Tea for Texas

It has more supporters here than anywhere else. It fueled the Republican landslide. It has its own caucus. But what is the tea party? And how will it use its power?

February 2011By Comments

Tea party activists rallied at the Capitol on April 15, 2010, to protest against government spending.

Something had clearly gone wrong. It was the evening before Election Day, and I was standing in the shadow of Loop 610 in Houston in front of the strip mall headquarters of the tea party group known as the King Street Patriots. Amid the bustle of volunteers, I had managed to locate the group’s founder and president, Catherine Engelbrecht, a tall, comely German American, and she seemed amenable to letting me spend Election Day with her outfit, provided I call her attorney to make sure it was kosher. She handed me the number for Jennifer Grisham, of the Liberty Institute, in Plano. Grisham seemed pleasant enough too and promised to get back to me shortly, but now twenty minutes had gone by and no call back. Worse, the NFL-sized security guard at the door had suddenly told me to get off the sidewalk after impassively watching through his wraparound sunglasses as I chatted with volunteers for half an hour.

Finally I called Grisham again. “I think, under the circumstances, we’ll have to decline,” she said. After some hemming and hawing, she came to the point: I had been Googled, and the results were not favorable. The sticking point was a fellowship I had received in 2003 from the Open Society Institute, a George Soros organization. I might as well have enlisted in a satanic coven. Soros, the billionaire funder of progressive causes, is the devil to a certain kind of conservative. A single interview the next afternoon was the best they could offer me, and I was not to set foot inside the King Street offices; Engelbrecht would meet me at the barbecue joint next door.

In Engelbrecht’s defense, she had reason to be leery. She was fighting two lawsuits. The first was filed against the Patriots by the Texas Democratic Party, accusing the group of politicking on behalf of Republican candidates without first submitting to the proper registration and disclosure requirements. The second lawsuit was filed against her personally for allegedly defaming Fred Lewis, the director of Houston Votes, a voter registration drive that had, as it happened, been partially underwritten by Soros. Engelbrecht had declared war on Houston Votes after examining the group’s voter registration forms and finding thousands of errors—evidence, she suggested, of voter fraud. The King Street Patriots was one of several tea party groups that had selected voter fraud as its main organizing campaign leading up to the election. It proved itself by far the most effective, training hundreds of poll watchers and launching an initiative called True the Vote, which featured a well-produced, if somewhat inflammatory, video on its website of Engelbrecht warning of the dangers of stolen elections. The video, which twice cuts to throngs of people of color when the voice-over discusses fraud, has been labeled racist by a number of Houston Democrats. As an organizing tool, however, its value is obvious, and it has helped turn Engelbrecht into a grassroots heroine.

So it was perhaps appropriate that she arrived for our interview the next day with a handler of sorts: a pugnacious and burly 42-year-old former Justice Department attorney from Virginia named J. Christian Adams. A minor celebrity himself, Adams had quit the department in June to protest its handling of a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and now marketed himself as a voter fraud consultant. Engelbrecht had her own beef with the New Black Panthers. Quanell X, the leader of the group’s Houston chapter, had warned that he would keep an eye on King Street’s poll watchers on Election Day. (“We will not tolerate any intimidation tactics coming from them against our elderly, our women, and our young people,” he told Houston’s Fox affiliate.) Adams seated himself next to Engelbrecht and leaned forward on his elbows. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes,” he announced.

The story of political awakening that Engelbrecht told me was so familiar in its themes and pivotal moments that she could have been reading from a tea party script. For most of her adult life, Engelbrecht, who lives in Fort Bend County and owns a manufacturing company with her husband, had tended to vote Republican but had considered herself an independent, though she was never particularly active politically. On the morning of February 19, 2009, she happened to be watching CNBC when business commentator Rick Santelli delivered a diatribe against President Barack Obama’s proposed bailout of the home mortgage industry. Santelli compared the bailout to Cuban communism and said that the Founding Fathers were rolling over in their graves. “It’s time for another tea party,” he shouted.

“Something in me said, ‘I get that,’ ” Engelbrecht recalled. “I get that sense that it’s just out of control, and we as citizens have got to engage and be accountable for the direction that we’re heading.” Six weeks later, on tax day, Engelbrecht took her husband and two kids to a rally in downtown Houston. “People were coming out of the skyscrapers, coming out of the law offices, the oil companies, and anything else that offices down there to join the rally. They were saying, ‘What is happening here?’ ”

What was happening in Houston was the same thing that was happening across the country: Distrust of the federal government and anxiety about the country’s direction were coalescing into a grassroots movement. There was no more-fertile ground for this blossoming than Texas, where at least two hundred tea party groups formed over the course of the next year. Some, such as the King Street Patriots, were highly organized, while others were little more than a couple of friends and an infrequently updated website. The sheer number of people inspired by the movement didn’t become fully evident until Election Day, when 47 percent of Texas voters told exit pollers that they supported the tea party—the highest rate in the country. Their turnout produced the kind of benchmark election—a Republican gain of 22 seats in the Texas House—that has the potential to profoundly change state government.

But will it? That depends in large part on whether the story of the tea party in Texas has a second act. It’s a question that has the full attention of elected officials from both parties as the new legislative session gets under way. Will hearing rooms be packed with tea party activists, bird-dogging key votes and enforcing a new brand of ideological discipline? Or has the movement’s power already peaked? It’s really a new version of the same question observers have been asking since early 2009: Who are these people and what do they want?

By the end of our interview, Engelbrecht had decided I was okay. “You just scared me, that’s all,” she said. She invited me to the King Street Patriots’ party to watch the election returns in the downtown ballroom of the elegant Post Rice Lofts, a renovated turn-of-the-century hotel. When I arrived at seven, a local talk radio station, KSEV, was setting up for a live broadcast. Many of the attendees seemed to have heard about the event from KSEV host Sam Malone, whose morning talk show has become a clearinghouse for tea party news. “I never miss the show,” said Inna Sysman, a striking Ukrainian with long, dark hair who immigrated to the United States in the eighties. “For me what’s going on in the country resembles a lot what I was going through in former Soviet Union, like the health reform, the distribution of wealth, political correctness,” she said. “That’s what I was living through in Soviet Union, and I don’t want to live it again.” Bob and Pat Sims, an older couple in matching Texas flag T-shirts, wanted to talk about socialism too. “It’s not only the economy, it’s the fundamental change that Obama wants—to take this country and turn it into a socialist country,” said Bob, who was a Democratic party precinct chair thirty years ago. “We read his book. We knew beforehand what he was.”

The room had begun to fill by the time Wolf Blitzer delivered the first big news of the night: Delaware tea party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell had gone down in flames despite the endorsement of Sarah Palin, as Karl Rove and other establishment Republicans who opposed her candidacy had predicted she would. It was bitter news, but the attendees seemed to take it in stride. “I’d rather have a true conservative lose to a Democrat than have a RINO Republican win,” one man said. This is the kind of thinking that drives professional Republicans like Rove insane. The “Republican in Name Only” that O’Donnell beat, along with a handful of other moderates who lost to tea party candidates in Senate primaries, could have given the Republicans a real shot at a Senate majority.

A few minutes later a cheer went up as U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul, the son of legendary contrarian congressman Ron Paul, declared victory in Kentucky. This happy report was followed by a relentless string of good news from around Texas and the nation as the Democratic apocalypse unfolded. The bartenders got busy and the crowd began to get loose. But not too loose. There were lots of blazers and slacks in evidence, relatively few Joe the Plumbers, and virtually none of the wacky buttons, hats, and other election-season wonderama seen at party conventions. It was the kind of gathering you might find in a private box at a UT football game or a fund-raising reception for a Republican congressman, and it was hard not to wonder: Why weren’t these people at one of the dozen or so poll-watching parties being held by Republican candidates all over Harris County? Or, for that matter, why does Texas, with a thriving, extremely conservative Republican party, need a tea party movement at all? Engelbrecht and her fellow organizers could have just become precinct chairs. Why reinvent the wheel?

Because many of them thought that the wheel was broken. Despite the massive boost the GOP was about to receive from the tea party movement, there was a palpable sense in the ballroom that the Republican label had been tainted in recent years. “Independent” was the preferred term when partygoers were asked to name their affiliation. For all the rhetoric aimed at Obama, many tea partyers remember that the first big bailout occurred on President George W. Bush’s watch. “[Bush] said we have to abandon our free market principles in order to save the free market,” Engelbrecht had told me earlier that afternoon. “That didn’t make sense to me.”

Engelbrecht and others bristle at the idea that the tea party is merely a spinoff of the Republican party. Republican operations such as Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity have helped steer the movement over the past two years, but neither organization created the tea party phenomenon. It grew organically out of a general sense that the country was going to hell, and that is something that cannot be manufactured. But nor is it something entirely new. As the historian Sean Wilentz recently observed, if the tea party has an analogue in U.S. history, it’s the John Birch Society, which saw a communist plot in Social Security and demonized JFK the way tea party icons like Glenn Beck do President Obama. Even the ghost of the Birchers’ great nemesis, Saul Alinsky, the prototypical community organizer, who died almost forty years ago, has been dragged back out for a good kicking. “I’ve been politically active for a long time, but I only recently read Rules for Radicals,” Bob Sims told me. “And it’s shocking how that’s being used by Obama.”

When the sun came up the next morning, the world of Texas politics looked dramatically different. That included the Speaker’s race in the Texas House, where the incumbent, San Antonio Republican Joe Straus, owed his position to the loyalty of a large Democratic bloc that had just been voted out of existence. Immediately after the election, Straus announced that he had already collected pledges of support from 122 members, more than enough to retain the gavel for another session. But Straus, whom many conservatives blamed for the failure of a voter ID bill and other hot-button legislation last session, had collected these promises before anybody knew just how big the Republican rout would be. Conservative standard-bearers immediately set about rallying tea party groups across the state to get behind a more conservative Speaker. Even Armey came out against Straus. But as of this writing, the coup seemed unlikely to succeed. Most of the newly elected members pledged to Straus or didn’t announce any allegiance at all.

The fundamental problem that Straus’s opponents ran into was that getting rid of him was never really a tea party goal. At rallies over the past two years, it was Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who were being pilloried, not Straus, a name that many activists had never even heard before November. Greg Holloway, an Austin attorney and a board member of Austin Tea Party Patriots, said Armey’s people called and asked if he needed any “help” on the Speaker’s race. But Holloway’s group ultimately decided not to take sides. “We’ve said what we want is conservative leadership in the House so that we can get our priorities addressed: voter ID, immigration reform, shrinking the budget,” he said. “Joe Straus could be that person or it could be somebody else.” The lesson of the Speaker’s race was not that the tea party is weak or that the new House is not the most conservative in a generation. The lesson is the same one Rove learned in Delaware: It’s hard to bend a leaderless movement to your agenda.

So is it the tea party’s House or not? As candidates, only a handful of the nearly thirty new Republican members identified themselves as tea party backers, and some of the new legislators actually beat more-conservative challengers in the primary. But that was before the national landslide put the movement’s power in stark relief. When Houston state senator and talk radio hero Dan Patrick announced the formation of a Tea Party Caucus in the state legislature in mid-December, fifty House members were on the list. All of them pledged to defend the “tea party principles”: limited government, lower taxes, and state sovereignty. The idea is to enforce ideological discipline, and the hammer will be the threat of a primary opponent in 2012—a threat that has been thrown around so much at the Capitol since Election Day that the phrase “getting primaried” has been added to the political lexicon. This new Washington style of politics is making old-guard Republicans, like veteran fund-raiser Pat Robbins, uncomfortable. “I don’t like that at all,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

Even with Straus as Speaker, certain high-priority items on the tea party agenda will almost surely be enacted. Last session Senator Patrick filled a hearing room with supporters on behalf of the voter ID bill; this session he’ll be able to fill the entire south mall of the Capitol if he wants to. “They’ll get voter ID this time,” said Democratic consultant Matt Angle. “They’ll get an immigration bill.” With the state’s shortfall predicted to be as high as $25 billion, the real battle will be over how to balance the budget, and that is where the tea party’s rise might bring long-term changes to Texas government. “Conservatives feel they have a mandate, and the shortfall gives them the opportunity to make the cuts they’ve wanted to make for a long time,” said Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat.

But even after a mandate election, there are limits to what can be done. Flush with victory in the days after the election, conservatives floated the idea of withdrawing altogether from Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income individuals, which is one of the state’s biggest expenses. But the idea, which would have meant turning away billions in federal matching funds, was quickly shot down by budget veterans from both parties. Medicaid is not just for poor kids; it also funds nursing-home beds for the elderly and services for the disabled. “If we have any savings in getting out of Medicaid, we will have to throw some people out in the street,” Republican House Appropriations chairman Jim Pitts told a meeting of the Ellis County Tea Party in November. “It’s ‘welcome to reality’ for these folks,” Coleman said.

Regardless of what happens this session, Angle, who saw years of work building the Democratic caucus in the House wiped out in a single night, thinks the tea party will be a force at least through the 2012 election season, because it is just too useful to die. “I think the Republicans will try to keep it alive as a way to mobilize the grass roots without using the term ‘Republican,’” he said. “They figured out that ‘Republican’ is a tarnished label.”

Mark McKinnon, a former consultant to George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, thinks the tea partyers will eventually find a home in the Republican party, perhaps one that has moved significantly to the right, much as the goals and rhetoric of the Populist movement were co-opted by the Democratic party one hundred years ago. “I think what you’ll see in Texas is what we’re already seeing nationally: a merger between the tea party and the Republican party,” he said. This is, of course, what the Dick Armeys and Karl Roves of the world would like to see, though it would inevitably mean that the movement—as happened with populism—would lose some of what makes it so appealing to so many people: its spontaneity, its diffuse leadership, its authenticity.

For one night in downtown Houston, however, the possibilities seemed endless. At about nine-fifteen, Catherine Engelbrecht arrived and was immediately beset at the door by well-wishers. “You missed it, man,” she told me, breathless. “We had our brush with the Black Panthers.” At about five o’clock, Engelbrecht said, the phones at the King Street headquarters had begun ringing off the hook: Quanell X and his associates had arrived at several polling places to hand out literature and had refused requests to desist, prompting election judges to call the police.

Shaking hands and giving hugs, Engelbrecht worked her way to the microphone at the front of the room as a photographer documented her every step. Everything had gone according to plan: Turnout had been great, the tea party had changed the world, even the bad guys had shown up right on cue.

“So many of you were involved in the electoral process for the first time, and it all contributed to the most free and fair election we’ve had in a long time,” she told the crowd, to big applause. “I would encourage y’all to remember that the real work starts tomorrow.” Engelbrecht mentioned to me later that she was planning a series of road trips to Austin to advocate for voter ID and other election code reform. “We are all going to understand the Capitol, inside and out,” she said. Engelbrecht’s father served on the Rosenberg City Council for her entire childhood, and watching her work the room in her suede boots and jean jacket, it was not hard to imagine her as an elected official herself, perhaps in the Texas House. She told me several times that her abrupt step into the limelight had been a little overwhelming. But now she seemed, to me at least, to be getting the hang of things. She apologized for the cool reception I’d received the day before and said she was glad I’d ended up tagging along. Then she added, “Just don’t screw me.”

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