“Liberty is on the march,” Dan Halloran yells as he clutches a microphone in front of a gathered crowd inside Webster Hall. “Not only is it on the march, but liberty is kicking ass and starting to take names all over the United States.”
Halloran, the only libertarian New York City Council Member, was warming the crowd up for Rand Paul, son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul and current Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Kentucky.
About 100 people cheered for Halloran, a self-professed Germanic pagan and a newly elected councilmember from Queens, as they waited for Paul to arrive at Webster Hall July 12. Having paid $20 to enter—with some paying three figures and up for added treats like a posed photograph with Paul—it was turning into an expensive evening of liberty, as many purchased drinks at nightclub rates, like the $6 cans of PBR.
Webster Hall, with its marquee announcing Thursday as “Girls Night Out,” may seem like an unusual venue for Rand Paul to be speaking, but it was almost a year ago in this very spot that he’d announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate. Last May, Paul’s intentions got one step closer to reality as he won the primary and was crowned the first major Tea Party candidate in the press after praising the conservative protest movement in his victory speech.
“I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We’ve come to take our government back,” Paul said in his speech. “The Tea Party movement is huge; the mandate of our victory tonight is huge.”
Tonight, when Paul finally strides up and takes the microphone in the front of the room, he seems relaxed and speaks to the crowd in a soft and steady Southern accent. “People say, ‘Oh those Tea Party people, they’re angry.’ I say: ‘No, they’re concerned and they’re worried.’ They’re worried that we could destroy the currency by adding such a massive debt.” Paul then invoked the Nazis: “In Germany it led to Hitler.”
In the same soothing country doctor drawl, Paul begins to make the kind of argument that’s caused some political commentators to question his sanity. But this time it isn’t about liquidating the Federal Reserve, vanquishing the Department of Labor or new limits on the Civil Rights Act of 1964—all topics Paul has argued for in the past. Instead, Paul warns that deficit spending will lead to the same kind of chaos that allowed Hitler to rise to power.
“That can happen in a civilized country,” Paul says. He continues on, saying that in order to avoid a similar fate we must stop “spending and spending” and create an alternative future. “But to get to that optimism, we have to have every one of you,” Paul exhorts. “We have to have people throughout the country say: ‘Enough is enough, we’re going to come and take our government back.’”
In response, the crowd shrieks with delight and applauds the man who only a little more than a year earlier was just an eye doctor from Bowling Green, Ky., with a politically eccentric congressman for
In order to explain how a politician like Rand Paul has been nurtured in hotboxes like these and flourished, to be placed on the ballot—in a dead heat to become Senator, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey—one should consider the emergence of the Tea Party movement and how this libertarian-conservative protest blob has taken shape and adapted to places like New York City.
On a national level, the Tea Party is often clamorous and fractured. A variety of splinter groups share the “Tea Party” mantel with other, more cohesive groups. These larger groups can be fraught with disunity. Some elements might represent the liberty movement and hold the same doomsday fiscal outlook described by Paul; others are former GOPers who merely rebranded as “Tea Partiers,” now co-opting the movement for their own political gain, as Dick Armey
was accused of by several prominent
Tea Party members.
The spirit of the movement is that anyone and everyone can decide to start a Tea Party group. “The Tea Party in Kentucky is an open mic night,” Paul says to the Webster Hall crowd. “That’s what the Tea Party is, people show up and speak out.” If you can manage an email list or start a Facebook page, you can be an instant grassroots community organization.
The Tea Party movement has even gained traction in New York City, a place political commentators enjoy labeling as a “bastion of liberal elitism.” As represented by New York City-based Tea Party groups—such as Tea Party 365 and Staten Island Tea Party—the local movement exemplifies a search within the national Tea Party for hardened principles aimed at reframing political debate on the basis of fiscal policy rather than social ideology. With its distinct flavors and social currents, New York City has shaped a brand of Tea Party politics that remains unique within the nationwide movement. For instance, as a conservative protest movement existing in a city of mostly true blue Dems, the New York City movement has developed greater savvy in producing a message that’s more accessible to more Americans. A large element of this message is a celebration of diversity not seen at the national level. While emphasized in its sales pitch to create a more welcoming Tea Party, the diversity of New York’s Tea Party groups is a reality and stands as a reflection of the city itself.
The Hipster Tea Party?
Matt Barteluce walks around a Midtown loft and peers down at the slogans painted on each sign. He steps carefully through the collection of sign makers splayed out on drop cloths.
“I’m looking at these signs and thinking, ‘Is that gonna be misinterpreted?’” Barteluce says, holding a paint-splattered hand to his chin. He stops at a sign leaning against the wall that depicts a freshly painted raging teakettle with the words I’M STEAMING MAD written in bold block letters. “Like this one,” he says. “Maybe it’s too angry?”
This sign-making party hosted by Tea Party 365, the largest Tea Party group in Manhattan, was to prepare for a rally being held a week later on tax day, April 15.
Currently, Tea Party 365 has a mailing list that, according to organizers, reaches more than 10,000 members, including several hundred “active” members who can be counted upon to paint signs, serve as marshals at rallies and regularly attend Tea Party functions, like their monthly “members night” held at a Manhattan bar or restaurant.
skillfully executed drawings are packed with political meaning,
recalling Thomas Nast etchings done up as colorful Andy Warhol
The sign-making party is a cheerful event, helped along by the adults’ nostalgia for classroom memories prompted by the ample supply of poster board, markers and paint. They make jokes and chatter about the latest political outrage they’ve seen on cable news. Some are holding Budweiser tallboys or sipping white wine in plastic cups as they tiptoe around in their socks, trying not to knock over paint. If you didn’t know better, this could be a scene from a left-wing political rally. But these men and women think Marx is a bad word.
Barteluce, 29, recently graduated with an MFA from SVA and is the de-facto art director for Tea Party 365. He takes special care to vet each sign to make sure it doesn’t divert from the Tea Party 365 message: small government, fiscal responsibility and adherence to the constitution.
As an art school kid, Barteluce looks the part: skinny jeans, plaid snap button shirt and retro brown leather shoes. It’s a Friday night uniform more expected of a guy drinking beer from a Styrofoam cup at the Turkey’s Nest on Bedford Avenue than one helping to coordinate a Tea Party sign-making event in Midtown. Barteluce, who says he voted for Ron Paul in 2008, grew up in Manhattan and says his political views were shaped by his parents, who started and still run two small businesses in the city.
“I used to be in a car with my mom as a kid doing her errands, listening to Rush Limbaugh,” Barteluce says. He got his start in the Tea Party movement after speaking with a relative about politics at a family baptismal. The family member was active in a Pennsylvania Tea Party group and soon Barteluce was designing T-shirts and posters for them.
As the only conservative among his friends, Barteluce is a curiosity. “They’re liberal and after a few drinks, we’ll have friendly discussions about it,” Barteluce explains. “And they ask me about things as the ‘total right wing fanatic, conspiracy theorist.’” He says he’s even more outnumbered at art school and that he lives a double life, hiding his Tea Party activities from those around him. “Everyone just assumes I’m liberal like them. I only share it with really close friends or complete strangers.”
Barteluce has even created an alter ego for his conservative artwork, calling himself “Slim Dodger.” He’s designed Slim Dodger business cards and a Slim Dodger website that showcases his Tea Party artwork. At Tea Party events, he introduces himself as Slim and his fellow Tea Partiers all know him by that moniker. “Now more than ever does the world need conservative artists to illustrate the American political landscape,” Slim Dodger wrote on his website. Barteluce’s T-shirt and poster designs are reminiscent of mid-20th-century propaganda poster art. One poster depicts an exhausted Rosie the Riveter-esque woman asking, “How am I going to pay the bills with all these new taxes?” Above her, Join the Party! is spelled out in bold letters.
Barteluce also illustrates cartoons inspired by Tea Party issues. His skillfully executed drawings are packed with political meaning, recalling Thomas Nast etchings done up as colorful Andy Warhol silkscreens. One series charts the development of Barack Obama, first placing him in a classroom as a kid being pressured to turn on his friend “Sam,” drawn as a school boy-Uncle Sam, who none of the popular kids like. Barack complies and beats up Sam in order to become the “coolest” kid in school.
Another Slim Dodger design features a block letter T.P. encircled by an outline of the Manhattan skyline. “The skyline was David’s idea,” Barteluce says, holding up a button that features a Tea Party 365 logo. David is 48-year-old David Webb, one of Tea Party 365’s cofounders.
“American vernacular. We’re here 365 days a year, not just to protest a bill or rally,” Webb explains, speaking in clipped sound bytes, a speech pattern shaped by a career in talk radio.
“Keep it friendly, can’t be too harsh with it,” Barteluce says, dropping the button back into the pile. “Don’t want to come off angry.” Next to us, two women operate a manual button-making machine. They crank out each new button with a dull thud. When asked how she got involved with the Tea Party movement, one woman replies: “Obama is a Marxist.” She says it as if she’s telling a stranger the time of day. “I’m very angry with the administration,” she adds, punctuating the statement with another thud from the button stamper.
The Color of the Tea Party
Six weeks before the tax day rally, David Webb is sitting across a lunch table in Midtown having a discussion he’s had for most of his life. He launches easily into an explanation for his political choices as a black man.
“I picked the party that most fit my personal values,” Webb says, explaining his long allegiance to the Republican Party and history as a conservative activist. His gold Ben Franklin cufflinks flash with every hand gesture. “I’m a fiscal conservative, in my own life and in my business, and that party fit. I have this argument mostly with black people.”
Webb hosts a weekly business talk show called The Grinder on New York’s AM 970. In addition to a history in talk radio—covering everything from relationship advice to music—he’s been involved in conservative causes since he co-founded a chapter of the College Republicans as a student at Holy Cross, the liberal arts Catholic college in Massachusetts. He’s worked as a political consultant on the campaign trail and organized events like the Black Republican Forum, an annual political summit for black Republican leaders.
Webb says he knows a lot of musicians from working in radio. He even plays some percussion on the side and dreams of getting a “big ol’ bass guitar to pluck on.”
When Webb visits New Orleans for Jazz Fest, he hangs out with the Crescent City’s treasured Neville family, sometimes sitting shotgun in one of Aaron Neville’s famous Corvettes speeding down Claiborne Avenue.
Finding a Republican with these soul credentials isn’t overly shocking—take Lee Atwater, the famous Republican campaign strategist who, in a previous life, was an accomplished blues guitarist (even recording an album with B.B. King)—but it’s still not the first thing people think of when they conjure up the image of a Tea Party leader.
“They’re not going to hear my words first, they’re going to see the color of my skin,” Webb explains, acknowledging the media image of a Tea Partier, his gold music-note earring shimmering in his left earlobe. “That breaks the perception that it’s all a bunch of white, old conservatives who hate Obama and want to see him dead.”
Later at the Tea Party rally, David Webb invokes less inflammatory language, doing his best to recruit new members in a city known for its Democratic voting block.
“This is not a Republican movement,” Webb booms, as he addresses the crowd of around a thousand from a stage erected on the southwest corner of West 31st Street and Eighth Avenue. “This is an American movement: All are welcome!”
“You are scaring the hell out of them,” Lou Dobbs says. The cable news commentator is the featured speaker at the tax day Tea Party rally. “You, my friends, are dangerous. And I love that about you!”
As raindrops begin to fall, Webb invites some of his fellow Tea Party 365 members to the stage. “I want to introduce you to some people,” Webb says. “We have diversity in Tea Party 365. I want you to see the picture.” With that, three other principle members of the Manhattan Tea Party group climb the stage to stand beside him: Kellen Guida, 27, an out-of-work architect and Tea Party 365’s other co-founder; Lisa O’Neill, Tea Party 365’s main organizer, who’s a registered Democrat; and Wave Chan, their volunteer coordinator. It’s a perfect picture of diversity: a black man, a first-generation Chinese-American, a female Democrat and an architect—the only white guy among them. Knowing he had constructed a powerful image that seemed to flip the Tea Partier stereotype as a movement for white men from Middle America, Webb capitalizes on the moment.
“I want the cameras to take this shot,” Webb says. “To everyone with a camera, a video camera or a cell phone, take a picture around you, show it to everyone you know. Send them to me, fill my inbox. We’re going to show America what I showed you here on this stage: This is America.”
An Immigrant State of Mind
In order to energize the ranks with new members, the Tea Partiers I spoke with say they need to beat a perception of being conservative wingnuts. Tea Party 365 is eager to gain more members, turning to a demographic often ignored or even persecuted by conservative activist groups: immigrants. With New York City’s large swaths of immigrant populations it’s a logical step to drive recruitment, and Tea Party leaders say that recent hard-working immigrants will respond to their message of “fewer taxes and less handouts.”
Wave Chan, a 43-year-old real estate agent living in the Lower East Side, recently became a volunteer coordinator for Tea Party 365. Raised by an aunt and uncle who emigrated from China to Poughkeepsie, Chan says he’s the product of an immigrant class who view hard work as the only way to advance in American society.
“Hell yeah they’re an immigrant success story,” Chan says. “[My aunt] saved and worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. It was years before she took her first vacation. Most of my relatives are that way. They’re landlords, they own property, they invested in stocks.”
David Webb wants to appeal to prospective immigrant members in his speeches. “To those who want to be American citizens around the world,” Webb says to the tax rally crowd. “We welcome you. We want you here. We want America to be that shining example for everyone.”
The way in which Tea Party 365 courts naturalized immigrants clearly clashes with other elements in the Tea Party movement that have organized protests dedicated solely to anti-immigration issues. Tea Party Against Amnesty is a Tea Party group based in North Carolina started by William Gheen, an immigration activist who has earned himself his own “Nativist” profile page on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. The Tea Party Against Amnesty website asks Tea Partiers to demand that National Guard troops be placed “on our borders to protect American lives!” In a stark contrast to Webb’s invitation to foreigners, Gheen writes on another site: “Americans do not want to surrender or capitulate to the lawless masses rushing into our nation… The rallying cry is: Illegals Go Home!”
Tea Party Nation, a social networking site that encompasses a large segment of the Tea Party movement, simply lists “secure borders” as one of their top priorities. “Tea Party Nation has a more social conservative bent,” Webb says. “New York has something else.” Webb believes the city’s diversity and capitalist nature could dovetail with Tea Party recruitment. “New York is very unique in that you have a combination of a number of cultural identities, but you have a business mentality and a metropolitan mentality. Those are the people who I want the message to keep repeating with.”
They’ve also sought to scrub clean much of the angry rhetoric associated with other boisterous Tea Party rallies. When Lisa O’Neill, 53, took a bus down with other New York area Tea Partiers to the national Tea Party march on Washington last September, it was an eye-opening experience. She said she was overjoyed to find all these like-minded people gathered in one place, but she also noticed some differences between herself and some of the other groups present.
“It was funny being down in D.C.,” O’Neill says, adding an observation that could be interpreted as typically New Yorker, rather than Tea Partier. “We got the obesity problem in America. I was saying, ‘Oh my god the other Tea Party groups are fatter than New Yorkers.’”
Put off by some of these radical elements, she says the blurring of ideology and policy can be explained by the Tea Party as a big tent protest movement. “It’s the rule of large numbers, in any large group you’re gonna have some whack-a-doodles,” O’Neill explains. “Do we have whack-a-doodles in the Tea Party? Yes. Are there some Tea Party groups so extreme that they’re scary? You betcha.”