A Look Inside the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition's Inaugural Convention

In recent weeks in primaries around the country, the Tea Party movement has shown itself to be more than just a disorganized expression of anger but a potentially influential political force threatening to dislodge establishment candidates in both parties. This past weekend, when the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition held its first statewide meeting at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, East Tennesseans were given the chance to see what its members look like up close. Judging by the turnout Saturday afternoon, this confederation of 35 Tea Parties across the state still has some work to do in selling itself to the mainstream.

The convention center looks like an oversized mountain lodge and sits on a relatively quiet street, away from the noise of campy hillbilly craft stores and establishments daring customers to "Believe It or Not." A mundane announcement on the marquee signaled the Tea Party's presence; without it, there was little to indicate any event at all. Indeed, many inside said they were disappointed by the turnout, and the empty chairs, sparse hallways, and general quiet were hard to ignore.

Broadly speaking, the crowd skewed older, white, and seemed suspicious of the media. Here are a few snapshots of those attending Saturday afternoon:

[Audio Slideshow:Listen to the Tea Partiers in their own words.]

In one conference room, Bridget DiCello, president of a leadership and networking company called Building Bridges, led a seminar entitled "Networking to Affect Positive Change in our Country." DiCello belongs to a Tea Party in Tipton County, north of Memphis. In her session, she handed out notes specifying skills that activists might find useful in advancing their cause, such as how to start and end a conversation. ["Extend your hand, read their nametag, ‘Hello Bob, I'm Alex.' (Firm Handshake)."] DiCello, whose husband, Vince, was a principal organizer of the convention, asked an audience of roughly 10 what their three most important issues were. Common refrains were gun rights, abortion, and taxes; so, too, were corruption, the military, and states' rights. "The right to tell the federal government to shove off," one woman summarized as others nodded in agreement. To the reporter in the room, that same woman suggested one of his three issues be "the truth."

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Outside in the hallway, Bob Fearnside manned Bill Haslam's booth, speaking with the odd passersby who stopped for information or a room-temperature bottled water. Fearnside serves as Haslam's Grainger County chairman and belongs to the American Patriot Taxpayers, a Tea Party active in Jefferson, Grainger, Hamblen, and Cocke counties. He said he came to the Tea Party after he "woke up one day and found that we'd almost lost our country." Asked to elaborate, he said, "We've lost a great number of freedoms and our liberty, as well as our personal wealth. And it's going downhill to the point where we're going to be a dictatorship if we don't turn it around, probably in the next four years."

Fearnside's task this weekend was to explain why Haslam—not Zach Wamp or Ron Ramsey—was the gubernatorial candidate most aligned with Tea Party values. "He is for less government, more effective government, and basically, he wants to keep government out of people's back pockets," Fearnside said. As to how the Tea Party's values align with the GOP's, Fearnside said, "I think an awful lot of Tea Partiers are disenchanted Republicans," adding that there are Independents and Democrats, too. "But the Tea Partiers are conservative, and the Republican Party is supposed to be the conservative party in our country."

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Just a few booths down from Fearnside were Leonard Lind and his wife, Nancy, also from Tipton County. They sold T-shirts, scarfs for pets, and earrings, the common thread being that almost every item contained some print of the American flag. "Made in the United States by U.S. citizens," bragged Leonard, 69, who wore a "NOBama" pin on his shirt and a Navy hat. He said broken promises from President Obama led him to the Tea Party, mentioning specifically a lack of a transparency during the health care debate, and the failure to close Guantanamo Bay (although he said he was and is opposed to its closing). He was particularly angered by a remark he says Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made regarding veterans. "All veterans were to be considered as radicals and had to be watched by local enforcement officers," said Lind, who spent 27 years in the Navy before retiring to teach high school and community college. (During the final weeks of the Bush administration, the FBI began a nationwide program scrutinizing right-wing and "militant/sovereign-citizen extremist groups," including veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Months later, under the Obama administration, DHS put forth a memo stating a similar policy. Napolitano later apologized to veterans who felt slighted by the report.)

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Nancy Lind, 67, standing nearby, explained the Tea Party philosophy this way: "We want to keep America America. We want to be able to raise our children decently. And basically we believe in our God-given rights. We believe that once you take God—not Allah—but once you take God out of your life, you're giving it away. We don't believe in the Muslim movement, as it is. We're not condemning Muslims because there's very good ones. But the progressive Muslim movement is destroying us." She expressed concerns about illegal immigrants and what she sees as a burgeoning welfare state, while also expressing frustration over the less tangibles. "Our government is not creating respect for parents and for leadership at all. Not at all. It's, ‘Just do what feels good.' I don't believe in that." She and her husband said they didn't want terrorism suspects to be tried in New York; at the end of the conversation, they said Obama was consolidating power in the same way Adolf Hitler did.

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Fred Grillot, 56, drove in to the convention center from Rogersville, outside Kingsport, where he works at a bank. He seemed more skeptical than others interviewed, and said he was mainly there to listen. He said he believes the Tea Party can be most effective as a means of civic engagement. "People here have gone to sleep and left career politicians to run things, and like anything else, they serve themselves rather than the people.... We're not here to turn people out of office but to ask them very polite but pointed questions. And I think that really needs to be done, and if we do that, we have the opportunity to scrutinize and judge the people who are elected to serve for us... It's not like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In fact, it's not caused by them doing something, but it's caused by us not doing this."

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Farther down the hallway, a man dressed in a quasi-military outfit stood behind a booth decorated with insignia from the Order of Constitution Defenders. Asked for his name, the man said he was called S.P.I.K.E., meaning "special prepared individual for key events." He said his actual name, though, is Eric Kiesche, and he works as an electrical engineer in Chattanooga. Kiesche was scheduled to speak Saturday afternoon in the main auditorium on constitutional issues, and said he became involved in defending the Constitution about a decade ago. Today Kiesche sees "almost unlimited" threats to the Constitution. "There's an agenda in this country to merge us into a world society," he said, citing the International Monetary Fund, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Southern Poverty Law Center as some of those institutions he believes are involved in the secret cabal. "They have this benevolent idea that a world government would be more efficient."

Despite the low turnout Saturday, Kiesche said the Tea Party movement has been good to him. He said that while once he was feared and shunned for his views and appearance, in the Tea Party he's being embraced. "I'm getting hugs, I'm getting kisses, I'm getting tremendous support from the ladies as well as the men. And I don't get the hugs and kisses from the men, I want to clarify that." Gun rights seemed entwined in his message. Kiesche explained that when the government subverts its citizens' rights, the last resort is to take up arms against it. "Right now we're not at that point. We are slowly moving in that direction, but we're hoping it's not going to get there. The idea is to educate the public, to get things aligned with the way it used to be under the republic, " Kiesche said, adding that his organization is non-violent.

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Casually stopping by booths, wearing a tri-cornered hat and pin that said "No King But Jesus," was June Griffin, 70, an Independent candidate for governor. She traveled to Gatlinburg from Dayton, where she lives, and where she was featured in a 2005 satirical piece on The Daily Show about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Sunday morning she was scheduled to give a sermon entitled "Why the Devil Hates Tea Parties" during a non-denominational worship service. (Hint: It's because they want to take the country back.) Asked what she thinks explains the success of the Tea Party, Griffin said, "Actually, nobody started the Tea Party. There were two things that happened after this election that were acts of God: the buying of guns and ammo, and the Tea Parties. Nobody orchestrated it, and that's what makes the press and—our adversaries, let's say—so mad, because they can't get to the head."

Griffin said that although she was invited, she wouldn't participate in the gubernatorial debate Sunday because she didn't want to give up the sabbath to politics. "If we don't get back to those 10 Commandments, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, we're going to lose everything, " she warned.