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The founding moments of the contemporary Tea Party movement were many. Several were grassroots in nature, developing outside the existing power centers in Washington, D.C. and in the more remote regions where conservative politics meets a more libertarian (right-wing and anti-statist) opposition. Others derived directly from elements within the Republican Party apparatus and began as proxies for the party itself.

The Tea Parties also had points of origin within established right-wing organizations hoping to draw a line of distinction between themselves and the views of Sen. John McCain, who had just lost the presidential election, as well as the discredited conservatism of the Bush era. In so doing, they planned to create an opposition to President Obama and the Democrats.

One of the earliest moments leading up to the Tea Party movement occurred in December 2007, on the 234rd anniversary of the original Boston Tea Party. Ron Paul’s supporters held a “tea party moneybomb” to raise campaign funds for his campaign in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. A Republican Congressman from Texas who ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party’s candidate, Ron Paul has long had one foot in the Republican Party and one foot in its far-right opposition. His Campaign for Liberty (CFL) is now a significant stand-alone, membership-based non-profit institution headquartered in Virginia. It has played a noteworthy role in the growth of the Tea Party movement, even if few CFL members have enrolled in any of the national Tea Party groups. [2]

During the period after the election of President Barack Obama but before his inauguration, the Libertarian Party of Illinois began formulating a concept they called the Boston Tea Party Chicago and advertising it through the Libertarian Party of Illinois Yahoo and “meetup” groups, through Ron Paul Meetup and Campaign for Liberty groups, as well as national anti-tax groups. Dave Brady of the Libertarian Party of Illinois even claimed, “we gave Rick Santelli the idea for the Tax Day Tea Parties.” [3]

One of the original cadre of Libertarian Party of Illinois list members discussing the Tax Day Tea Party was Eric Odom, a 30-year old Chicagoan originally from Nevada. In August 2008, he had worked on a twitter campaign that encouraged Republicans in Congress to fight against a ban on offshore oil drilling.[4] While working as the new media director of the Sam Adam Alliance, Odom developed a virtual network of conservative activists that would later serve as a pillar of Tea Party organizing.[5]

At roughly the same time, a group founded by investors based in Troy, Michigan, FedUpUSA, sent out a call on February 1, 2009 for people to send tea bags to members of Congress — “a Commemorative Tea Party.”

Also outside the D.C.-Beltway area, a number of anti-”pork” protests fed the stream of events that became the Tea Parties as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed the Congress. On February 16, a Seattle “Porkulus”–a term popularized by radio talker Rush Limbaugh–protest drew about one hundred people. This event was organized by Keli Carender, a 30 year-old Seattle-area math teacher and improv actor, who used the name “Liberty Belle” when posting on her blog Redistributing Knowledge.[6] A conservative with a pierced nose, known for wearing Converse All-Star tennis shoes, she quickly became one of the more important figures as the Tea Parties emerged later that month.[7] Like many early activists, Carender would later be brought to DC for additional training and support by the D.C.-based FreedomWorks. She eventually became affiliated with the Tea Party Patriots faction.

On February 17, 2009, the day President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he visited Denver, Colorado to promote the stimulus bill. That afternoon, Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute hosted another “Porkulus Protest” in Denver.[8]

Shortly after the Seattle and Denver protests, on February 19, 2009, a stock analyst for a cable television network, Rick Santelli, let loose a five-minute on-air rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Yelling “This is America!” he attacked the home mortgage rescue plan the Obama administration had unveiled the day before. It was “promoting bad behavior,” he argued, by rewarding the “losers” who took on more debt than they could afford. Santelli said that Obama was turning America into Cuba, and called for a capitalist “Chicago Tea Party.”

An unstated racial element colored Santelli’s outrage over the Obama administration’s home mortgage rescue plan. During the years leading up to the housing crisis, banks had disproportionately targeted communities of color for subprime loans. Many of the so-called “losers” Santelli ranted about were black or Latino borrowers who’d been oversold by lenders cashing in on the subprime market. Their situations were worsened by derivatives traders, like Santelli, who packaged and re-packaged those loans until they were unrecognizable and untenable.[9]

Nevertheless, Santelli became an instant right-wing hero. A small group of stock traders in the background sporadically cheered him on during his outburst. The video clip of the whole scene was watched and re-watched.[10] And when he said “we’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July, all you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing,” it was the spark that conservative organizers had been waiting for.

Immediately following Santelli’s scream, the localized anti-stimulus, anti-tax protests changed character. As they morphed into the Tea Party protests, several of the characters who had organized previous protests took up the Tea Party torch. Eric Odom put up a new website called[11]

On February 20, the short-lived “Nationwide Tea Party Coalition” was formed. At the same time, a new Facebook group, “Rick Santelli is right, we need a Taxpayer (Chicago) Tea Party” was created. The group was created by Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity, and administered by Odom. It was the intervention of Brendan Steinhauser and FreedomWorks that completed this initial transition. Steinhauser, like Odom, was part of the under-35 generation of conservative activists that would play a significant role in the Tea Party movement. He was also campaign director at the time for FreedomWorks, a D.C. based lobby and training organization founded by former Congressman Dick Armey. And on February 9, Steinhauser had contacted a Florida activist, one who had attended an earlier FreedomWorks training session, and recommended that she organize a protest in response to President Obama’s visit to Ft. Myers.[12]

The night after Santelli’s televised tirade, Steinhauser was in a hotel room in Orlando, and he later described what happened. “I just wrote this little ten quick easy steps to hold your own Tea Party, wrote it up and kinda was proud of it and sent it to Michelle Malkin. She linked to it from her blog…” Steinhauser’s website choked from all the visitors.

FreedomWorks staff members called local supporters across the country asking if they were willing to organize a Tea Party. Then FreedomWorks quickly announced the launch of a nationwide Tea Party Tour, “From this desperate rallying cry FreedomWorks has tapped into the outrage building from within our own membership as well as allied conservative grassroots forces to organize a 25-city Tea Party Tour where taxpayers angry that their hard-earned money is being usurped by the government for irresponsible bailouts, can show President Obama and Congressional Democrats that their push towards outright socialism will not stand.”[13]

In the anger that the Tea Party theme captured, FreedomWorks would find the street activists they felt they’d been missing. A week later, on February 27 the first official “Tea Parties” took place, organized primarily by the Sam Adams Alliance, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Many of these original players quickly faded away in importance as national structures arose. Within weeks of the Santelli rant, the nucleus of what would become the six different national Tea Party factions formed. Some of the groups already existed (FreedomWorks, ResistNet, and the Our Country Deserves Better PAC). Others formed almost immediately (1776 Tea Party – February 20, Tea Party Patriots – March 10, Tea Party Nation – April 6).

Throughout the summer, Tea Party momentum continued to build as the national factions stoked the local anger and fear that raged in health care protests and town hall meetings.

The turning point for the Tea Parties was the FreedomWorks-hosted September 12, 2009 rally in Washington DC. Planning the massive event gave Tea Party groups an opportunity to work together. Hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers met in the streets, broke bread together, shared their stories and their anger, and made connections to one another. Before the last port-a-potties were removed from the Capitol Mall, the Tea Parties had turned from periodic protests into a full-fledged social movement.

Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

Author Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

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