phone bank encouraging listeners to vote against Prop A, and helped launch an online "money bomb'' that Loudon said raised some much-needed cash for the anti-Prop A campaign.

A new Tea Party-aligned group -- "As A Mom'' -- also distributed anti-Prop A yard signs at a pro-Tea Party business, McArthur's Bakery, in Lemay.

Formed after the 2008 presidential elections, the St. Louis Tea Party movement now is getting involved in various Missouri  campaigns -- most of them Republican -- on the legislative, statewide and congressional levels. Many of the region's most active GOP candidates have sought to promote their Tea Party ties. They include Tom Schweich and state Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, both running for the GOP nomination for state auditor, and Ed Martin, who's seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. representative in the Third District, a congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Even so, Loudon emphasizes that the St. Louis Tea Party remains "very national focused'' on its chief issues: "fiscal accountability and restraint.''

The Prop A campaign, she said, is "just a local manifestation of a national problem'' posed by too-high taxes.

But aside from the philosophical debate over taxes, Loudon acknowledged that success in defeating the tax proposal could prove the prowess of the local Tea Party's organizational skills, as well as bolster its image and the confidence of its activists.

Adella Jones, a spokeswoman for the chief pro-Prop A group -- Advance St. Louis -- objected to nationalizing Metro's sales-tax proposal or framing Prop A in political terms.

"The question the county is facing on Tuesday is one of public policy,'' Jones said. "How do you want your transit system to be part of your economy?"

The issue isn't politics, Jones continued, but the importance of public investment in creating jobs, economic growth and improving public transit.

John Burns, spokesman for the chief organization against Proposition A -- Citizens for Better Transit -- emphasized that his group is more than just Tea Party activists. "Some of our members wouldn't be caught dead at a Tea Party,'' he quipped. (Click here to read Burns' recent commentary on Prop A; click here to read the pro-Prop A stance.)

But Burns acknowledged that he himself is a Tea Party activist, and that he has encouraged and welcomes the St. Louis Tea Party's involvement against Proposition A, which he sees as linked to his belief that "various elements of our democracy are being hijacked" by big government.

Burns and Loudon emphasized that the St. Louis Tea Party is a loose coalition of various smaller groups and like-minded individuals, with no organized hierarchy or membership.

Still, Burns added, "I do have high hopes that in the future, the Tea Party will think nationally, and act locally." 

Burns explained that he strongly believed that the St. Louis Tea Party's success depended on its participation in local and regional politics, even as it maintains a national political focus.

He quoted former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat from Massachusetts who famously observed that "all politics is local."

"What happens on the local level is often a microcosm of what is happening nationally,'' Burns said. "The Tea Party will be meaningless unless they get involved on a local level."

With that in mind, Tuesday's election results regarding Proposition A may end up being one measure of the St. Louis Tea Party's influence.

But Burns added, "The proof of the pudding will be in November."

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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