Tea party gains steam in Merced

Movement's influence growing in county

March 31, 2011 

While the Merced County Republican Central Committee looks to increase its faithful, Merced's tea party continues to gain steam and is looking forward to 2012.

Merced Tea Party Patriots is a surging force and expects to be more mobile and influential next year. Democrats, however, don't see the group as organized enough to be considered a political challenger.

During November's elections, the Merced County Republican Central Committee did better than other such California committees thanks to the tea party, said Dawn Brown, chairwoman of the county Republican committee. "The tea party was the backbone of the 2010 campaign season," she said.

Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults think the Republican Party should consider ideas coming from the tea party movement, though less than 40 percent favor the tea party, despite the GOP's growth in popularity, according to January data from Gallup polls.

Not every tea party member is Republican, said Sam Palmer, coordinator of the Merced Tea Party Patriots. But, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, eight out of 10 tea partiers are part of the GOP.

Despite the numbers, Merced Tea Party Patriots includes a mixed bunch and even some Democrats, Palmer said. "There are certainly a lot of Democratic conservatives out there that do participate with us," he said. "Every single one of them feels that they haven't left their party — their party left them."

Furthermore, Palmer said, Tea Party Patriots is starting to attract younger members.

Some have labeled the tea party an exclusive group and unreceptive toward minorities, but that's far from the case in Merced, Palmer said. It all adds up to a growing group that's commonly demonized by opponents.

"Anybody out there, if they even try to insinuate that the tea party is not inclusive, is racist or anything else like that has got rocks in their head," he said. "In my mind, all they're doing is trying to breed divisiveness and extremism. We've had it — we've had it with the lies."

Rich Gipson, a member of the Merced County Democratic Central Committee, said he sees the tea party as a group of very concerned citizens, but not as an organized political force in the county. He considers the tea party as a branch of the Republican Party.

"We noticed at the fair last year that there was a lot of back and forth between the Republican booth and the tea party booth, both with people working the booth and exchanging materials," he said. "Basically, they were working hand in hand."

As far as the GOP considering tea party ideas and being influenced by it, that's already happening, Gipson said. "The reason why Congress is so deadlocked right now is because of the tea party," he said. "The members who were just elected to Congress on the tea party are holding up any kind of compromise, and therefore it's causing a stalemate in Washington, D.C."

Tea partiers see compromise as a "sellout," Gipson added. "We need to work together and cooperate, and the tea party doesn't seem to want to do that."

As the tea party has enjoyed growth and a stronger political profile, the Merced County Republican Central Committee has looked to do the same.

The party is reaching out to Latino and Hmong voters, many of whom share similar values with the Republican Party, Brown said.

While the tea party is looking to grow, it also is focusing on social and governmental problems, Palmer said.

A main effort Merced Tea Party Patriots is taking on for 2012 is voter fraud, which is "rampant" in California, he said. The suspected fraud includes absentee ballots and provisional balloting, Palmer said.

With a lot of crossover between the Republican Party and Tea Party Patriots in Merced County, the groups have been uniting on issues such as voter fraud.

Palmer said he is one of three Tea Party Patriots members who are part of the Merced County Republican Central Committee, adding that the tea party aims to make the Republican Party stronger.

"Tea party people are definitely trying to influence decisions, candidates and everything else," he said.

Though Merced's tea party doesn't endorse any candidates, the goal is to promote fiscal responsibility through reduced taxes and state spending, among other areas, Palmer said.

As the clock ticks forward to the next round of elections, the grit of Republicans, Democrats and tea partiers will be tested.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at mnorth@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2453.

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