Tea-party activists question if rebel political movement has changed for worse

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 3:02 PM

On the first day of December, Gena Bell walked into the lobby of the CasaMagna resort in Cancun, Mexico, both thrilled and a little wary about what was to come.

"I can't believe we're here!" she said, taking in the view of the water.

She'd had that feeling a lot recently. Two years ago, Bell was a floral arranger in Cincinnati with plenty of time on her hands (she used to trim five Christmas trees in her suburban house) and strong opinions about the direction in which the United States was going (down).

Now, she was a full-time political activist, the head of a fast-growing Ohio tea party group and an influential voice in the movement. Influential enough that Americans for Prosperity, one of the most well-heeled tea party backers in the country, had invited her to help protest a U.N. climate change conference in Cancun.

It bothered her that no one had told her why she had been invited, or just what she would be doing. But she hadn't pushed too hard to find out before saying yes. It was tough to turn down a trip to Mexico in December.

Bell changed into sandals and a summer top and got to work greeting fellow tea partiers arriving from Texas, California, all over the United States. Some she had met at tea party gatherings. Others she knew only as names in her perpetually overflowing e-mail inbox.

Nearly all of them, like Bell, had stumbled into the party after Barack Obama was elected president. They had found a calling in the early days of a chaotic, leaderless movement that beckoned to political novices who identified themselves as conservatives but felt little attachment to organized politics. With astonishing speed, the tea party evolved into a powerful force that helped overturn the political order in Washington.

But as a new cast of lawmakers takes the reins in the Capitol, Bell and many of her fellow tea partiers nationwide are feeling adrift, wondering what they are supposed to do next. The movement is changing, in their view, and not necessarily for the better.

The tea party's success has drawn hundreds of politicians and groups seeking to fasten themselves to the movement, steer it and speak for it. Millions of dollars have flowed in from corporations and rich donors, all of whom have their own ideas about what the tea party should be. This struggle for the soul of the movement has left many of its original activists facing agonizing decisions: Do they, should they, still belong?

They worry that the tea party risks selling out and losing its independence. They fear that its ragtag, rebel spirit will be drained by Washington's political pros and their establishment ways of doing business.

Bell took a more expansive view. She had welcomed the attention and resources from outside groups. Now, even she was starting to have doubts. As she mulled her future, she considered stepping away altogether and doing the unthinkable: taking a job inside government.

Bell had been delighted when Americans for Prosperity invited her to Mexico. A free-market advocacy group founded by oil billionaire David Koch, AFP was one of the nation's largest donors to GOP causes and candidates.

She was realistic enough to know that her skills as a Cincinnati tea party organizer wouldn't have much sway at a U.N. conference. Back home, she had achieved prominence in her world. The trunk of her car was still stuffed with campaign signs. Politicians all over Ohio knew her by name and courted her endorsement. One newly elected county commissioner was so impressed with her work that he was trying to persuade her to put the tea party on hold and take a job as his chief of staff.

But how was any of that relevant to a global-warming summit?

"I'm not sure what we're really going to be experiencing," Bell had said on the flight down.

She was hoping the summit would present a chance to immerse herself in the climate change debate. Her hosts, however, had other plans for her that involved standing where she was told and smiling for the cameras. Her presence lent Americans for Prosperity grass-roots credibility. For Bell, the experience was aggravating. It fed her doubts about where the movement would take her next. It made her wonder if she would want to go.

Increasing agitation

Before politics took over their lives, Bell, 49, and her husband, Ed, spent a lot of time complaining about President Obama. They were increasingly agitated about the way things were going in Obama's Washington. The Bells were troubled by the federal stimulus plan, the bailouts of the automobile and banking industries, and the president's ideas about overhauling the nation's health-care system. They were too expensive and too intrusive.

Four days a week, Gena and Ed worked out in the weight room at a YMCA with a handful of friends. Back then, Bell, a compact blonde, could bench-press her own weight. Between sets, she and her friends talked politics. They dubbed their group the Round Table, and all agreed that the government was overreaching into their lives. They bookmarked the Drudge Report and kept the radio on, following Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and local radio hosts.

Politicians, Bell said, "think that they're smarter than us and that all their decisions are going to make our lives better. The fact is, they're not."

The Bells contrasted what they saw as Washington's profligacy with their frugality. As the economy had soured, Gena and Ed, 51, had grown worried about their fortunes. Both her job in the floral industry and his as a printer seemed uncertain. They had sold their house and moved into a one-bedroom garden apartment.

They felt so alone that they even talked about chucking it all and building a place on some remote parcel of land out west. They looked in Colorado. In their fantasy, they would live off the land - and off the grid. Solar panels on the roof. Tankless water heater. They don't have children, so no one depends on them. They bought a few guns and took up target practice.

"I would have been pretty content a couple of years ago to go have a few years of very quiet living," Bell said.

That dream faded in March 2009, when the couple heard on the radio about plans for Cincinnati's first tea party rally. They went to see what it was all about and were astonished to find thousands of people in their area who shared their concerns. It was like the Round Table on steroids.

They decided on the spot to join.

" 'Oh my god, we're not alone,' " Bell remembered telling Ed. " 'There's a lot more people that think like us.' That was a very emotional day."

'Bureaucrats Gone Wild'

The morning after they arrived in Mexico, Bell and about 60 other activists boarded white vans to make the 30-minute drive toward the U.N. delegates' meeting.

The caravan stopped along a dusty shoulder, opposite a large convention center housing exhibits related to the conference. Bell and her fellow activists got out, stood along the side of the road and posed for pictures. They had all been given Americans for Prosperity T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Bureaucrats Gone Wild." They held a giant novelty check made out for $100 billion, mocking a proposal to give that much money to developing nations to combat climate change.

In front of them stood Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, waiting for his cue to begin speaking into a video camera.

"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to give $100 billion of American taxpayer money to developing nations through the United Nations," he began. "We think that with a $1.3 trillion deficit, we don't need to be doing something like that, especially for a bogus ideology that Al Gore is pushing."

And cut. Everyone back into the vans.

Next was a stop at the conference's Climate Change Village, which looked like a large fairground of exhibits, tents and buildings. Here, Phillips shot another video mocking a "relaxation room" that had a floor made of palm fronds.

It started to dawn on Bell that her high hopes of informing herself about the complexities of the global-warming debate would not be realized on this trip. She was also put off by Phillips's sarcastic tone.

She looked around the relaxation room. "I like this place," she said to Nita Thomas, her friend and fellow Cincinnati activist. "I would love to have a party here."

Bell's pique grew when Phillips shot another video belittling an exhibit that showed what an energy-efficient home might look like in the future: a small refrigerator, a low-flow shower heads and a clothes-washing basin that directed used water into a garden.

Phillips made fun of the model home's five-gallon water heater. "Good luck with that - I've got three teenagers!" he said to the camera.

"I'm not on board with this," Bell told Thomas. "Ed and I looked into that when we were looking at moving to Colorado."

By lunchtime, the activists were on their way back to the CasaMagna resort. Their work for the day was done. Bell wouldn't have a chance to talk to any U.N. delegates, listen to any proceedings or even get within shouting distance of the conference. She felt like a prop for Americans for Prosperity.

That's not how Phillips sees it. He said his organization and activists such as Bell need and feed off one another.

"You can argue about motives," he said. "But I view this as a partnership. What AFP can provide is logistical expertise and help, staff in 25 states, professionals in the political arena. We can provide some funding."

'Something totally different'

After the excitement of that first Cincinnati tea party rally settled down, Gena told Ed: " 'I'm not going to get drawn into this.' I wanted to be able to do some more investigation of what really were their goals, what were they trying to do."

But at the next meeting a month later, the group's leaders answered all of her questions the right way.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it.' "

She said it was Ed who had told her: " 'You have to get out of the floral industry. You can do so much more. You have to try something totally different.' "

Money wasn't as tight now that they had sold the house. They could get by on Ed's salary for a while. Bell became a full-time tea partier. She began attending every meeting and protest she could find. She founded one of the Cincinnati Tea Party's two dozen or so offshoots, the Eastern Hills Community Tea Party.

It felt important, and it made Bell feel important. Before she found the movement, she had kept her strong opinions largely within her circle of friends.

She had channeled her attention to detail into her job and her hobbies. Now she was drumming up 15 volunteers to counter a rally supporting health-care reform and ordering 12,000 pocket editions of the Constitution to sell to local groups by the hundred. Within months, she was juggling five e-mail accounts and fielding 50 telephone calls a day from activists and politicians.

"It's like being a Girl Scout mom," Bell said as she absentmindedly played with a "We the People" pendant around her neck.

Her involvement exploded in 2010. She campaigned for John Kasich, now the Ohio governor-elect; for Steve Chabot, an incoming congressman in Ohio's 1st Congressional District; and for Chris Monzel, an incoming member of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.

She knocked on doors, made phone calls and urged other volunteers to do the same. Once unnerved by the idea of speaking to a crowd, she was now talking to audiences of hundreds.

Bell's work received the attention of established GOP groups that were looking to get in on the fast-growing movement. AFP came calling to ask for her help on a local effort to end Ohio's estate tax. She also forged a relationship with FreedomWorks, another free-market advocacy group led by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).

Bell quickly grew comfortable working with the national groups and appreciated their resources, including training and supplies such as maps, phone lists and yard signs. They had enough in common with her goals that she thought having access to their deep pockets was worth the loss of independence that came along with cooperation.

She was pleased with the notice her work was receiving. And then the unexpected happened: Monzel, elected in November to the Board of Commissioners, asked Bell to become his chief of staff.

She had worked tirelessly for him during the campaign because of his limited-government conservatism. Monzel had spoken regularly at tea party meetings, becoming a popular figure with Bell's crowd. He also had a record of voting the right way on taxes and spending as a Cincinnati City Council member.

"There were several times when I would just hold my nose and vote - the Republicans would put up candidates who were horrible, just horrible," Bell said. Not Monzel. He was the real deal.

What she didn't realize is that Monzel had gotten to know her, too, and had come to value her hard work and her network of volunteers. "Here's a person that's organized, who has got great presentation skills, who's down to earth, who wants to change government," he said. "That's what really impressed me."

His job offer was thrilling - and frightening.

For nearly two years, Bell had been driven by the momentum of the tea party. She had focused her entire existence around the premise that government was the problem. Now she had to decide whether to keep rising as an activist taking shots at the government from her outside perch - or become part of the government herself.

Monzel presented her with a challenge. "If we don't fix it, we're going to be held accountable for it," he said.

Changing opportunities

On their second and final evening in Cancun, Bell and her activist friend Nita Thomas led an Internet video chat with a group of tea partiers assembled at a chicken wing joint in Cincinnati. Bell fretted that she didn't have much to say, because she had seen so much less than she had hoped.

"Security is incredibly intense down here," she told her viewers. She scoured her notes in vain for something substantive she had learned. "We've got two Navy warships that are posted off the coast, which you can see from our hotel window. And we passed tanks with the machine guns aimed at us, which was quite alarming."

Bell was embarrassed by her performance. She was also thinking more and more about Monzel's job offer.

Over dinner at CasaMagna's Argentinian steakhouse, Bell choked back tears as she thought about what would come of the Eastern Hills Community Tea Party if she stepped aside. She fretted about losing the independence she relished as a tea party volunteer - and her credibility as a soldier in this outsider's army. But she also doubted whether the movement could remain a scruffy rebel force much longer.

There have been signs, even among the local organizations she has worked with, that the tea party is suffering growing pains. People sometimes swoop in and want to take charge. Bell doesn't do well with those top-down groups, the ones in which a clique wants to call the shots. But maybe that is where the movement is headed - with more opportunity comes more opportunists.

"I'm really struggling," Bell told Thomas. "This last year has been amazing. This whole thing, it's the first time in my entire life I've ever felt this way, like I really made a difference to do good. Am I still going to make a difference?"

Bell will know soon enough - she took the job with Monzel. She decided it was the logical next step in her headlong political education. The way she saw it, she wasn't abandoning her fellow activists or selling out to the establishment. She and her tea party compatriots succeeded in making their voices heard. Now it was time for them, and her, to stop shouting and put their ideas to the test.

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