At Va. tea party gathering, insurgents worry GOP will 'co-opt the movement'

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 10:53 PM

RICHMOND - The record number of tea party activists who gathered in Virginia's capital city Friday had initially joined the fledgling movement in the past year with the idea of overthrowing the establishment in one way or another.

But on Friday, some worried that the establishment was taking over their grass-roots movement.

At the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention, the state's top three elected officials, including Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, and a smattering of other current and former Republican elected officials, including former senators George Allen of Virginia and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, were invited to speak.

"Some number of elected officials make sense, but we don't want to come off like this is the establishment,'' said Dan Arnold, chairman of the Manassas Tea Party, which formed in April and boasts more than 200 members. "Our job is to hold the establishment accountable."

The tea party, still in its infancy in Virginia, includes many members who supported McDonnell and fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II last year but still consider themselves independents or libertarians. Some even voted for Democrats in past years.

"Some in our group are worried it will be too much of a Republican show and they are letting Republicans control it,'' said Robert Alexander of Newport News, one of the organizers of the Peninsula Tea Party, which was created on tax day in 2009. "Everyone is concerned the Republicans are going to co-opt the movement."

But organizers of the two-day convention - the largest such gathering in the nation - were quick to say they would not let elected leaders give speeches, which would have violated their rules - but instead asked them to answer questions as part of panels.

"There's enthusiasm that the politicians are willing to come and participate on panels and do it differently than it's usually done," said Jamie Radtke, chairwoman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and the convention's lead organizer. "People want to engage with their representatives. . . .What we're looking for as a tea party is to get substantive answers to important questions."

'Government too big'

Some say they want to hear from elected officials three weeks before the midterm elections and that the real test will be what happens after November.

McDonnell and Bolling received standing ovations and prolonged applause when they talked about Virginia's legal fight against the federal government regarding the recently enacted health-care law. The governor also fired up the crowd when he committed to a proposed constitutional amendment giving states authority to repeal federal legislation.

The two spoke on a panel about government reform, answering questions about taxes, federal stimulus money and McDonnell's commission to streamline government, which has recommended dozens of proposals, including privatizing the state's 76-year-old liquor monopoly.

"Government is too big and tries to do too much,'' Bolling said. "Government is reaching into areas it shouldn't."

More than 2,300 activists were expected at this weekend's convention in downtown Richmond, and on Friday they were still arriving from all corners of the state. They wore stickers that said "Guns Save Lives," "Cut Spending" and "Ken Cuccinelli for President" and waved posters that said "Socialism Isn't Cool" and "Don't Believe the Liberal Media."

_blankGarret Lloyd King, a songwriter from Washington state who will perform his song "My Baby's So Hot She Caused Global Warming" on Saturday, was hawking a variety of bumper stickers, including these crowd favorites: "Obama Spoke, Now I'm Broke;" "Palin 2012 You Betcha" and "Don't Tread on Me."

Basic GOP values

McDonnell said in an interview that the tea party stands for basic fundamental Republican values, including limited government, lower spending, reduced debt and a return to basic principles of federalism.

"Now, I realize the tea party is a movement - it is not a political party per se,'' McDonnell said. "But I think it's important to engage people that were largely Republican and frankly may have lost confidence because they saw some Republicans get elected, not govern as fiscal conservatives, come up with more big-government solutions or higher taxes, more regulation, and they got disenchanted."

McDonnell, who tried to moderate his image last year to win over Democrats and independents in the governor's race, received a warm reception, although some in the crowd complained that he should not have embraced federal stimulus money, fees to balance the state budget and taxes in his proposal to privatize the state liquor stores. His staff passed out fliers stating that his liquor privatization proposal would not raise taxes.

"Is the governor going to fight for limited government, or is he going to be soft on limited government? You hear a lot of chatter about it. But let me just say this: The governor was elected for limited government and lower taxes. He needs to follow that,'' said Ron Wilcox of Fairfax County, founder of the Northern Virginia Tea Party. "There's been some troubling signs. I won't deny that. But there's still time."

The convention includes dozens of smaller breakout panels including conservative leaders from across the nation debating Social Security, illegal immigration and the financial crisis.

But the elected leaders got the most prominent billing, much as they would at any conference, despite some grumbling from rank-and-file activists.

Karen Hurd, who founded a Hampton Roads tea party group in March 2009 after growing frustrated with the federal government's repeated bailouts of large companies, said activists want to hear from elected officials.

"This isn't supposed to be an echo chamber,'' she said. "We want to hear from all these newsmakers.''

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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