Don’t tread on me

Steeped in anger, Nevada’s Tea Partiers demand the United States government return to the principles for which it stands

A Tea Partier protests on tax day in Carson City.

A Tea Partier protests on tax day in Carson City.

Photo By C.W. Wilkinson

Walt Nowosad is mad as hell.

Wearing blue jeans, a green vest over a light dress shirt, and a baseball cap celebrating his 20 years of service in the United States Navy, Nowosad was one of about a thousand protesters at the Tax Day Tea Party held at the state capital in Carson City on April 15.

“I’m protesting the fact that the government is ignoring the Constitution,” said the tall, white-haired veteran. His aviator’s glasses left doubt as to his expression, but his anger was expressed on a sign roughly half his height, which exclaimed, “Honk if you’re mad as hell.” If the cacophony of car horns was any indication, a large number of Carson City motorists were mad as hell on Tax Day.

“We’re going to try to make the government understand that the will of the people has to be listened to,” Nowosad said.

Across the street, in the parking lot at Comma Coffee, where the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada staged a small counter-protest, a different grass-roots effort had sprouted. About 10 people showed up.

“We represent people who are working,” said Jan Gilbert, 63, of Washoe County. “These people are the party of ‘no.’ They don’t have any new ideas; they just have what they don’t like.”

While the blaring loudspeakers and horns coming from the Tax Day Tea Party made it difficult to gauge Carson City’s response, at least one younger motorist supported the counter-protest. She slowed her vehicle down near one of the attendees of the Tax Day Tea Party, rolled down the passenger window, and called out, “We love Obama,” before driving away.

The Tax Day Tea Party in Carson City was part of the national Tea Party movement, a group of Americans who’ve banded together to protest what they say is an out-of-control federal government, as illustrated by the recently passed health-care package, skyrocketing national deficit, and various corporate bailouts. The group is also characterized by a certainty that the federal government has marginalized citizens’ opinions. The group has produced several protests in Nevada that made the national stage; the largest was in Searchlight, Harry Reid’s home town.

The Tea Party movement takes its name from the Boston Tea Party, which occurred on Dec. 16, 1773, when colonists destroyed a shipment of tea to protest a British tea tax.

To recount the story: Three merchant ships carrying about 140 boxes of British tea were tied up at Boston Harbor, but armed Bostonians kept the tea on the ships. Unable to unload their cargo and prevented from withdrawing by an American blockade, Boston and the merchants had come to a stalemate. According to historical accounts of George Hewes, who participated in the destruction of the tea, the stalemate was broken by the ships’ captains. They ordered the tea unloaded the next morning, under cover of cannon fire if necessary. The Bostonians beat the captains to the punch. According to the Boston Tea Party Historical Society, some 166 men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships at around 7 p.m. and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor and history.

A wise and frugal government

About all that binds members of the Tea Party movement is a general dissatisfaction with the federal government, said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno political science department.

“Some of their primary concerns are fiscal,” he said. “They see excessive government spending, very large deficits, and a runaway level of overall debt. While those fiscal items were the initial items that brought people together in these rallies, there are a collection of complaints about government.”

About 80 percent of its members are or have been Republicans, and about 55 percent are women, Herzik said.

The core membership takes issue with the political agenda of the Obama administration, but there are some more radical groups on the movement’s fringes.

These groups include the so-called birthers, who claim that President Obama was not born in the United States, and the 9/11 truthers, who claim that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were perpetrated by the U.S. government.

More representational of the movement is Debbie Landis, a 42-year-old Reno woman who runs Anger is Brewing,, the non-profit group that hosted Carson City’s Tax Day Tea Party and that expects to participate in candidate forums this election season.

Landis is a former avionics officer in the Navy, of average height and build with long, blond hair and a sense of humor. She was also the chair of the Washoe County Republican Party during the 2008 campaign season.

During that campaign, Landis said, her work was made more difficult by the split in the Republican Party. Half the party campaigned for Sen. John McCain, and the other half campaigned against him.

“We had to bring people back together under the banner of fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency,” she said. “So we established Anger is Brewing as a non-partisan, multi-partisan organization founded on those three things. And we’ve been able to collect conservatives back together under principles that we all believe in.”

Inserting these three elements into American politics on the state and federal level is Landis’ main goal.

“Taxpayers are coming together to demand that we be the only special interest group that our politicians pander to,” Landis said. “We’re just demanding responsible leadership for taxpayers.

“I hate the word ‘demanding’, but ‘ask nicely’ is really so arbitrary.”

Give me liberty

Some of the attendees of the Tea Party echoed Landis’ fiscal concerns.

“I’m really concerned about the debt,” said Amy Mauseth, a 22-year-old Tea Partier. “We can’t afford this.”

Others were more concerned about the fate of their personal liberties. Many signs held by protesters insisted that the more taxes the government collects from its people and the more programs exist, the less personal freedom the citizenry will have.

One such attendee was Haley Linehan, 17, of Carson City.

Haley Lineman, 17, attended the Tax Day Tea Party in Carson City dressed as Lady Liberty.

Photo By C.W. Wilkinson

She came to the protest dressed as Lady Liberty, carrying a sign which read “Hey! Remember me?” She was accompanied at the Tea Party by her mother and two sisters.

“[I came] to voice about my freedom and to tell young people to come out here because we need as many people as we can get,” Linehan said.

One of the main concerns on the tongues—and signs—of those in attendance was the recently passed health-care reform.

Many of the people at the Tea Party carried signs with slogans such as “repeal government health care” and “Reid consider the health care bill your pink slip.”

“You shouldn’t have to go against the will of the people to get your stuff passed,” said Mauseth. “We want health-care reform, just not this health-care reform.”

Landis is also irritated by health-care reform, which she called unconstitutional.

“I believe the three branches of government and the checks and balances and the things we all learned in government in junior high school should work like they’re supposed to work,” Landis said. “I think the judicial branch should step in and say that the executive branch has overstepped their authority.”

We the people

Many of the protesters at the Tax Day Tea Party were there in support of political candidates. About a dozen booths for candidates and organizations were set up on the Legislative mall.

Candidates used this opportunity to espouse their views and try to rally support for their ticket.

But one had karaoke in his blood.

Jim Kroshus, an accountant from Sparks, spoke on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Mike Montandon. Even before his turn to speak, Kroshus took the stage with an impromptu karaoke performance.

Kroshus is a tall man whose once-black hair has faded to a light gray with streaks of white.

His black slacks were neatly pressed, as was his immaculately white dress shirt and his gray- and-black patterned tie. Over this he wore a dark brown leather jacket with white stripes and the letters U.S.A. displayed prominently down the sleeves. The back of his jacket was emblazoned with an American flag.

In speech, he resembled a preacher at a tent revival attempting to build his flock into a crescendo of fervor. His stage presence was commanding, his message familiar.

“Why is America in the state it is today?” he asked the crowd during his speech. “When a people or a nation loses their virtue they are ready to surrender to the first internal or external invader.”

Kroshus said invaders are coming from the south in the form of illegal immigration and from the east in the form of big-government spending.

American citizens need defenders, and in Kroshus’ view, those heroes do not include President Obama, whom he called “a stooge president who can’t even produce an authentic birth certificate.”

Kroshus said recent political events were the result of the breakdown of American virtue, caused mostly by pornography, which has sapped morality and the will to fight against what he sees as negative forces on American policy.

“We need morality, and we need it now,” he told the crowd.

The lack of morality in American politics has allowed tyrants to slip into office, Kroshus said. There are three defenses against tyranny: keeping tyrants out of office at the ballot box, repealing unjust and unconstitutional laws, and maintaining the strength of the Second Amendment.

His solution? Elect Mike Montandon and other candidates who lead moral lives.

“Mike Montandon has been married to the same woman for 30 years,” Kroshus said, citing the long marriage as evidence of Montandon’s morality.

Kroshus also said politicians are a mirror of the people they represent.

“The people will never elect an immoral politician if they are moral,” he said.

Kroshus believes that morality will be the salvation of the country from the evils of high taxation and government spending.

“America will never be restored as a constitutional republic unless it becomes moral again,” Kroshus said.

“Unless we have the spirit of God, which is the spirit of liberty, we will never be free.”

We must hang together

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While the anger that fomented the movement is well established, its ultimate significance remains to be seen.

“The big unknown is whether the Tea Party is a Ronald Reagan-type grassroots change that takes over the Republican Party, or is it more of a fringe activity such as the Ron Paul push, which did not take over the Republican Party,” Herzik said.

Herzik, however, does see the movement as a response to a perceived slip on the part of the Republicans during the Bush administration.

Conservatives point to the years between 2000 and 2006 when the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency but failed to enact immigration reform, let the national deficit rise, and ignored other issues of the conservative agenda. Conservatives use these issues as rallying calls in the Republican Party, Herzik said.

“The ironic thing is that the most conservative wing blamed the Republican establishment, which wasn’t sufficiently conservative,” Herzik said. “However, the leaders during the Bush years … were as conservative as we’ve seen in generations.”

While Herzik stressed that the effect of the movement has yet to be seen, he doesn’t think it will impact American politics in the way the Tea Party hopes.

“If they show sustained effort and growth at the grass roots, they change the Republican Party,” he said. “I haven’t seen their sustained organization. They’re too diverse in what’s most important to them.”

Landis, however, sees her organization’s role in a different light. She said her organization is seeing “exponential growth” and is the hub of information for the Tea Party in the state.

“The individual parties [Democrat and Republican] are so far to their independent sides, left and right, that they’re polarizing and repelling the average thinking, working family, small-business owner, [and] taxpayer,” she said. “So [the] grass roots are functioning to unify Nevadan taxpayers where parties have failed so miserably.”

Landis also stressed that the Tea Party movement is not the group of “radicalized, right-wing, racist extremists” as they are sometimes portrayed.

“We’re small business owners. We’re housewives. We are taxpayers,” she said. “We’re not a demographic. We’re not a stereotype.”

However, the Tea Party movement has its detractors.

The reformers of error

While allegations of racism abound, there are other, more considered and less headline-grabbing arguments against the Tea Party. For some Tea Party opponents, the problem with the movement isn’t necessarily the demographic composition of the group, but rather its rhetoric, with many of the signs carried at Tea Party protests hearkening back to revolutionary era slogans, with the implicit suggestion that armed revolution is an option or even necessary.

Many Tea Partiers and their signs referred to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Some also carried flags or signs with Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon on them.

Franklin’s cartoon, the first political cartoon printed in a newspaper in the American colonies, appeared in 1754 and depicted the British colonies as a snake cut into eight pieces. The cartoon urged colonies to unite to fight the French and Indian War then raging in the New World.

“I hear too much of this ‘take back our country’ language,” said Chip Evans, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Washoe County.

Evans called the Tea Party movement largely white and largely conservative, and said that the movement may not be as independent as it would like the public to believe.

“I’m quite sure that 90 percent of these folks are receiving government money in some form or government benefits,” Evans said.

“I am concerned at the rhetoric of violence emanating from elements of the Tea Party, and I consider that unpatriotic,” he said. “I think that’s dangerous for all of us.”

Furthermore, the movement is not a threat to the Democratic Party, nor will it cause the Democrats to change their strategy in the coming months, Evans said.

“Since they’re mostly conservative, white Republicans, I expect them to splinter the Republican vote,” Evans said.

The Tea Party represents a “tragic” change in the Republican Party in Evans’ view.

“I have concerns that the Republican Party will no longer have room for moderates,” he said.

Evans added that moderates and independents tend to be the deciding factors in elections and policy making.

But despite the misgivings of some, it seems likely that Americans will continue to protest and continue to attend Tea Parties.

“The Tea Party … is a completely grassroots movement,” Mauseth said. “We would be here without those speakers. We would be here, speaking our will.”

Others intend to continue to fight for their beliefs and what they see as the beliefs of the Founding Fathers.

“It also advises under the Declaration of Independence that when a government becomes oppressive, you have to change it,” Nowosad said. “And that’s what we have—an oppressive government.”