The Tea Party Express kicked off its fifth annual national tour Saturday with a rally in California's wine country before heading east through 19 states.
The "Reclaiming America" bus tour is set to visit 29 cities, with multiple stops in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It will reach Tampa, Fla., in time for a presidential debate co-sponsored with CNN on Sept. 12.
"We have to reclaim America for the average American," said Frank Cecil, 73, of Browns Valley, Calif., about 55 miles north of the state capital. "We're controlled by the political elites."
Joanie Krastof, 59, of nearby Vallejo, showed up wearing a red "Rise Up America" flag t-shirt and straw hat strung with tea bags.
"Get back to the basics," she said as tea party activists and counter-marchers from the Democratic Party gathered in opposing groups at the Napa Valley Expo. "We need to get God back in the country. We need to get back to what our country was founded on."
As several hundred tea partiers browsed through "Don't tread on me" flags and "Fox News Fan" and "Proud American" t-shirts and buttons, more than 100 protesters organized by the local Democratic Party shouted from beyond a chain link fence.
"Hey hey, ho ho, tea party has got to go," opponents yelled as some tea party supporters debated with several military veterans through the fence over who was the most patriotic.
Members of the Green Party planned to also counter with a "progressive rally and protest march" to challenge the tea party's principles. They're offering green tea, on ice.
"People can pick their iced tea versus wine, but it's a whole 'when in Rome' thing," said Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, a well-funded wing of the populist tea party movement. "When in Napa you support the local economy and the local winemakers. They'll all be local wines."
Previous national tours began in Sacramento, San Diego, and in Reno and Searchlight, Nev.
"I love kicking off right from the land of the liberals," said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of Tea Party Express. "Don't tell me there are no conservatives in California."
She said the upcoming CNN-hosted debate "is a testament to the power of the movement.
"This next Republican nominee cannot win the nomination without our support," she told the crowd.
Speakers said they want to defeat President Barack Obama, but more than that they want to rein in government spending.
"The tea party movement is in response to big and bigger government," said Howard Kaloogian, chairman of the Our Country Deserves Better political action committee that funds Tea Party Express. "Big under (former Republican President George) Bush and much bigger under Obama."
Joanne Gifford, president of Democrats of Napa Valley, a club affiliated with the party's central committee, and Alex Shantz, co-chair of the Napa County Green Party, accused tea partiers of opposing immigrants and people of color. Shantz was also upset that tea party candidates have opposed President Obama's national health care law and public employee collective bargaining rights in some states.
"We feel the tea party has really shifted the country to the right and we definitely see ourselves as a progressive alternative," said Shantz.
Russell welcomed the protesters, despite some name-calling back and forth through the fence.
"I'm a little confused about what they're protesting," he said. "We're advocating for more efficient government and policy that bring more prosperity to everyone. I don't see a whole lot to protest there. I think they're confused over what the purpose of the tea party is."
No presidential candidates attended the tea party rally on a stage backed by a large American flag and two Tea Party Express buses decorated with the Declaration of Independence and a national map of the tour route.
The political headliner was Sharron Angle, the conservative Nevada Republican who challenged Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid in last year's U.S Senate race. Reid won by 6 percentage points, or 40,000 votes, though the race gave Angle and the tea party a national stage.
"We are making a difference," Angle said before leading the crowd in singing "God Bless America" and offering to autograph her new book. "This is not about taxation. This is about overreaching, over-regulating, over-spending government."
The tea party's backing helped her win the Republican nomination despite being shunned by the Republican Party establishment.
But Tea Party Express has its roots within the GOP, unlike other tea party organizations that have tried to separate themselves from traditional political parties.
Organizer Sal Russo is a Sacramento-based political operative who has spent nearly half a century campaigning for Republican candidates. Our Country Deserves Better, the Sacramento-based political action committee that funds Tea Party Express activities, was formed in 2008 to help John McCain's presidential campaign.
Russell noted that Tea Party Express backed Angle among others who came from outside the party's traditional wing. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann gave the Tea Party Express response to Obama's State of the Union address in January. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped kick off the last Tea Party Express national tour.
"We have constantly supported non-establishment candidates," he said. "We are constantly on the conservative side and putting principle instead of party."
From Sacramento, the bus tour heads to Reno for a Saturday evening rally.
It tracks east through Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska before spending two days in Iowa. Then it's on to Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. The tour turns south through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/08/27/v-print/2377374/tea-party-express-kicks-off-fifth.html#ixzz1WGhpyyqu
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