Randy Liebo was rolling. Big government, he said, is trying to tell us what we can eat. Ultimately, it will want to tell us how much we can earn.
“They even tell us what light bulbs we can use,” said Carol Wegner.
Liebo stopped the conversation.
“I don’t want to sound like one of those conspiracy people,” he said.
The three Tea principles
And for the third or fourth time in our conversation Wednesday morning, he went over the three principles of the Tea Party:
• Fiscal responsibility.
• Limited government.
• Free markets.
That’s it, he said. You believe in those three fundamentals and you, too, can be a part of the Tea Party movement.
Liebo, Wegner and Walter Hudson, who also was at our meeting Wednesday, are board members of the North Star Tea Party Patriots, which is the umbrella group for all 20 — more or less — Tea Party chapters in the state.
The North Star Tea Party Patriots is a two-month-old organization that has grown from the ashes of the initial statewide (more or less) organization, the Minnesota Tea Party Patriots.
“Philosophical disagreements” was the phrase Hudson chose in talking, carefully, of the breakup of that organization.
Now, it’s the North Star Tea Party group that has the connection, via weekly teleconferencing, with the national body. And it’s the North Star group trying to help local Tea Party chapters communicate with each other.
Holding together the various local chapters and the individuals within those chapters is no easy task.
“There’s a reluctance to embrace the conventions of political organizations,” Hudson said. “There’s an element of anti-establishment feeling among people involved.”
That means there’s a huge suspicion of such basics of movement building, such as a central party office, fund-raising and dealing with the media.
So, although Hudson, Liebo and Wegner are board members, they make it clear when they speak of anything beyond the three core issues that they are speaking for themselves, not the Tea Party.
The North Star organization doesn’t have membership cards and doesn’t endorse candidates, although local chapters do. The organization has no positions on such huge issues as the ongoing wars, gay marriage or global warming (although most Tea Partiers probably are warming doubters, according to Liebo).
The impact of the Tea Party on this year’s governor’s race?
There was a long pause before Liebo said that given the principles, it’s unlikely that there are many Mark Dayton supporters in the Tea Party.
Explaining the anger
It was a beautiful morning. Although these still are hard times, the area around the suburban coffee shop where we met was bustling with activity. Parking lots were filled with newer-looking cars.
So why this anger that seems to be so basic to the movement?
All answered quickly, without reservation. The anger is over a concern about the future: the national debt, ever-expanding, more intrusive government, less liberty.
Each of the three board members came to the Tea Party in different ways.
Wegner, an interior designer, came across as the most fundamentally conservative.
“A conservative all my life,” said Wegner, who’s in her 60s. “But when I saw the direction the Obama campaign was headed, I concluded this is not the direction we should be headed.”
She started attending Tea Party events.
With genuine concern, she said that her sons have both told her that there’s a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth teaching that “socialism and communism are the best forms of government.”
She said she has persuaded both her mother and sister to become active conservatives.
“I converted them by asking questions,” she said. “I asked them, ‘How much of your check do you want to give to the government? Do you want your doctor to determine your health care or some bureaucrat in Washington?’ “
Same views, different starting points
Liebo has made the longest walk across the political spectrum. Back in the 1960s, he was a Bobby Kennedy Democrat.
“But I turned into a Republican when I got into business,” said Liebo, a 60-ish computer projects consultant.
But for years, he said, he mostly was a grumbler.
“I’d sit at home watching TV,” he recalled. “I’d sit there and scream at the TV. I was upset by the spending, upset by the lack of respect people in Washington seemed to have for the rest of us.”
Then came the move from his couch to Tea Party action. It was motivated by Rick Santelli’s CNBC outburst over Obama stimulus plans — “Do you want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage!?” — on Feb. 19, 2009.
“I was in New York working at the time,” Liebo said. “I heard about it, I watched it. I told myself, ‘you’ve got to get involved.’ I’m just frustrated I can’t do more.”
As it is, he attends weekly board meetings and spends at least a night a week on the phone attempting to build this new organization.
Hudson, who is in his 30s, likely is the farthest from the stereotype of the Tea Party, starting with the fact that he’s black.
Growing up in Cottage Grove with his black father and white mother (“like the president,” he says), Hudson said he always seemed to have conservative values but found those values “re-enforced” by listening to Rush Limbaugh while driving from his high school to college classes.
“He expressed what I already believed,” said Hudson, who then started listening to other conservative radio programs, receiving more affirmation.
Given the Tea Party’s belief in limited state government, with more power granted to the states, how does Hudson view the federal civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s that finally beat back the awful treatment of blacks in the South? Were the feds out of line at a time? Would it be OK if Alabama, as an issue of state’s rights, still demanded that blacks sit at the back of the bus?
“Personally, I agree with Rand Paul,” Hudson said. “He said that the civil rights acts were appropriate, but not to apply to private organizations. He got in trouble for it. And obviously it’s repulsive, morally wrong, for an organization to keep out someone because of the color of their skin.”
Hudson also believes that we’re in a new place in America regarding race, sort of a post-race place. The mixing of races, more families like his own, is turning racial identity into an absurdity, he believes.
“Out on the East Coast, I think race is irrelevant,” he said. “Minnesota may be lagging behind in that regard.”
Those three values — fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets — cross all racial boundaries that do exist, Hudson says.
Setting aside social issues
The three would like all Tea Partiers to “set social issues” aside at the door. But the social issues — everything from civil rights to abortion to gay marriage — are a vulnerable part of the movement.
“We don’t want to get into them,” said Liebo.
“There is a concern among social conservatives that we’re leaving them in the dust,” said Hudson. “My take, it’s like you’re driving a car and the engine breaks down. Social issues may be the gas that fuels the engine, but right now the problem is that the engine is blown. We have to fix that before we ever can get the car moving again.”
But, Hudson admits, some social conservatives don’t buy the analogy.
“There’s no question that God plays a role in motivating many,” he said. “Some want to come to meetings and have us talk more about God’s role. Others feel just as strongly that it’s not productive.”
Said Liebo, “Social issues drive us apart. Core issues bring us back together.”
But how do you stay together when there’s great suspicion of anything that looks like established political institutions.
Within the movement, there are even suspicions of such stalwart conservatives as 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has taken to proclaiming herself the head of the Tea Party movement in the Congress.
“As long as you uphold the Tea Party values, fine,” said Hudson. “But when you start to move into other areas …”
There is even greater suspicion of the media than of pols. The media, Wegner said, have tried to turn Christine O’Donnell, the surprise Tea Party/Republican winner in the Delaware Senate primary, into some sort of buffoon.
“You don’t read about the good things,” she said.
“She may have flaws,” said Liebo. “Whether she’s ideal or not, I don’t know. That’s up to the people of Delaware to decide.”
For the moment, the board of directors of the state’s Tea Party would like to direct Minnesota attention to judicial races. The three appear to be supporters of Greg Wersal, the perennial state Supreme Court candidate who wants to open up judicial races to voting, complete with discussions of the candidates’ political views.
They believe there currently are 20 local Tea Party chapters in Minnesota, made up of about 15 per cent Republicans, 15 per cent Democrats and the rest coming from independent and libertarian backgrounds.
They don’t doubt that many of those members support the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Emmer as Hudson does. (Hudson was a state Republican Party delegate for Emmer.)
But Hudson understands many Tea Party members are suspicious of anything or anybody tied to the current parties.
A simple Tea Party message
Liebo said the Tea Party message to the major political parties is simple: “You don’t own us.”
“There are no Tea Party candidates,” said Hudson, “but there are Tea Party members who are running as Republicans.”
For now, the effort is to make the movement stronger in Minnesota, to somehow become more organized but not too organized.
All of this is dicey. Some of it has the feel of fad.
Even Hudson doesn’t say the Tea Party will be around in the long run, not at least by that name.
“The movement may not retain the Tea Party name,” he said, “but I don’t think people who have become awakened to civic duty will go back to sleep.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.