Tea Party activists consider legislative races

Can a coalition of bikers, Chris Dodd haters, gun owners, Ron Paul lovers, tax protesters, Libertarians and a preacher or two find happiness under the umbrella of constitutional fundamentalism?

Connecticut is about to find out.

Elements of the Tea Party, the ultimate outsiders group, are moving toward the mainstream, trying to channel an edgy energy into more than two dozen Republican campaigns for the General Assembly.

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Sens. Dan Debicella and Michael McLachlan, in suits, listen to Tea Party organizer Tanya Bachand at a news conference

“This is the next logical step,” said Tanya Bachand, an organizer. “We can rally all day long. I can have an email roll of 50,000 people, by the time this is all said and done. But what good is it going to do me if we don’t turn this into some sort of political action?”

It may be a logical step, but not necessarily an easy one for a loose confederation of 28 grassroots groups that has no top-down structure and shares a healthy wariness of the political establishment on both sides of the aisle.

Bachand said as many as 40 activists from the movement are considering running for the legislature, all as Republicans, even though the movement is officially non-aligned.

Joe Markley of Southington, who had a brief career as a Republican state senator courtesy of the Ronald Reagan landslide in 1984, already has conducted a candidate school for those Tea Party members serious about running.

Markley said he sees some of the same energy in the Tea Party movement that conservatives felt in 1984.

“That has been on my mind,” said Markley, who is running again for state Senate.

Republican State Chairman Chris Healy is in regular contact with Bachand, Markley and other organizers, but he believes a close embrace is not what this relationship needs to flourish.

“This movement is in many ways against the established order. We have our part of that equation,” Healy said, referring to the growth of the federal government under the GOP.  “It’s important to listen to the disparate voices out there. If we can harness some of that energy through volunteers, it will naturally happen.”

On Wednesday, the Connecticut Grassroots Alliance, an umbrella group for the diverse, somewhat amorphous movement known as the Tea Party, was at the Capitol to lobby for a resolution re-asserting state’s rights under the Tenth Amendment.

The amendment, which reserves to the states all powers not delegated to the federal government, is the foundation of a conservative belief that the federal government has trampled on state’s rights on a wide range of issues.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, and Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, were among the legislators who shared a microphone with Bachand and Deborah Stevenson to talk about why the General Assembly should take a stand against an overreaching federal government.

McLachlan and Debicella didn’t flinch when Stevenson matter-of-factly stated her belief that the U.S. Supreme Court has no authority to interpret the Constitution. Or when others questioned if Social Security and Medicare were appropriate activities for the federal government.

The two senators said they did not share those beliefs.

“I don’t agree with 100 percent of the positions of the Republican Party, either,” Debicella said.

“I happen to agree with the particular issue of states’ rights and affirming the Tenth Amendment,” McLachlan said.

But exactly where the movement would go beyond affirming the Tenth Amendment is unclear.

“These are people who, side by side, if they had to go through a candidates’ questionnaire they would be all over the place,” said McLachlan, whose cousin is an appellate judge in Connecticut.

In some states, activists have cited the Tenth Amendment as a reason to object to federal laws prohibiting drug use, include medical marijuana.

On Wednesday, one of the Republicans supporting the resolution was Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the legislature’s most prominent opponent of medical marijuana.

Stevenson acknowledged that not everyone in the movement shares her view that the U.S. Supreme Court has no place interpreting the Constitution.

“I am an appellate attorney, and I argue before the state appellate and supreme courts all the time,” she said. “I think the power we live by is with the legislature, not the courts.”

Bachand, who is a personal injury lawyer, said she is late to political activism, but was drawn to the Tea Party.

“I kept meeting people at these Tea Parties. It occurred to me that I knew them, but they didn’t know each other. I thought, ‘Well ,why don’t well get together and become a bigger force?’ I had never done anything like this in my life,” she said.

She hosted a meeting last July at her house in Wallingford.

“There were guys who came on their motorcycles in their leather jackets and bandanas and then there were people who came in their button down suits,” she said. “It started at 3 and the last person left my house at 2 in the morning.”

Bachand said she was stunned to learn how many legislative seats were uncontested and thought about how the movement could supply candidates.

“The reality is politics is where you have to play this game,” she said. “You can’t play it on the street corner. That’s where you get out your message and grow your rolls and you educate the folks, but you have to get down and dirty in the mud at some point.”

Bachand offered herself as a candidate to oppose Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford.

The local Republican town committee declined, saying that a local candidate who ran two years ago already was running again. Bachand said she also detected some wariness about the movement.

John Whitcomb of Danbury, one of the buttoned-down Tea Party members, said the movement’s relationships with organized politics remains tenuous.

The Tea Party is a tiger, and politicians should remain wary.

“The politician who thinks he can grab the tiger by the tail to corral it is going to get eaten,” he said.