PHOENIX (Reuters) - Wisconsin Republicans’ drive for budget cuts and a rollback of labor power is a boost to conservatives, Tea Party activists say, though some worry momentum is being lost to pro-union demonstrators.
Activists with the Tea Party Patriots — one of the anti-establishment conservative groups that shook up the Republican Party in November congressional elections — are gathering in Phoenix this weekend for a three-day summit as Wisconsin’s fight over union rights simmers.
“I think its has re-energized the whole movement. Nationwide, it was captured the attention of the country,” said investor Jeff Smith, 45, of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s package to trim the state’s projected deficits, in which curbing public employee union rights features prominently.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that public sector unions ... are another manifestation of the wasteful spending that has gone on for decades,” added Smith, who ran and lost in a Republican primary for Congress in Arizona last year.
While Wisconsin is not formally on the agenda for delegates at the gathering to hone policy and shape an activist agenda for their conservative movement in coming months, it has become the issue of the year, organizers said.
“Everybody has got to learn now how to be a parent,” Randy Lewis, a spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, said of the emblematic battle in and around the Wisconsin capitol.
“Every state needs an adult in the room to cut off the spending and tell the children they can’t use the credit card anymore,” he added.
The outcome in Wisconsin could set a nationwide precedent for similar measures elsewhere. Supporters say they are needed for states under budget pressures to hold down personnel costs. Labor supporters say conservative and business interests use spending issues as a cover for out-and-out union busting.
Throughout last week, tens of thousands demonstrated against Walker’s proposals in Wisconsin’s capital, Madison, with many rallies held in other states in support and more planned for Saturday.
The measures have passed the Wisconsin House, but so far not the State Senate, where a Democratic boycott has prevented the necessary quorum from being reached.
Some activists at the Tea Party summit say that while they initially felt energized by Walker’s budget package — which in addition to changes in union power would reduce state worker benefits — they are not sure whether union or conservative activists hold the momentum as the Madison street fight spreads to others states.
“The unions have the momentum in the protests,” said Maryanna Kizer, a business owner from Yuma in far west Arizona, although she felt they were motivated more by the interests they stood to lose.
“It’s like ants following the candy .... they are just grabbing what they can get,” she added, as she sat with a group of activists in a conference hall decked out with red, white and blue balloons.
Van Steenwyk, 64, a conservative talk radio host, said he felt much depended on whether politicians the conservatives put in office remained true to their principles on issues such as cutting deficits.
“If the politicians that we put into office stand up for what we elected them to do ... then Wisconsin will be a shot in the arm for the Tea Party.”
“The regular voter is ... basically more supportive of the governor (Walker) than they are of the unions,” he added.
Editing by Jerry Norton