Tea party movement's local leader surprised by her own role

There are tea party people in Wichita, hundreds of them, and they are ticked off.

Republican politicians respect them, woo them and fear them because most tea party members are Republicans and conservatives who denounce Republicans in the same breath that they denounce Democrats even more.

They have invigorated the local and national political debate.

Who are these people?

What do they want?

We hold these truths

At the most recent rally in Wichita, Feb. 20 at Century II, tea party organizer Lynda Tyler told 2,500 enthusiastic listeners from the podium that the last time Americans were as upset about government as they are now, they wrote a document called the Declaration of Independence. That document pointed out that it sometimes becomes necessary "for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another."

Organized locally by Tyler, a licensed Wichita financial adviser, tea party members are motivated, energized and ticked off at both mainstream parties.

They are not highly organized or moving in lockstep, and Tyler says that means their opinions are fresh and unrehearsed, unlike many stale mainstream liberal and conservative opinions.

"Tea partiers are honest enough to have open disagreements," said Wichita tea party devotee Jim Gragg. "So organizing tea party people is like herding cats."

Many tea partiers are common working people. Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold counts himself a tea party enthusiast.

Republicans locally and nationally are courting them vigorously, not only because they like their spirit and their ideals, but also because they fear their anger, and fear that a third-party movement might weaken the GOP.

Some tea party critics, nationally and locally, have warned that there are some kooks in the tea party, though locals say this is true of any political movement.

Most Wichitans at these rallies, Gragg said, disagree with each other about many things but are united in their disgust at how government has spent trillions that it doesn't have.

"We may be as hard to herd as cats," he said. "But all the cats got their hair up right now."

Who they are

Gragg is a laid-off aircraft cabinet installer. Dan Heflin is an engineer and longtime aviation company employee who also is laid off. Gary Townson is a retired postal worker.

Tyler herself, besides working as a stockbroker, is a wife, a mother, a veteran beauty pageant organizer who still competes and often wins beauty pageants in the Mrs. division.

She was surprised to end up at the head of rallies in the last year where thousands of people gathered to denounce government policy.

In contrast, at most City Council, County Commission or school board meetings, few residents show up. In some recent off-year elections, voter turnout percentages, even among registered voters, has reached the low teens.

But a tea party event she organized in Sedgwick County Park last August startled her when it drew 1,200 people.

A "Tea Party Express" gathering she organized for last November at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium drew 2,000.

And the tea party rally she led this past February at Century II drew 2,500.

At that gathering, she said, it was clear from talking to people that most of them were fiscal and social conservatives, but few of them think alike. Some were Democrats upset at their own party, she said.

Much of this took off spontaneously, she said. People locally have done all this on their own time, and on their own dime, doing it with small contributions from individuals, plus raffles and such.

"We have received zero corporate money," Tyler said.

She never thought when she started organizing people before last August that so many would show such vigorous interest.

"I never set out to change the world," she said with a grin. "But all of a sudden I had all these volunteers."

She wants to keep this movement going. There may be more rallies before the coming elections, but right now there are no plans for another rally, except that the Wichita tea partiers will probably help their counterparts from Hutchinson at an event planned there April 15.

Nobody is bossing tea party members around, she said, least of all her. There is a democratic spirit among them that she likes a lot.

"I love these tea party events," she said. "They've galvanized many people to think about politics for the first time in their lives, and that's a great thing. I have always been amazed by how so many people do not pay attention to government. It's like they don't care.

"These people care."

Channeling anger

There is a lot of anger among the tea partiers, she said. Most of it doesn't worry her. Some of it bothers her, and bothers other tea party devotees.

She and others also hear some ideas they consider kooky, though the vast majority of tea party members don't agree with those ideas.

"There are a very few people, for example, who are 'birthers,' believing Obama is not a citizen of the U.S.," said Heflin, the laid-off aviation employee.

There are others, Heflin said, who openly suspect that the U.S. government was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks. These ideas, Heflin said, are far away from common sense.

"If they want to defy gravity, so be it," he said.

The majority of local tea partiers do not subscribe to these ideas, he said.

"All of us are really upset at the way the government has spent us into eternal debt and most of us feel like we didn't get to have any say in this," he said.

That anger, he said, is deep and hot. Tyler understands the anger.

"Barack Obama got elected president by making false promises that everyone wanted to hear," she said.

But she tells tea partiers that the vicious denunciations of the Democrats that she sometimes hears from talk radio, from right-leaning cable TV commentators and from some tea partiers themselves sometimes makes her cringe. Heflin and Townson said that kind of talk makes them cringe, too.

Not only is some of it corrosive and harmful to the country, Tyler said, but it weakens the very movement the angry people are embracing.

"We have a huge variety of groups here today," she told the 2,500 who met in February in Wichita. "We will not agree with every one of them, but someone else may.

"So I ask you all to be courteous and don't argue over nonsense; we are here to find our common grounds so we can move our country forward and embrace our commonality as Americans."

Her guide in openly opposing some tea party anger, she said, is that she has three teenagers in her house, good kids who sometimes do stupid things.

"I'd rather teach them how to solve the problems rather than throw emotions around," she said.

"I understand where the anger at Obama is coming from, but when you get as angry at him as some people do, when you get that exasperated, you are allowing someone else to have control over you."

Her personal goal for the local tea party is to energize people not only to vote and to campaign for good candidates but to run for office themselves.

She said she might even run for City Council herself someday.

"So here we are," she told the February gathering. "Republicans, Independents, Libertarians and Democrats all in one room together. All pulling together for better government and the salvation of the United States. This time has not existed in 10 generations.

"Relish this time and know that you are part of history."

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