Looking at Keli Carender, you wouldn’t guess she’s politically conservative. She has a pierced nose, performs improv comedy on the weekends, and in all other ways she’s a typical 30 year old living in Seattle. Except, she started a political movement that’s now become the Tea Party.
Carender became really frustrated toward the end of 2008 and beginning of ’09 watching Congress debate the $787 billion stimulus bill.
Spending more money didn’t seem like a solution to Carender. She was even more put off when Washington’s Senators weren’t responding to her emails or phone messages urging them to vote against the stimulus bill.
“I had two choices I can either give up, or I can take it to the street,” says Carender.
She had never organized any kind of event, but living in Seattle “where there are protests all the time” she thought if someone else can hold a demonstration she could too.
Carender got a permit, picked up cheap amp and microphone and held the “Porkulus protest” at Westlake Park on February 16, 2009. A day later, President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law.
She was as surprised as anyone that 120 people showed up. A week later 300 people turned out for another protest. The movement gained a name when CNBC’s Rick Santelli, fired up those on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, saying Congress should “reward people who carry the water, instead of people who drink the water.” Santelli suggested people hold a tax revolt just as American colonists did against the British, and the Tea Party – standing for taxed enough already – was off.
That was a year and a half ago. What’s happening now?
The Tea Party in Washington is “growing enormously” according Sally Oljar, a state director with the movement. “We’re not going away.”
Washington state has about 50 different tea party groups, with thousands of members. Oljar says it’s difficult to get an exact count on the movement’s strength because many of the groups aren’t organized with websites and mailing lists. Across the country, Oljar says there are 145 million people who identify with the tea party movement.
“Part of our appeal is that we’ve stuck to three core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets,” says Oljar. “We’re deliberately building a coalition around those three values and staying away from the issues that might divide us.”
Their intent is lost on many who perceive the group as racist. Last week the NAACP condemned the “racist elements” within the movement. Carender says she is not racist, and anyone with racist ideas and rhetoric should “keep moving along” because there’s no place for them within the Tea Party.
“You’re constantly fighting this really ugly, horrible narrative about your character. About who you are and your integrity as a person and that is what’s hardest,” she says.
She’s gotten a lot of hate mail and earlier this year, the Seattle Weekly included her in their April Fool’s edition of “22 things about Seattle that we wish were a joke.” Carender can take all of that, but she doesn’t like being considered “heartless” just because she wants elected leaders – from the school board to the White House – to be fiscally responsible.
“They go, ‘Oh you want to cut the most vital services and you want to cut police and you want to cut fire and you want people starving in the streets,’ and that’s not the case,” she says. “That’s a trick politicians use to be able to raise taxes. They present a false choice of raising taxes or we’re not going to have any policemen.”
Carender and Oljar say their goal of electing leaders who will cut spending cuts across all party lines, whether Democrat, Republican or Independent. They don’t want the Tea Party movement to become a political party, rather, they want to work outside the party system to support candidates who are fiscally responsible.
“The first changes that we can make are in November,” Carender says. “From there it’s keeping the people who are newly elected, and whoever stays in office, holding them accountable.”
The Tea Party movement has already had an impact on some races across the country, most notably on the June 8th Super Tuesday primaries when several Tea Party-backed candidates won. In the Nevada U.S. Senate primary, Sharron Angle won and will face off against Majority Leader Harry Reed. In New Jersey, Anna Little defeated the established Republican candidate Diane Gooch in their 6th District primary. Rand Paul, son of Republican Congressman, Ron Paul, of Texas beat the leading candidate Trey Grayson.
In Washington, they’ve set their sights on several races, including trying to defeat U.S. Senator Patty Murray.
Carender photo, from the Porkulus protest with Keli holding a container of pulled pork, courtesy Sally Oljar. Demonstration photo courtesy Stephen Staggs.