"You're from the mountains of North Carolina? We have a second home in the mountains of North Carolina," effused Herselie DuValle Hendrix, a retired personnel manager from Crestview, Fla., while standing in line Thursday, Feb. 4, to register for the first National Tea Party Convention. And right there, you knew that this was no ordinary gathering of grass-roots activists.
The convention in Nashville has taken a beating for more than a month from other Tea Party groups and some Republican leaders for charging a $549 registration fee plus airfare and hotel. Two groups, the American Liberty Alliance and the National Precinct Alliance, are boycotting the meetings. And Representatives Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn withdrew from speaking over concerns from the House Ethics Committee about members supporting a commercial venture a taboo under House rules. "I spoke to Marsha yesterday, and she wishes that she weren't getting mixed signals from the House Ethics Committee," says Mark Skoda, a Memphis Tea Party activist who has become the convention's unofficial spokesman.
Nashville Tea Party leaders Judson and Sherry Phillips, who organized the event, have made no secret of the fact that their group, Tea Party Nation, is a for-profit organization. But they argue that any profits are given back to the cause. "I don't run around in a sack," says Skoda, in a tan sports jacket, a black turtleneck and black slacks. "It's a misnomer that in order to be a grass-roots activist, you have to be a pauper."
Nor, apparently, do you have to be foaming at the mouth. The genteel atmosphere of the first day of the convention which is sharing the cavernous Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center with a Sherwin-Williams Paint conference and a spa-related ladies' meet-up called "Wisdom Workshops" was a far cry from the angry, raucous crowds usually associated with Tea Party protests. The only signs were one enormous photo of Sarah Palin toted by a fan and advertisements for a booth selling silver and precious-stone tea-bag pendants for $89.99. Certainly, one must have some means to attend the convention. Located next to the Grand Ole Opry arena and miles of outlet shops, the resort features five restaurants, a spa and 47 acres of buildings and botanical gardens all encased under domed glass; there's even a river walk and a showboat tour. Basic rooms start at $149 a night for parking-lot views, plus $25 a day for parking.
The talk in the registration line ranged from frustration at having to postpone retirement because of the economic downturn to the care and training of horses. Attendees were mostly white and older; there were more women than men. Some were Republicans, more were independents. To a person, they loved Sarah Palin. A couple were even Democrats. "We're been good friends with [Democratic Louisiana Senator] Mary Landrieu for years," says Glen Williams, 73. He and his wife JoAnn left their cattle ranch in Winsboro, La., to attend the convention. "But what she's done with health care," says JoAnn, shaking her head, "now we're gonna have to work against her. And we're here to learn how."
Dawn Adams, an office manager from Norwich, N.Y., got involved in the Tea Party movement last spring. She wants to see it grow to hold both Republicans and Democrats accountable to the principles of small government, though she doesn't think the movement should start a political party of its own. "I'm here to get together with other Tea Party groups," she says, toying with a golden cross around her neck. "We want to learn from one another to see what we can do. We want to take back this country from those who are robbing it blind."
The 600 Tea Partiers (plus 500 more who have bought tickets to the closing dinner Saturday night, at which Palin is slated to speak) all support "first principles" of small government and strong individual rights, Skoda says, but the meeting isn't about drafting a platform or endorsing leaders. Most of the breakout sessions revolve around practical grass-roots skills like new-media training, registering voters and forming and growing local groups. Still, a couple of sessions are overtly political: conservative Republican Tom Tancredo, a former Congressman, will be speaking on immigration, and Kitchen Table Patriots co-chair Ana Puig will discuss "Correlations Between the Current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America."
The activists are much more pragmatic than the grass roots active at Tea Party protests. Of the nearly two dozen I spoke with, all of them praised Scott Brown's election to the Senate, even when it went against their own beliefs. "It was wonderful, wonderful that he won," says Debi Keatts, who works with a pro-life group in Danville, Va. When asked about Brown's pro-choice stance, she shrugs. "We had to bite a bitter pill, but it was worth it if it helps stops this unilateral liberal agenda," she says.
Certainly, the Tea Partiers are better organized than, say, the Cindy Sheehans or Code Pinks of the left ever were during the Bush Administration. And while they cheer Brown, they aren't as forgiving with other candidates; many acknowledge that they're something of a threat to the Republican Party one they hope the GOP will take seriously and appease.
"My usual inclination when I'm frustrated is to pull a pistol out and end everything," William Temple, 59, a former Secret Service employee from Brunswick, Ga., says while pretending to fire a gun at the man standing next to him. Temple was dressed as a revolutionary Scotsman named Button Gwinett, one of the signers of the Constitution; tomorrow, he says, he'll come dressed as a British Redcoat. "I voted Republican through [Ronald] Reagan's years, and after that, everything from the Republican Party went into the trash bin," Temple drawls in a mock-Scottish accent. "Now I'll vote for any Republican, Democrat or Independent that falls along Tea Party lines. For example, I like that fellow running against John McCain," Temple says, referring to former Representative J.D. Hayworth, who's expected to challenge McCain in the Arizona Republican primary. "Sarah's a woman I hope to kiss one day. My vote for McCain was a vote for her."