The tea party next door: Friends, neighbors divide over political lines

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Saturday, October 2, 2010

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."

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