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For D.C.'s few tea party residents, home can at times feel like enemy territory

By Steve Hendrix
Sunday, February 13, 2011; A01

Barbara Schauer fits right in with the other coffee-sipping urbanites at the Kramerbooks cafe in Dupont Circle. She lives in a Logan Circle condo, dines out regularly with gay friends and walks her two dogs along the sidewalks of a city she loves. Like most of her neighbors, she supports abortion rights. And she's an environmentalist.

But one thing sets her apart.

"I'm a member of the Washington D.C. Tea Party," Schauer replied with a smile when a man at the next table asked what she was discussing with such enthusiasm.

His own smile froze. "Oh," he said, finally.

And what did he think of the tea party?

"Not very much," he said, gathering his things and walking away. "Sorry."

"That's what I always get," Schauer said. "Very dismissive."

To be a tea party enthusiast in the District means being treated as an oddity, both by other Washingtonians and by other tea party members. At several rallies Schauer has attended on the Mall, the surprise worked the other way. "You live here?" the out-of-town activists asked her.

"They look at me suspiciously, like I'm an infiltrator," she said. "I tell them D.C. is a great place to live. I feel like the D.C. welcome wagon."

To many of the thousands of tea party activists in Washington this weekend for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the District is the root of the problem, home to an out-of-control federal government and the bloated ranks of civil servants who staff it. But it is also home to a few of their fellow faithful. A very few.

Ben Tessler, a Wesley Heights real estate agent who co-founded the National Capital Tea Party Patriots, said he knows of maybe 30 District residents who are active with tea party causes, not counting professional organizers and congressional staffers. His group, which has been around for more than a year, used to meet at a Georgetown hotel but now gathers each month at a swim club in Bethesda, just outside the Capital Beltway. "It's cheaper," Tessler said.

The chapter Schauer signed up with last year, the Washington D.C. Tea Party, has more than 200 members, but only a handful of them live in the District. Many hail from Virginia or Maryland, but most are group leaders from other parts of the country. The chapter was founded by Tom Whitmore, a retired cabinet builder from Manassas, mainly to support other tea partyers when they travel to the nation's capital. They meet the buses, put up volunteers, help nervous outsiders navigate the city.

"We have a few members who live there in Washington, but not many," Whitmore said.

At last week's meeting of Tessler's group, when the leader asked the 36 attendees who was from Maryland, 35 hands went up.

That left the D.C. contingent at one.

"It can be rough," that singular Washingtonian said of being a lonely tea partyer in Washington. His name is Brian, a 35-year-old software developer from Columbia Heights who asked that his last name not be used because he didn't want to be famous as "Brian the tea party guy." His politics come up enough already at his regular nights out at Adams Morgan watering holes.

"All my friends are liberal," he said. "It's always me against 10 other people."

A former punk rock bassist from a town just south of Richmond, Brian is a hard-core libertarian. He speaks approvingly of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, although he knows others at this meeting feel differently.

"Those views aren't popular with a lot of tea party people, but they are nice about it," he said. "They'll say, 'I don't agree with you, but I'm glad you're here.' "

But it's when he talks about individual rights, personal responsibility and the creeping intrusiveness of government that the words come fast and he literally bounces on his toes. Like all the local activists interviewed for this story, he sees an expansion of federal power that he considers an existential threat to America.

"I fear for my country," Brian said.

Living a tea party life in the District means nonstop mismatches between neighborhood and ideology. It means rooting for slashing government while living in a local economy that owes its existence in large part to the federal Treasury. It means decrying meddlesome social programs when many of your fellow citizens live on some kind of assistance.

But these activists say they don't feel like aliens in Washington. They embrace city life and emphasize fiscal over social conservatism. If the city is more liberal and the local government more intrusive than they would like, they're okay living in respectful opposition. Not liking the D.C. Council doesn't spoil the beer available on 18th Street NW.

"There's some discomfort about certain issues," Brian said. He laments the low rankings the District gets on surveys about quality of business environment, for example, and he hailed the U.S. Supreme Court's gutting of local gun-control laws. "But when I look around my neighborhood, I take comfort in the fact that this is all a democratic process," he said. "I love living in Washington."

As for deep cuts in federal agencies that could put many local workers out of their jobs, Schauer said she would do nothing as fast as some GOP firebrands have called for. But freezing wages and slowly shrinking government? That would be fine with this daughter of one civil servant (her father was an engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and neighbor of countless others.

"The government is not a jobs program," she said, quoting former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, a politician she admired.

Like Brian, whom she has never met, Schauer wrote in outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's name in November's mayoral election.

"It was really a vote for [Schools Chancellor Michelle] Rhee," Brian said. "She was doing something courageous."

Both D.C. activists bristle at what they describe as the media's cartoon portrait of tea party members as ignorant rubes and racist rednecks.

Schauer is a board-certified civil engineer who grew up in Bethesda and works out of the Vermont Avenue NW house she bought 20 years ago, back when she had to clear used syringes from her yard. She is a registered independent whose presidential votes include, in reverse order, John McCain, Ralph Nader, George W. Bush and Ross Perot.

Schauer attended her first tea party rally in 2009 and was impressed with the wittiness of the signs, the upbeat vibe, and the detailed critiques of the Federal Reserve and national budget.

"This was pretty sophisticated," she said. "They weren't just chanting 'We hate Congress.' "

Brian's politics turn out to be a lightning rod for arguments, most recently including a challenge from friends of the woman he is dating.

"They said, 'Your boyfriend listens to Glenn Beck? Did he graduate from high school?' " recounted Brian, who is finishing his master's degree in computer science and bioinformatics at Johns Hopkins. "They believe a lot of what they hear in the left-wing news media. They don't know any real tea party people."

At the meeting, Tessler collected $5 donations to help pay for that night's speaker, a former ACORN staffer who described alleged voter fraud by the community organizing group.

Tessler, who has lived in Washington for 30 years, said he doesn't feel uncomfortable in the District, in part because he spends so much time these days with other tea party followers. But his new activism has cost him two friendships.

"They're more liberal, and I became a big problem for them," he said. "It wasn't a big problem for me that they believe what they believe. I guess I am just more tolerant than they are."

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