Tea Party shows its muscle in Bay State

By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The Tea Party movement that stoked antitax protests from Seattle to Washington, D.C., found its inspiration in Revolutionary-era Massachusetts. And this week it helped fuel a modern political revolt right here on the turf of its tea-dumping forbears.

The anger driving this loose coalition of activists, united by a distrust of government, helped vault a little-known Republican state lawmaker into the Senate seat held for 47 years by liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy.

As Scott P. Brown’s populist message began making inroads into Democrat Martha Coakley’s commanding lead, the call went out online, via e-mail and in chat rooms, drawing Tea Party activists to Massachusetts to woo its famously liberal electorate.

“It was a miracle moment,’’ said Christen Varley, a 39-year-old blogger from Holliston who helped found the Greater Boston Tea Party last year. “Boom, he went from zero on the radar screen to what everyone was paying attention to.’’

Several Tea Party activists now are considering candidacies for state representative and state auditor, as well as Congress, said Varley. But many are focused on just making a statement, rather than building a viable third political party.

“I guess it’s just a way to vent our frustration, to make our voice heard,’’ said Barbara Klain, who cofounded the Greater Lowell Tea Party with a bunch of signs and no e-mail address. People were not sure what to make of their Tea Party Boat Float in the Chelmsford Fourth of July Parade, she said. Now she has about 400 members.

“It seems to be working,’’ Klain added. “I had no idea we were going to have this impact when I started last year. It’s very satisfying. And it’s a little scary, too.’’

Until recently, the Tea Party movement had not seemed to be surging in Massachusetts. Activists in Boston, Worcester, and Lowell held protests on tax day, April 15, like their compatriots. Some joined a Sept. 12 protest in Washington, D.C. But Varley’s group launched a website only in December, a month after meeting with other Massachusetts activists and deciding that they would not endorse a Senate candidate.

Enthusiasm for Brown began to soar, however, after the campaign asked Varley to recruit voters for a fund-raiser and about 150 of those on her e-mail list of 1,300 turned out for a snowy morning breakfast fund-raiser in Westborough. He spent 2 1/2 hours, Varley said, talking to conservative voters who urgently wanted to be heard.

“I spent the next two days saying, if you like Scott Brown, go out and spread the word,’’ Varley said. “That’s what they did. And it exploded.’’

The same thing was happening elsewhere, as conservative pundits began training their attention on the race and activists from states including Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York began flocking to Massachusetts to hold signs, make calls, or do whatever it took to help block health care reform through Brown’s election.

That word-of-mouth fervor was helpful for a minority-party candidate who had limited infrastructure in Massachusetts and no funding expected from the national party that had given up on the seat.

Brown’s candidacy began going viral among conservatives just after the new year, at about the same time the campaign launched a controversial ad showing President John F. Kennedy’s likeness morph into Brown’s and at a time when Brown was hitting the conservative airwaves and the Coakley campaign was mostly dormant.

Brown was not a perfect fit for the Tea Party platform, an amalgam of antigovernment complaints that coalesce around issues of shrinking government and preventing national health care reform.

In a scorching analysis circulated a week before the election, Massachusetts small-government activists Michael Cloud and Carla Howell tried to dissuade Tea Party voters from supporting Brown, noting that as a legislator he had supported health care reform in Massachusetts and urged voters to defeat their popular but unsuccessful 2008 ballot question to eliminate the income tax.

“Scott Brown is the worst fake tax-cutter in the Massachusetts legislature,’’ they wrote. “And a fake ally is more dangerous than an open enemy,’’

Senate candidate Joseph L. Kennedy, a 38-year-old Libertarian from Dedham who was a Tea Party enthusiast before he was a candidate for the Senate against Brown, thinks he should have been the beneficiary of the activists’ fervor.

“The people in the tea parties sold their own soul,’’ Kennedy said.

Yesterday, as the next round of challengers lined up to continue the electoral surge, Brown endorsed Republican Bill Hudak’s candidacy against US Representative John Tierney.

Martin Lamb of Holliston plans to challenge US Representative Jim McGovern; Brad Marston is running for state representative, and independent Kamal Jain of Lowell for state auditor, members of the group said. Massachusetts GOP chairwoman Jennifer Nassour was leery of giving too much credit to the insurgent Tea Party movement.

“I couldn’t tell you who they were if they walked past me,’’ said Nassour. “I think that really, the people that got involved on Scott’s race were the ones that just really were motivated for things to be different here.’’

That said, she is not going to decline the assistance when the party represents such a small fraction of the state’s voters.

“We’re 12 percent, so quite honestly, anyone who’s going to come along and help us are welcome,’’ said Nassour.