POLITICO (Washington) - Thousands of tea party activists descended on Washington Thursday to air a variety of demands - from the repeal of new health care legislation to the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and a taxation system they say punishes initiative, to a fuller embrace of Israel - even as organizers encouraged them to unite and shift their focus toward the 2010 congressional elections.
“It is great that we all come together and have these rallies,” Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express told a crowd of several thousand protestors gathered under a warm midday sun on Freedom Plaza a few blocks from the White House.
“But the real work is done outside of a rally, and if we truly want to affect change, we are going to have to get involved in the election process in these campaigns and vote true conservatives into office,” she said, urging the ralliers to “put down the protest signs and pick up the campaign signs.”
The midday rally was sponsored by FairTax.org, a non-profit group advocating the replacement of the federal income tax with a sales tax-based system, and Tea Party Express, a political action committee that brought speakers and entertainers to rallies during a three-week cross-country bus tour that ended Thursday in Washington.
Tea Party groups across the country also held their own rallies on Thursday, and a large rally is planned for Thursday evening on the National Mall near the Washington monument, this one organized by FreedomWorks, a small-government non-profit group chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Though tea partiers suffered something of a defeat when the healthcare overhaul, which had been their top issue, passed last month, speakers at the midday Washington rally, including several Republican members of Congress, proclaimed that the tea party movement had already reordered the political landscape.
As evidence, they pointed to the elections of Republicans Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts and Chris Christie to the New Jersey governorship, among others, as well as the recent retirement announcement by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), though it’s questionable how much of a role tea party activists played in any of those events.
Many also pointed to reports that opponents on the left were planning to infiltrate tea parties in an effort to discredit them as evidence of their success.
Referring to recent reports about a website called CrashtheTeaParty.org - which encouraged liberals to pretend to be tea partiers, attend rallies and voice fringe sentiments to marginalize the movement (the website appears to have been stripped of its content) - Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he welcomed any infiltrators.
“I’m hoping that you’ll learn something,” he said from the stage at the FairTax/Tea Party Express rally. “And I’m hoping that you realize and come clean that the only misbehavior that you’ll see at a tea party rally is caused by infiltrators and not members of the tea party.”
Reports of slurs and threats of violence against Democratic members of Congress who supported the healthcare overhaul have dogged the tea party, prompting many of its top organizers to condemn them and assert that they do not represent the movement.
“I’ve been to five rallies and I haven’t seen any of that,” said Joe Figliola, a 46-year old computer project manager from Alexandria, Va., who carried a sign reading “Who is Jason Levine?” - the name of the man behind CrashtheTeaParty.org.
Some conservatives have welcomed Levine’s campaign as evidence that tea partiers are not necessarily responsible for bad behavior. Beyond the now-commonplace depictions of Obama in Joker’s white face over the word “Socialism,” there were few if any edgy sentiments - from infiltrators or otherwise - on tee-shirts or signs at Thursday’s midday rally.
But Figliola nonetheless deemed Levine’s plan and any others like it a risk. “It’s about risk management; you identify the risk, you quantify it and you design and implement a mitigation strategy.”
Before addressing the crowd at the FairTax/Tea Party Express rally, Armey told POLITICO he believed the tea party crowds have already been infiltrated, and promised to expose any such efforts at its evening rally.
Earlier in the day, Tea Party Express held a press conference at which it unveiled a list of its targets for the 2010 midterm elections, including liberals such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and more moderate Democrats considered vulnerable, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.).
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a tea party hero, got some of the biggest applause at the midday rally when she denounced Obama and congressional Democrats for their plans to exert more government control over the healthcare, energy and finance industries.
“I say it’s time for these little piggies to go home,” she exhorted the crowd, urging them to help conservatives being targeted for defeat - including her. “We need to have your help for candidates like me. We need you to take out some of these bad guys.”