Coaxing the Tea Party to ‘put down the sign and pick up a phone’

The challenge of converting the Tea Party in Connecticut from political theater to campaign muscle was embodied Friday in Kevin Childs of Bristol, one of the colorful throng at an anti-tax rally outside the State Capitol.

Childs stood between a pony-tailed man holding the Stars and Stripes and a woman in dark glasses waving the familiar yellow Gadsen flag, a snake slithering over the legend, “Don’t Tread On Me.” None of them ever has volunteered on a political campaign.

“You can vote in as many people as you want,” Childs said, but nothing changes.

Tea Party

Protest, yes. But will they campaign?

It is a sentiment that runs deeply through the Tea Party movement in this blue state, and it frustrates conservative activists, who marvel that so many people will turn out for a rally to boo every mention of higher taxes, yet do nothing to tilt elections.

“It’s really great to wave a yellow flag with a snake on it. It’s fun, especially when the sun is out,” said Rob Simmons, the Republican former congressman and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, who watched the rally. “It doesn’t get you a darn thing.”

Jack Fowler of Milford, the publisher of the conservative National Review, looked out over the crowd from the top of the north steps of the Capitol and said he has lost patience with people who think that waving a sign is political activism.

Three steps beneath him, a man blew a long plastic horn, the kind sold at soccer games and parades. A coffin labeled Obamacare stood in a corner. After every speaker, a sound system blared snippets of the Beatles’ song, “Taxman.”

With two hands, a smiling woman held a sign, “We’re angry because you’re not listening.”

“We need you to put down the sign and pick up a phone,” said Fowler, who is about to launch the Roger Sherman Liberty Center, a think-tank/candidate school that will attempt to transform complaining into campaigning. “This will be a very difficult undertaking, but it’s worth a try.”

Tom Scott, who organized the anti-income tax rally in 1991 that drew more than 40,000 to the Capitol, told Friday’s crowd, estimated by police at 750 people, they need to take the next step, involve themselves in a campaign and elect someone. He told them that Fowler’s liberty center was a cause to embrace, a resource to use.

“We need staying power,” Scott told the crowd. “The left has staying power. But you know what? There are many more of us.”

But they don’t always vote, much less volunteer. A Tea Party candidate lost Tuesday in a special election to fill a House seat in Stamford, a five-way race where a well-organized minority could have decided the outcome.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Democrat derided on signs as “Dan Dan the Tax Man,” won last fall by the smallest margin in 56 years, supported by well-organized members of unions and the Working Families Party, who walked door to door and staffed phone banks.

On Feb. 22, just six days after Malloy proposed a $1.5 billion tax increase, Republicans won only two of seven vacant legislative seats in special elections, a result that Fowler called “a disaster” for the GOP establishment and evidence of the need to mobilize the Tea Party.

One of the Republican winners was Len Suzio of Meriden, a Republican backed by the Tea Party. He won a Senate seat owned by Democrats for decades. His campaign manager was Scott, whose old friend, Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, was the only Tea Party candidate to win a legislative seat in November.

A few Tea Party activists have made the jump to elective politics.

Tanya Bachand, who acted as M.C. on Friday, is a Tea Party activist who managed the congressional campaign of Republican Jerry Labriola in the 3rd Congressional District last fall. She preaches involvement.

Enraged by the bailout of Wall Street, Jerri MacMillian of Essex volunteered for Martha Dean’s campaign for attorney general last year and attended a Tea Party training program at The Leadership Institute in Arlington, Va.

“We need to organize,” McMillian said. “We need to understand what the processes are, and we need to get our hands dirty.”

MacMillian smiled at the mention of dirty hands. She acknowledged that too many in the Tea Party movement not only distrust government, but they distrust politics.

“You have to get over it,” she said.

Fowler said the right has no political infrastructure to match the left in Connecticut, where Republicans hold no statewide office or congressional seat. On the left, activists gravitate to organizations dedicated to the belief that government can be a force for social good and that elective offices are a prize worth seeking.

“These people just want to be left alone,” Scott said.

The State Capitol wasn’t viewed as a prize Friday.

“Welcome to the belly of the beast!” yelled Joseph B. Visconti, a Republican who once served on the town council in West Hartford.

The crowd laughed and applauded. And that’s one of the challenges for people like Tom Scott, Jack Fowler and Jerri MacMillian.

They have to convince the Tea Party that the belly of the beast is the place to be.