WXXI Local Stories
11:01 pm
Tue March 30, 2010

Rochester Area Tea Party Looks to Expand

Rochester, NY – The Tea Party movement continues to attract supporters, both on the national level and in Rochester. WXXI's Peter Iglinski met with a couple of local organizers to get a better idea of who they are and where they're heading.


Mike Deming is a former Democrat and one-time member of MoveOn.org. He didn't like the direction the country was going in under then-President George Bush. Democrats took over congress in 2007--he still didn't like where things were heading, so he shifted gears. Deming went on to work for Republican Ron Paul's Presidential campaign. Ron Paul is an independent-minded Republican congressman and one-time Libertarian presidential candidate.

Deming is now the Monroe County Coordinator of the Campaign for Liberty, an advocacy group founded by Ron Paul. For Deming, it doesn't matter which major political party is in power--government has been a failure.

"What have they done that's worked?" The post office is broke. Medicare's broke. Medicaid's broke. Social Security's broke. Fannie Mae's broke. FDIC's broke. They're all broke....Where's the success? If the government was a roofer, you wouldn't hire [them]."

The Tea Party movement took off early last year in reaction to the federal bailout of financial institutions and the auto industry. The Tea Party is not a political party--it's an orientation. Most supporters seem to share some core beliefs: they're fiscally-conservative, prefer smaller government, and oppose foreign intervention.

Deming is frustrated that people are buying into the image created by the media.

"They're interested in freedom. They're non-violent, they're not racist. They're interested in freedom and liberty. Do people have an issue with that?"

Deming acknowledges that people in the Tea Party are more aligned with the Republican Party, but he doesn't want either the Republicans or Democrats to tell the Tea Party what to do. Deming opposed George W. Bush and now opposes Barack Obama.

"To me, he's more dangerous because...when I say dangerous, I mean he's more able to enact legislation that does not fall in line with the Constitution or freedom or liberty issues, you know, because he's a, who he is. He's a minority, you know. It seems more subversive almost."

Deming says there's a near cult-like--or messianic--belief in Obama, and that part of it is driven by his status as a minority.

One of Obama's big initiatives was the recently-adopted health care reform package--which Deming considers a threat to the country's freedoms. That's because of the requirement that people buy health insurance. Deming also argues that the Patriot Act, body scanners, and the US Census, threaten our freedoms.

"The census requires what? It says that you are required to tell them how many people live in the house, that's all. It doesn't say you have to tell them what religion you are or what color you are, what your bank account is, what kind of car you drive.All this other stuff. What sort of religion you are. That's an invasion of privacy. These are all freedom issues."

(Reporter's note: The US Census does not ask questions about a person's religion.) The Tea Party is a grassroots movement made up of separate groups and individuals. Anyone can show up and call him or herself a member of the Tea Party. And that means that there are varying ideas of what it means to be a member of the Tea Party. Sarah Palin is increasingly seen as a leader--if not THE leader--of the movement. Deming doesn't see her that way. And that's an opinion shared by Chris Edes. He's another Tea Party member, as well as head of the New York State and Rochester area Libertarian committees. Edes does not think Sarah Palin articulates the same goals as those in the Tea Party.

"In one breath she'll say that we need to reduce the size of government and stop spending money, and then, you know, in another breath, just recently, she said that Obama should declare war on Iran. And that's, you know, that's not going to save money. That would be a tremendous expenditure."

Like Deming, Edes started with the Democrats. That changed in 2001, when he was 21 years old.

"Actually it was the gun rights issue that first separated me. Because as a progressive I always was distrustful of government power. And the idea that only police officers and soldiers should have weapons didn't really fit with that ideology, so that sort of opened the door to a broader questioning of the whole set of beliefs that were represented by the Democratic or progressive ideology."

Edes says the Tea Party is not easy to define--it varies from place to place. The movement is open to anyone--there's no test for getting in and no formal organization. And there's no hierarchy to toss you out in the event that your beliefs are out-of-step with the core principles. As a result, the Tea Party has some vulnerabilities. Edes says a lot of people recognized its potential as a political tool.

"There's been a major movement in the Republican Party with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and his FreedomWorks organization to try to co-opt it for the Republican Party, and they've had, more or less, success."

Edes says the Tea Party is focused largely on fiscal issues, and he thinks some of the caricatures presented by the media are unfair.

"Sort of angry white people, you know, presumably racist...If the press comes to a Tea Party event, they'll try to find the one person with a Confederate flag, or whatever. And that doesn't really represent the whole movement."

In the short-term, Edes wants to see the Tea Party expand and become less of a right-wing movement. Without a formal organization, that can be tricky, and Edes says the way the message is refined will vary from one location to another.

For now, the Tea Party has a more immediate goal. That's the upcoming Tax Day rally on April 15.