It’s been two years since the Tea Party first stepped out onto the political stage. Back then, President Barack Obama was in his first few months of office and national health care reform was the hot button topic burning at town hall-type meetings throughout the country. Locally, the Worcester Tea Party was born.

Two years later, the Worcester group continues to advocate for fiscal reform targeting what they see as unsustainable spending by the federal government. But if you think you know what the Tea Party is all about, Worcester Tea Party organizer Ken Mandile says you may want to take a closer look.

Worcester Tea Party rally 2010 (Photo courtesy of Charlene Arsenault)

Worcester Tea Party rally 2010 (Photo courtesy of Charlene Arsenault)

Outspoken advocates like former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin eat up a lot of the headlines as do extremists who show up to Tea Party rallies sporting pictures of Obama made to look like Adolph Hitler. Soft-spoken and seeing himself as moderate, Mandile says the views of some don’t represent the views of others in the Tea Party.

Worcester Wired’s Noah Bombard sat down with Mandile this week for a Behind the Headlines audio podcast to discuss what the Worcester Tea Party stands for, how it has changed in the past two years and where it is heading. Parts of that interview are excerpted here:

Noah: How has the Tea Party changed in the past two years?

Ken: When we first started we were it for Worcester County. We were drawing people from all over and we’d come together. It got to be clear after maybe six months that it wasn’t practical having people come from Sturbridge and Northborough into Worcester when they had issues they should be dealing in their towns and all over the county. So we started spinning off.

We don’t control any of them. There are about a dozen small groups now. We will try to spin off a few more because there are several towns that are not covered yet.

The Tea Party movement over all across the country, we say it’s leaderless, so when you see the big names the media likes to attach to the Tea Party they’re not leaders in any sense.

Noah: What’s the real focus of the Tea Party today – specifically the Worcester Tea Party – and how do you keep a focus in a leaderless organization?

Ken: Most of them are focused on the fiscal issues. Not only in Washington, but also at the state level that the fiscal issues are the big deal. And that doesn’t taxes necessarily, it means spending. But there are groups that get into side issues that other Tea Parties might not consider not Tea Party issues, but there’s no way to control that. They’ll succeed or fail on their own. And that’s the advantage of having this loose structure, because one person can start a Tea Party and if they have the right ideas they’ll draw support and be successful. If they go off track they won’t be successful. Most people in the Tea Party realize we need to attract the people in the middle of the political spectrum. The far right isn’t going to carry an election. We need to convince people in the middle that the fiscal issues are critical at this point.

Noah: It seems like at these rallies there are always these fringe or extremist groups there as well. You get the Lyndon LaRouche folks that show up and they draw the cameras. Is that frustrating at all?

Ken: It’s expected. For example the LaRouche people, last year, we asked them in advance, “Please don’t show up to our event.” And they didn’t’ show up. This year we didn’t say anything and they did show up. We asked them to stay off our permitted area and they did. And they didn’t stay very long and they left. And I think at this point people know who the Tea Party is and who the fringe groups are.

Noah: I think the difficult thing for the media is we show up to these things and it’s difficult to ignore the people who are the loudest, the people who are the most fringe elements. Yet there is such a wide array of opinions and views. How do you overcome that?

Ken: First of all I don’t want to make the rallies too important. The rallies are mostly for our supporters. Their not necessarily for people on the outside. We want people to come together and realize there’s a lot of people who feel the way they do. And hear some good speakers and learn something new. But the real work is outside of those rallies – organizing new people that show up, recruiting, motivating them, getting them involved, training them. And training and education are a big part of our mission – not so much our mission as our method. And the rallies are one form of recruiting new people and motivating the people that we have. A rally is not going to change the course of the country. We’re going to do that at the ballot box and by letting our leaders know that we’re not happy.

Noah: Speaking of training and education, there’s been a lot in the news about the Southbridge election and this group Show ID to Vote. Is the Tea Party participating in any of that?

Ken: We are participating. We’re supporting their efforts. We feel the system is broken and subject to abuse. And if the system is not going to work the way it is now there’s no chance of having any change. You can’t have people cheating. A lot of people say there’s no evidence of wide-spread voter fraud, but in the sixth Worcester you only needed one voter. That’s all. It came down to one vote. So if there was one fraudulent voter it threw the election. And it could have gone either way. Maybe Alicia should have one. Maybe his opponent should have won. Who knows? A fraudulent vote takes a good vote away from someone else.

Noah: How do you respond to folks who feel these sorts of voter education movements are in some way racist or targeting particular groups?

Ken: I say number one, it’s common sense that people should be required to show an ID. All we’re doing is asking them to verify they are the person who’s on the voter registration log. We’re not asking them to prove proof of citizenship. That’s a different issue. That would come when they register. Most states require some form of ID. Most of them it’s just a signature on the voter registration log others require some form of photo ID. And there’s no reason why Massachusetts shouldn’t require that.

Noah: Let’s assume for a moment that we all want the same thing – to live in a prosperous country with manageable debt. Do we just not agree on how to get down that path?

Ken: I haven’t seen another path. I don’t see anybody saying yes we can continue to spend the way we’re spending if we only raise taxes, because it’s ridiculous. The numbers are much too large to be taken care of with just a tax increase. Somebody just gave me an article yesterday and it was talking about if we only would rescind the Bush tax cuts, which are now the Obama tax cuts, on the rich, that raises $350 billion in round numbers. We’ve got a $106 trillion deficit per year, so $350 billion, let’s say we rescind the tax cuts. Where’s the other $1.3 trillion coming from without cuts? It’s just not possible.

Noah: Where do you make those tough choices? A lot of people feel making drastic cuts could send us back into the Stone Age. Obviously the Tea Party doesn’t feel that way.

Ken: No, and I think the conversation should be changed from cuts to restructuring. You can’t just cut Social Security and cut Medicare and Medicaid, because they’re structured in a way that certain people are eligible for benefits so you can’t just take the funds away. So you need to restructure how they work. And I think that Paul Ryan has done some of that. And I think the Democrats, once their under pressure… and I see signs that they’re starting to see they’ve got to stop fighting us and come up with their own ways to solve these issues. But things have got to be restructured. That’s the answer. It will result in cuts in the budget and some people may not get the services or may need to pay for services, but you can’t just keep going because you can’t think of a way to fix it, it needs to be fixed.

Noah: The Tea Party is not aligned with any political party, however, it does seem obvious that the Tea Party leans more Republican. Are there any congressmen or legislators in Worcester County the Tea Party supports?

Ken: I can’t think of a specific instance, but I’ve had people tell me this is a good person – it was a democrat – that they’re not a big spending liberal. That they’ve come out against tax increases, that they’ve come out against crazy spending. I can’t remember the specific names because the conversations were last fall, but I think there are Democrats that are more moderate. I think it’s tough to find them in Massachusetts, but I would think, sure, across the country. And to me, that’s more of the traditional Democratic party — it’s supporting the working class – and right now they’re just an arm of the unions as far as I can see. We’re stuck with two parties that have moved away from what they should be. The Republicans were supposed to be small government, promoting business because that promotes the economy, promotes jobs. And the Democrats helping out those who fall through the cracks in our social structure and supporting the working class. They’ve both moved away from what made them successful and I think they’re both failing now and I think the polls show that people are not happy with them.

Noah: Would we having this discussion now, would we have a Tea Party if the economy had not tanked a few years ago?

Ken: I think we would have because George Bush put us on this path of big spending without paying for it. When you look at the deficit we have, a big portion of it is due to George Bush. Now at this point it’s been carried into a whole new realm under Obama. But I think we would be arguing over the size of the federal government.

Noah: How do you combat the polarization of politics? Is that possible?

Ken: I think it is possible. I think we’ve done that already. The agenda in Washington now is about cutting spending. It’s not about stimulus and bailouts. It’s how are we going to cut the size of the federal government? How are we going to restructure things and get the government back to what it should be doing, back to what it does best rather than trying to do everything. So I think the Tea Party movement has set the agenda. That’s a big change from what we’ve had in the past. A few years ago they were just making fun of us. I don’t think they’re making fun of us anymore, they’re listening to us.

Noah: Now I know there’s to the Tea Party than rallies, but the one last week in Worcester drew fewer than 200 people. Last year there were more than 2,000. Has the movement lost some momentum?

Ken: It shows some maturity in the Tea Party movement in that a lot of what we do has nothing to do with rallies. When we started that’s all we had was rallies. We could show up to protest whatever. If there was a vote we’d make phone calls. Now we’re doing a lot of education, lobbying, training people to be candidates, teaching people about the Constitution and economics. So all of that is kind of behind the scenes, so the rallies are not as important. They were important to get us started, to get us some publicity. They’re still a valuable tool for publicity.

Noah: Has the movement matured to the point where we’re hearing less of the shouting, the angry, the fringe elements that have the slogans?

Ken: I think so. I think part of it is when we started we felt somewhat powerless. We didn’t know how many of us felt this way until we started having these rallies. And once we started to get together and organize then we didn’t know what to do. What do we do next? And it took us awhile to figure things out and we made a few mistakes, but I think we have a good way to accomplish our mission. And we don’t’ see it as happening this year, next year or the year after it’s 20, 30, 40 years out. We need to change society and how we view the role of the government and that will take a long time.

Noah: Can we get past this tug-of-war, in which the perennial rallying cry is “take back the government?”

Ken: I think things will settle out. We tend to go in wild swings lately from far left to far right and we’ll probably settle in the middle somewhere. I’m hoping that the pressure from the Tea Party will move the Republicans back to their core values of limited, responsible government and the Democrats will do the same thing. There are plenty of Democrats who are fiscally responsible and let’s get them into power and get rid of the ones who really don’t have a viable plan on how to support so many programs. No matter what level you tax people you just couldn’t support all the programs we have now the way they’re structured. I never liked that phrase take back the government. We elected these people and we’ll throw them out if we need to.

Noah: Despite the fiscal message, Tea Partiers are often associated with socially conservative messages. How much of those issues – abortion, gay marriage, etc. – are wrapped into the Tea Party membership?

Ken: There are a lot of us who were the early adopters – people who started the Tea Party movement – feel very strongly that we need to focus on the fiscal issues. That these social issues will divide us and will turn away a lot of moderate people who would support us on cutting the size and scope of government, but won’t support us when it comes to social issues. We have arguments within the Tea Party. Sometimes people want to get involved in things and it seems like those of us who want to focus on the fiscal issues always win out. With this structure of a leaderless organization, if somebody has a Tea Party that gets into issues they shouldn’t be, I think they’ll fail. But it’s their group. Let them try it and see what happens. But I think they’ll turn a lot of people off, especially here in Massachusetts.

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