A Tea Party in name only

With no candidates but plenty of contradictions, the Tea Party's impact on Florida primaries is open for debate.

click to enlarge 4/15/10: A tax-day rally saw a big Tea Party turnout in downtown Tampa's Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park. - Youtube/ultimate789
4/15/10: A tax-day rally saw a big Tea Party turnout in downtown Tampa's Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park.

Last fall, as the burgeoning Tea Party movement continued to expand, Eric Forcade, a Palm Harbor sheriff's officer and self-proclaimed member of the movement, declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Congress in Pinellas County's 10th Congressional district — a seat owned for the past four decades by C. W. "Bill" Young.

It wasn't clear until February that Young would run again, but once he made his announcement Forcade blasted the 79-year-old Republican incumbent. He told CL that the problem wasn't simply Young's earmark fetish (he was responsible for over $169 million in spending in 2007 alone) but that "we have 535 Bill Youngs out there, with everyone trying to bring pork home. It's not just him, it's everyone stealing from Peter to pay Paul, as long as Paul is one of his constituents."

As Forcade's critique suggested, Young seemed to be exactly the sort of DC pol who deserved to be in the crosshairs of the Tea Partiers, who claim that runaway federal spending is their chief concern whether it's from Democrats or Republicans.

But Forcade failed to make much headway with his campaign, calling it quits in mid-April.

Then he endorsed Bill Young.

That quick reversal was a bit much for Mitch Kates, the campaign manager for the Democrat in the race, Charlie Justice. Kates called out Forcade as being a "hypocrite, a fraud and a coward."

In response, Forcade said that while he is wholeheartedly against Congressional earmarks, he asks, "Do you support the guy who's spent more than $500 million in earmarks, or the guy [Justice] who's part of the problem by supporting spending a trillion dollars on health care and cap-and-trade and other government takeovers?"

Forcade's inability to drum up support — and his declaration of allegiance for a candidate seemingly at odds with Tea Party principles — suggests the potential contradictions inherent in the movement. And despite incessant media coverage, the question of how much real impact the Tea Party movement will have in this year's elections remains an open question less than four months away from Florida's primaries.

At the same time Forcade was endorsing his one-time rival, another Tea Party disciple, Tim Curtis, was officially entering the Democratic Primary in Hillsborough County, challenging incumbent Kathy Castor in District 11.

When asked what his motivation was for running, Curtis said it's all about getting back to the Constitution: "I'm absolutely convinced that the reasons that we have the problems that we have is because of the reach and scope and the cost of the federal government." But when asked how he will convince Democrats to support him over his better-known opponent, he replied, "I'm not going to make this whether they support Ms. Castor. I'm going to talk about the principles and values that the Constitution says." Then he went on to blast the healthcare reform bill.

Republican Eddie Adams Jr., who's running for the GOP nomination in District 11, was featured in a spread in Time in February on the Tea Party movement. If he wins the nomination, he says he'll be relying on the Tea Party bunch to help him close the gap between himself and Castor.

But at least one seasoned political observer sees the Tea Party making impact with issues, not with candidates. "We haven't had any Tea Party candidates who have been successful," says Daryl Paulson, former political science professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. "Tea Party members say their goal is not to be a party, but to influence the directions they want to see the country go."

Eileen Blackmer agrees. A member of the Pinellas Patriots, she says she's not even sure how Eric Forcade was dubbed a "Tea Party candidate."

"We're not a party," says Blackmer. "We don't put forth candidates."

In another comment, Blackmer suggests the conundrum that faces Tea Partiers when it comes to discussing federal spending. She mentions the monies Young has brought in to improve U.S. 19 and says, "He's a spender, but I don't think he's a frivolous spender. If he didn't bring any money home, people would be upset."

She also thinks earmarks get a bad rap. "If it's earmarked for breast cancer, it's not bad."

In downtown Tampa on Tax Day, April 15, a crowd in the hundreds crammed into Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park to hear speakers denounce global warming, healthcare reform, and the news media — and of course, seemingly anything and everything to do with the Barack Obama/Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid Democratic agenda and federal taxes, which they insist have gone up since Obama took office.

Unfortunately, the Tea Partiers don't have a really good grasp of how much they're being taxed, according to a recent report in Forbes.

Economics writer Bruce Bartlett (a former Treasury Department official under George H.W. Bush) reported that federal taxes are in fact lower by any measure since Obama was elected. Forty percent of the Obama stimulus plan — much hated and loathed not just by Tea Partiers but by the entire Republican party establishment — involved tax cuts. That included the Making Work Pay Credit, which reduces federal taxes for all taxpayers with incomes below $75,000 by between $400 and $800.

In fact, taxes are at their lowest levels in 60 years, according to William Gale, co-director of the Tax Policy Center and director of the Retirement Security Project at the Brookings Institution.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that close to 90 percent of all taxpayers — and almost 100 percent of those in the $50,000 income range — received a tax cut last year.

Congresswoman Castor made note of that in a press release on April 15 titled, "Tea Party Protestors Should Be Celebrating Tax Cuts and Larger Refunds."

But, whether because of poor communications (a traditional Democratic Party bugaboo) or an overheated press, the majority of Americans believe that Obama's and Congressional Democrats' spending is out of control.

A recent Pew research poll indicated that when Obama was elected, the country was evenly divided (43-42 percent) on whether they preferred a bigger government providing more services, vs. a small government with less services. Pew says that in four surveys taken over the past year since then, about half now say they prefer a smaller government vs. 40 percent who want a big one. Pew surmises that the anti-government feeling overall should help Republicans in the fall, and believes Tea Party sympathizers are "highly energized and inclined to vote Republican in the fall."

When asked what his hopes are for this November, Tampa Tea Party member John Hendrix sounds like John Boehner when he says, "Our mission is to flip the House [of Representatives]. We're committed to rolling back ObamaCare."

As we all know from the last year, so are most rank-and-file Republicans. Last week in both houses of the Florida legislature, a bill was passed that will allow Floridians to vote this November for a constitutional amendment allowing citizens to opt out of the federal healthcare bill.

So does it even matter if candidates come out of the Tea Party movement and run for local office?

Darryl Paulson says that in the case of Pinellas County's 10th Congressional district, it doesn't. "Fundamentally, Eric Forcade was not that far apart philosophically from Bill Young," he says.

And Forcade himself says that it all comes down to commitment. He believes people in the movement are more prepared to protest in the next Tea Party demonstration than actually work on a campaign.

"We got involved because there was an uproar by the people, who said they wanted citizen candidates," says Forcade. "Unfortunately, we came to a quick conclusion that what people are saying and what they're willing to support are different ideas."

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