By Sandhya Somashekhar
Saturday, October 2, 2010; C01
In hindsight, Laurie Horvath says, it probably wasn't the best time to break the news to her liberal friend, who was trimming Horvath's hair between sips of sangria. "You know," Horvath told her casually, "I think I'm going to organize a tea party."
That's when the scissors slipped.
"She took a big chunk off, cut like 2 1/2 inches off the front corner of my hair," Horvath said. "She got so mad, she says, 'Laurie, I didn't even dream that you would vote Republican -- let alone do something like this. I think you should leave.' "
The two women, friends for 30 years, have become estranged, according to Horvath. The incident, which now strikes Horvath as more funny than sad, is a small illustration of how the rise of the tea party movement has roiled not only political discourse but also families and neighborhoods, even in famously liberal towns such as Austin, where Horvath and her former friend live.
Tea party organizers say they have millions of members, thousands of state and local groups, and a presence in all 50 states and the District. While the movement has thrived primarily in conservative areas, tea party activists can also be found in liberal-leaning or politically mixed areas. Many say the movement has helped them find their voice, enabling them to express their concern that the country has veered dangerously off course.
But it's come with a cost. Activists say they have been mocked and threatened. They have been de-friended on Facebook and dumped by significant others. One activist, Toby Marie Walker, said she was called a racist at her local convenience store for wearing a T-shirt that said "We the People."
Many activists joke that telling people they are part of the tea party is akin to disclosing that they are gay, exposing themselves to anger and ridicule by taking a step they describe as deeply cathartic.
"I guess everybody has the moment where they have to 'come out,' but once they do, they really embrace it," said Chris Littleton, 31, who leads a consortium of tea party groups in Ohio called the Ohio Liberty Council. "The first time most people ventured to a rally with thousands of other like-minded people, the overwhelming emotion was relief. . . . That 'coming out' is the tea party movement."
It was during a barbecue at Littleton's Cincinnati home that he first disclosed to a tightknit group of friends that he was signing on to the tea party. Paul Minor, one of Littleton's more liberal friends, recalled that no one was surprised that their opinionated high school buddy would take such a step.
But that didn't stop them from engaging in some ribbing -- particularly about the costumed protesters who often show up at tea party rallies wearing tricorn hats and other early-American garb to demonstrate their commitment to what they say are the values of the Founding Fathers.
"Did we mock him for the people who dress up? Yes. Did we ask him if he's going to dress up like Paul Revere? Yes," said Minor, 32, a sign-language interpreter from Dayton.
However, Minor said, "it seems like the things they stand for make sense, and that we could use more of it in this country. . . . The people dressing up is kind of weird, but sometimes you have to do something like that to get people to pay attention."
In politically mixed, suburban neighborhoods, where politics often isn't regarded as polite conversation, the tea party's presence has been particularly disruptive. Take, for example, the Gadsden flag that flapped in the breeze recently not far from the Whole Foods near Old Town Alexandria. The yellow banner -- with its rattlesnake motif and the slogan "Don't Tread on Me" -- has become an emblem of the tea party movement.
To Jonathan Poole, 32, a State Department employee who recently moved in across the street, it was surprising to learn that such a friendly neighbor could get "swept up with this tea party fever."
To Patricia Woodhouse, 44, a bead shop owner who never got along with her conservative neighbor, the presence of the flag was initially puzzling. Then she read about its significance -- in the New Yorker or the American Prospect, she can't remember which -- and it all clicked. "It just went along with the crazy," she said.
But to Lisa Miller, 47, the insurance and financial services agent who put up the flag, it was a clarion call. "It's not a hostile move on my part, it's just to introduce to my neighbors that there is another way of thinking out there," she said. "Rather than see it as something aggressive, I want it to be the lighthouse in the fog."
The activists know that people call them crazy, dangerous, racist and worse. They have struggled to portray themselves as mainstream while also taking aim at the political system in a confrontational way.
They believe these are misconceptions promoted by unfair media coverage and exacerbated by the discomfort of their message, and many believe they have been persecuted for espousing unpopular views.
Tea party supporter Victoria Closson, 45, is the one of the few conservatives in her women's book club on Solomons Island in Southern Maryland, a group that meets monthly over dinner and wine. Occasionally, Closson said, the liberals gang up.
"They can be really ugly and rude," she said. "I would never suggest to your face that you are such an idiot for thinking a certain way. But I'm getting to the point where I want to. I just want to."
Carmen Nance Sanders, 59, one of the liberal members, said Closson is "a strong and smart woman" whose opinions she respects. She seems to recall that there was some eye-rolling when the women read a book she had picked out about reincarnation. "It's a ripe ground for discussion," she said. "We're smart women. We listen. We might not accept other people's views, but you go home a little enlightened."
Amid the conflict, tea party activists say, they have found kinship in one another. Just as President Obama's campaign connected a certain cross section of the country through social networks and e-mail lists, tea party activists say they have united with like-minded souls through the Web and discovered them in their own communities.
Horvath, who, after contacting her estranged friend, said she would not agree to be interviewed, went on to help organize Austin's first tea party gathering. She said she was stunned when 5,000 people showed up.
Once hesitant to share her political views publicly, she now hosts a conservative radio talk show and has started a line of T-shirts themed around her miniature pinscher, Jack. It's called "Jack's Apparel for the Politically Savvy."