Virginia tea party aims to put General Assembly lessons into practice

If half the battle of politics is just showing up, activists with the Virginia tea party won the day during this year’s General Assembly session.

But if the other half is actually winning the day, the political movement came up short in its first significant foray into state legislative action.

Citizen activists, largely novices to Virginia’s legislative practice, roamed the halls of the Capitol each day of the 47-day session, lobbying for an ambitious 10-bill agenda.

But of those bills, lawmakers passed just one during the session that concluded Feb. 27, a bill that would start the process of adding new protections for private property to the state constitution.

Some measures were approved by the GOP-held House of Delegates and killed by the Democratic-led Senate, strengthening the resolve of activists who say they hope to play a major role in legislative elections in November and knock off the Democrats and moderate Republicans who they think stood in the way.

But other tea party priorities were killed by Republicans in the House, raising questions about whether the movement is being fully embraced even by those who say they agree with its aims.

“It is a painful reality for the tea party movement both in Richmond and Washington,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political analyst at George Mason University. “They would be surprised to learn the process of governing is more difficult than campaigning. There is a certain ‘welcome to the show’ mentality.”

Lawmakers defeated a tea party-supported proposal calling for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to give states power over the federal government. They also did not support a proposal that would ban Washington from regulating goods manufactured and sold in Virginia, and other bills dealing with illegal immigration.

And they approved proposals the tea party opposed, including one to borrow nearly $3 billion for roads and another to require companies to provide insurance for families with autistic children.

“Did we get everything we wanted? No,” said Mark Kevin Lloyd, chairman of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots, a statewide umbrella group. “But what I tell people is, we’re a movement that’s just two years old.”

Activists insist they learned important lessons this year that they will put into practice later — how outsized the influence of paid lobbyists is in Richmond, how little input from activists is taken before bills are acted upon, how quickly the process works in a state with one of the shortest legislative sessions.

They vow to be more aggressive in 2012 by focusing on fewer bills, speaking more often at committee hearings and approaching legislators before the session starts like other activists do.

“That was a lesson learned — that we have to get all the stakeholders on board ahead of time,” said Angie Parker, who chaired a committee devoted to state legislative affairs for the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots. “And we need to hone in our focus on two or three key bills that we’re interested in, so we’re not spreading our attention too thin.”

The tea party has been largely associated with national politics and November’s congressional elections, but members of Virginia’s chapters think the movement’s future vibrancy rests in building local networks to influence state government as well.

A year ago, they helped win passage of a state law that makes it illegal to require Virginians to buy health insurance. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) has cited the measure in his lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal health-care law.

More recently, the groups launched a political action committee to recruit candidates. They also unveiled a legislative agenda at a convention in Richmond in October, attended by 3,000 people, one of the largest tea party events held nationally.

Some Republican legislators said they felt the tea party’s presence keenly this year in helping to shape debate and encouraging a focus on curbing spending.

“What the tea party has done is, it’s energized people who favor limited government — who favor government, frankly, leaving people alone, and they brought some new people, who for whatever reason were political bystanders, into the political process,” said Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill calling for a constitutional convention.

But Democrats said their win-loss record showed that, for all the attention the tea party has garnered nationally, it has not earned broad influence in Richmond. “I felt like they came, they visited, they shook hands,” Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) said. “But I didn’t get the impression in the Senate that people were shaking in their boots or felt like if they didn’t vote for a particular bill, they’d get voted down in the fall. In either party.”

That is an impression the tea party hopes to change ahead of election season.

Karen Miner Hurd, who founded a Hampton Roads tea party group, said the defeats have galvanized activists to work to help elect conservative Republicans in the state Senate.

“It’s the nature of politics and being citizen lobbyists — you win some, and you lose some,” Hurd said. “We say, ‘Great. What can we learn for next time, who do we need to replace?’ ”

The tea party is looking for candidates to recruit and has expressed some support for Scott Martin, an assistant dean at GMU who plans to run against Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) in Northern Virginia, and small-business owner Adam Light, who plans to run against Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) in Southwestern Virginia.

But it won’t just be Democrats who are targeted, Hurd said. She promised a major focus on moderate Republicans who have sometimes voted with Democrats. Some should soon receive “retirement packets” from tea party groups, with brochures for San Francisco to use after the Republican primary Aug. 23.

Harder for the activists to understand was the unexpected trouble they encountered in the House, where Republican delegates were otherwise extolling the influence of the new political movement on the national dialogue.

Even so, the House backed Gov. Robert F. Mc­Don­nell’s proposal to borrow $2.9 billion for roads, which the tea party federation opposed. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) threw critical support behind the bill to provide insurance to children with autism, which many tea party members see as an unacceptable government mandate that will raise the cost of insurance.

And the House joined the Senate in refusing to hear a proposal from Mc­Don­nell (R) to privatize liquor stores, which the tea party had backed, although it was not one of its top priorities.

Lloyd said that he was pleased the House supported many of the tea party’s initial priorities but that those who opposed others were not true fiscal conservatives.

He said the tea party will start grading people on the issues to keep better track of them and what they stand for.

“We were watching the entire process like a hawk,” Hurd said. “Just because some things didn’t go our way, we’re not giving up.”

Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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