In the exceptionally cold and rainy spring of 2009, April 18 was a bright and warm Saturday, and in Bucks County, Pa., about 2,000 people filled the fields of Washington Crossing Historic Park. George Washington had launched the Christmas Night attack across the Delaware River that proved the resolve of the fledgling nation in 1776, and now it was the site of the first Bucks County Tea Party. People brought lawn chairs, tiny American flags and bold yellow banners with the “Don’t Tread on Me” image from the Revolutionary War.
Jennifer Turner Stefano happened onto the scene by accident. A former television reporter, she had given birth to her first child about a week after the 2008 election and had gone into a new-mother cocoon. That Saturday, her first without visitors or rain, she told her husband that they were going to the park “if it kills me.” As they got out of the car, she took in the flags, the signs, the country music blaring from the speakers.
“Jennifer,” her husband insisted as she moved closer, “when you hear country music, you walk away from it, not toward it.”
“Take the baby for a walk,” she told him.
During the 2008 campaign, Stefano had signed up for emails from MoveOn .org, the liberal activist group. She disagreed with everything MoveOn stood for, but she was impressed with how well it mobilized energy and voters, and wanted to learn from it. She had also called the local Republican Party, offering to volunteer – be a poll watcher, a precinct captain, anything – but she could barely get her calls returned. She was struggling to find leaders she could embrace.
“No one was representing me – not the Republicans, not the Democrats,” she said. “The Republicans gave away the country. Nobody cared about the middle class or the working class at all. Nobody cared about people like me, at all.”
As she surveyed the scene at Washington Crossing, she loved the speeches, the patriotism of the crowd, and that the event had been organized by two women. “It was very motivated people, people a lot like me,” she said. “They hadn’t spent a lifetime being politicians; they didn’t go to the Kennedy School of Government; they didn’t work as a staffer on Capitol Hill.”
While her husband was walking with the baby, she signed up to join the Thomas Jefferson Club, a new local Tea Party.
“I don’t think ten minutes before I walked to that park I knew what a Tea Party was,” she said.
“At that moment, I was like, this is where I belong.”
Grooming conservative leaders
“Okay: victory,” Stefano began. “You must win. Every single one of you. You must win, win, win, win, win. If you don’t win on May 18,  you may as well bang your head against a wall.”
She stood before about 30 people jammed into tables in the front room of a restaurant that had not yet opened for the evening, its full-length curtains drawn against the bright spring Sunday afternoon outside. Some came dressed from family brunches, others in the drawstring shorts and sneakers that hinted at the lawns and Little Leagues they were missing. Six weeks until primary day, and the mission was clear. “We’re not here to talk about cap-and-trade; we’re not here to talk about candidates or endorsements or illegal immigration. It’s about winning,” Stefano said. “We have to stay on track and stay on message.”
They listened for two hours, taking notes on legal pads pulled from briefcases or leather portfolios, asking questions and sharing suggestions.
Finally, Stefano tried a little call-and-response to recap. “Our strategy right now is to …,” she said, waiting for the answer.
“Win,” they replied.
“You sound like Democrats,” she scolded. Louder: “What’s our strategy?”
It had been nearly a year since Stefano and her husband and baby had happened upon the Tea Party in Washington Crossing Historic Park. Now six months pregnant with her second child, she wore white pants and a chic black top over her bump, her blonde hair swept back, a string of coral beads from Old Navy at her throat. She had become vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Club. But that had not been enough to satisfy her ambition for change. She had recently started a group she called the Conservative Leadership Coalition, to identify and raise money for promising young candidates. And now she was trying to take over the entrenched ranks of the local Republican Party. The people in this room were her foot soldiers.
Stefano had started out more willing than many Tea Partiers to work with the Republican Party. But a year of activism had taught her that the local party officials did not want to work with the Tea Party. She now realized that before she could join the battle against the Democrats, she would have to get rid of another obstacle: the Republicans. Frustrated with the establishment, she had decided to become the establishment – or rather, to replace it. She filed papers to run for two local Republican committee positions – as a Bucks County representative to the state Republican Party, and as the committeewoman for her local precinct – and she recruited 100 other conservatives to do the same.
Stefano gave the recruits no illusions about the office they were seeking. It was the lowest possible post in the party hierarchy. But she also pointed out that the committee people from the precincts elect the party executives in the county, who in turn decide which candidates to endorse and elect the state leadership, which ultimately elects the leadership of the Republican National Committee.
“The face of the new conservative leaders?” Stefano said to her crowd. “Congratulations. You’re it.”
In the past year, her determination and her aims had sharpened. Tax Day was coming up, and she thought there might be a rally in Philadelphia, but she wasn’t sure she was going. She was focused on other things, which she explained by recalling a lesson she had learned from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who was openly gay, proudly liberal, and an emblem of everything the right hated about the left. She had read about Frank addressing a gay rights group, taking its members to task for their protests and flamboyant parades. “He was saying, you’re ridiculous, tripping down the streets. You’ve got to lobby, you’ve got to get elected,” she recalled.
“Obviously Barney Frank and I could not be on more opposite sides on just about any subject,” Stefano added. “But he’s right. We have to use our resources and our energy and our intellect wisely. To me, that is getting people elected, getting political novices to get experience.”
Communist Party lessons
Like Stefano, many Tea Partiers hold conservative views on issues like abortion, and they certainly do not share the Democrats’ desire to expand social programs like healthcare. Most of them do not seek to form a third party that would nominate candidates to run in general elections. Some went so far as to dismiss suggestions of a third party as an attempt by the left to sabotage the strength of the Tea Party.
What they wanted instead was to remake the Republican Party in the Tea Party’s image: in favor of less-invasive government, lower taxes and fealty to the view of the nation the founders enshrined in the Constitution. In the months ahead, the Tea Party’s energy would be brought to bear against the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. But in the long term, any “Second American Revolution” was going to be within the ranks of the Republican Party itself.
“I think we can do greater things working in a system that’s established than we ever can being a bunch of anarchists,” Stefano said.
And across the country Tea Partiers were doing the same thing Stefano was doing in Bucks County, recruiting Tea Party people to fill the lowest-level posts in the hope that they could take over the party from the ground up.
As the Tea Parties grew, they had help from many conservative organizations. But none moved faster or more aggressively to grow the Tea Party movement than Freedom Works, a libertarian advocacy group based in Washington D. C.
The group had been trying for years to build a grassroots movement, without much success.
In 2007, Freedom Works Chairman Dick Armey, a former congressman from Texas and a former House majority leader, and the group’s president, Matt Kibbe, wrote an op-ed article proposing the Boston Tea Party as a model of grassroots pressure on an overbearing central government. Presaging Tea Party tactics in the summer of 2009, they described how Samuel Adams packed town hall meetings with his supporters to drown out Tory voices and used each new British policy or tax as “an excuse to rally new recruits to the cause of American independence.” They wrote, “Adams was the first American to recognize that ‘it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather, an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.’ “
But the Tea Party metaphor did not take hold until two years later, amid growing popular indignation about bailouts and federal spending to try to save a failing economy.
Freedom Works took that popular outrage and shaped it with its libertarian ideology and a community organizing playbook more familiar to the left.
Kibbe created a required reading list for every Freedom Works employee. It includes Douglas Hyde’s Dedication and Leadership, which offers lessons from the Communist Party on the power of indoctrination; Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organizing; and A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, about the history of nonviolent social movements in the 20th century.
Freedom Works staff members recommended those works to local Tea Party leaders like Stafano as they traveled the country training them.
The fight against bigotry
In Bucks County, establishment Republicans did not want to relinquish control to Tea Party community organizers. Others worried about letting conservatives pull the party to the right when the conventional wisdom about winning elections is that candidates have to appeal to the middle. Tea Partiers argued instead that the Republicans had to stand for something.
“We’re not just against something, the men and women I speak to, it’s not just ‘Obama, yuck,’ ” Stefano said. “We’re not gun-toting religious nut-job racists. We’re well informed, well educated. We just want to set the course. We want to go back to the fundamentals of what the Republicans stand for: small government, strong national defense, and strong foreign policy.”
One thing that the Republicans – and the Tea Party – should not stand for, according to Stefano, is bigotry. On the weekend of March 20, when the House was scheduled to vote on the health care bill, demonstrators on both sides of the issue had swarmed the Capitol. When Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) reported that he had been called “nigger” by protesters and Frank was called a “homo,” Stefano recognized that the Tea Party had to acknowledge what had happened and repudiate it. She issued the following statement:
Under no circumstance should any Tea Party group give bigotry cover. I am sorry this incident happened. Not just because Congressman Lewis and others who were targeted did not deserve it, but those within the Tea Party movement who are legitimately fighting for their beliefs did not deserve to be sullied by a few ignorant people.
Stefano has big goals for making the Republican Party more assertive. “The lower end of Bucks County is heavily Democratic,” she said. “We have to go out and start bringing the message to the people, recruiting people to run for vacant seats there. Democratic areas, working- and middle-class places, the conservative message has to be taken there.”
Stefano is emblematic of a striking trend: A significant portion of the Tea Party organizers are women, in a movement that nearly every poll suggested was supported mostly by men. A lot of these women feel called to action and spoke, as Stefano did, as mothers, concerned for their children’s future.
“Barack Obama’s fatal mistake was that he came between me and my child’s future. And the Republicans failed to put up a defense,” she said simply. “I don’t know who likes us less, the Democrats or the establishment Republicans. I don’t care.”
‘I feel like Abbie Hoffman!’
On May 18, as the Republican establishment was turning on a dime to congratulate Rand Paul on his win in Kentucky, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania was threatening to have Stefano arrested.
As primary day dawned, pouring rain, Stefano and her Tea Party candidates for the Republican committee positions went to the polls, where they planned to stand outside the no-politicking zone and hand out sample ballots asking people to vote for them.
When they arrived, the 10 Tea Party candidates for the state committee found constables there to seize the sample ballots and instruct them to leave. “They’re going to pull me out of here in shackles seven months pregnant!” Stefano reported from her polling place. “I feel like Abbie Hoffman!”
For all that the Tea Party movement had borrowed from the left, the notion of this blonde suburban wife as the longhaired sixties radical was comical. Stefano, however, was not laughing.
The night before, in her final email before the election, she had prepared her troops for the possibility of resistance from the party establishment. She had heard from Republicans sympathetic to the Tea Party that party officials had been spreading the word that the Tea Party candidates were “illegitimate” and should be defeated. “Our party, so entrenched in their petty politics and turf wars, has turned on its own people to protect their own interests,” she warned her recruits:
That means ALL OF YOU must be STRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LET ME MODIFY MY USUAL ASSERTION: WE HAVE BETTER IDEAS AND BETTER MANNERS … SO BE POLITE … BUT NEVER BE AFRAID TO BE TOUGH… . THEY WILL SEEK TO INTIMIDATE, SMEAR AND DEFAME YOU. THEY WILL SEEK TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS BEING THE FIRST POLITICAL RACE FOR MOST OF YOU … AND THEY WILL TRY TO EXPLOIT YOUR INEXPERIENCE!!!!!! I AM TELLING YOU NOW: GIRD YOUR LOINS.
She signed off the way she had at her training sessions: “Get up early and … WIN!”
Stefano had expected a fair fight, one decided at the ballot box. Instead, the candidates endorsed by the Republican Party establishment had gone to court that morning to get an injunction against the Tea Party candidates, arguing that the sample ballots did not indicate who had authorized or paid for them, as Pennsylvania election law required. No one had told the Tea Party candidates about the hearing. By the time their lawyers could offer a counterargument – that the law applied only to candidates for public office, not party offices, and that the ballots indicated the name of the printing company that donated them – many of the people Stefano had recruited to run for the positions had gone home. Officials had told them they could not be at the polling station even to shake voters’ hands.
“I mean, I expected to get thugged up and intimidated at the polls by the Democrats, but by Republicans?” Stefano said later. “Unconscionable. I think the GOP is happy to pat us on the head and say ‘What good little protesters you are! Go out and cause problems for the Democrats.’ But when we finally want to have a say about the direction of the party, the GOP did not and does not want us involved.”
Stefano had made the best of it. After the constables seized her ballots, she held up a copy of the injunction and declared to the voters within earshot, “The Republican establishment just sued me for daring to have a voice in the party they control. My name is Jennifer Stefano, and I respectfully ask for your vote.” In the election for the state party position, she won the four districts in her town, but not countywide. Still, she won a local committee seat. And of her 100 recruits for the local committee positions, nearly 70 won.
The Republican Party, she argued, had been the real loser. “More people now realize there is a war on two fronts,” she said. “In D.C. with the Obama administration and at home against the Republican treachery that allowed people like Obama and the other progressives to flourish.”
She was taking the long view: “The people who have failed to represent us in the Republican Party have got to be targeted, they have got to go, if it takes four, six, eight, ten years. I think most machines look at people like us and think, ‘They will go away. These dumb housewives are going to go back and have babies and we’ll outlast these bastards.’ It’s not happening this time.” n
This article was adapted from Kate Zernike’s just published Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (Times Books).
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.