Where the Tea Party Runs Strong

In a town with two mayors, a distrust of government — and the President

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Lynsey Addario / VII For TIME


They call the city Texarkana because the Texas-Arkansas state line runs right through the middle of town. So there are two of everything--two city halls, two mayors, two police and fire departments. The politics are pretty much the same on both sides of the line, though: the Tea Party runs strong here. "We have such great opportunities to affect the way government operates because we have so much government here," says Jeff Akin, a radio talk-show host who helped found the Bowie County Patriots a few years ago. "Our goal is to elect conservative Christians to office."

The Miller County Patriots meet over on the Arkansas side every Tuesday night at Big Jake's Bar-B-Q. The Texarkana, Ark., mayor, Wayne Smith, shows up most weeks to give a report. Miller County Judge Larry Burgess--the most important elected official in the county--shows up too. Richard Wagnon, a local Tea Party activist, repeated the line about conservative Christians to me just before a mid-September meeting attended by about 30 people. But it was interesting: there wasn't any talk about so-called cultural issues when the meeting started--no mention of abortion, evolution or immigration. It was all about too much government: too much government regulation, too many people dependent on government.

It didn't take much prodding for Mayor Smith to launch into an epic rant about the evils of Social Security disability payments, which have replaced welfare as a source of money for those unable to work. "We pay for every drunk, every drug addict," the mayor said. "They get three times the amount my father-in-law does on Social Security retirement." A woman named Sandra Powell said she was outraged that children with attention-deficit disorder are eligible for disability payments too. "I don't believe we have any legal or moral obligation," Smith continued, "to pay any money to people too drunk or lazy to work." This received a big round of applause.

But there was a piece of legislation that seemed to bother the Miller County Patriots even more than disability payments: the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, which Congress passed last year. A builder named Curt Green said that in the past, he had always received "character loans" from his local banker--that is, he was a known quantity with a good repayment record--but they weren't available anymore. "I had to move quickly on this one property," Green said, "but the bank said they couldn't get me the money for six weeks because of the Dodd-Frank process. My deal fell through." Earlier, Wagnon had told me a similar story, about his inability to expand his nursing-home business. And still earlier in the day, I'd met with Dennis Ramsey, a banker who is the mayor of Hope, Ark.--Bill Clinton's hometown--and not a Tea Party member. He told a similar story: "Nowadays, I just hope those people walking through the door of the bank aren't looking to buy a house." The Dodd-Frank process was so complicated that his bank subcontracted its home loans to a mortgage specialist. Ramsey said he understood that the law was, in large part, a response to mortgage mongers' racking up volume by giving loans to people who didn't understand what they were getting into, "but we're a small, rural bank, and the government only thinks in terms of one size fits all."

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