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The political fringe finds a voice in Arkansas



Republicans made huge gains in the November election so it was certain that conservative issues would gain more prominence. But there's conservative and there's, well, out there.

Bicycle paths are evil? Mind-altering chemicals are being put in water supplies, as one legislator suggested in pushing an anti-flouridation bill? There's a shadowy UN-backed effort to regulate land use in the Lake Maumelle watershed?

Even staunch conservative Republicans have shown trepidation about some segments of the right end of the spectrum. Several, for example, led the successful committee effort to kill an open-carry handgun bill by Rep. Denny Altes of Fort Smith, though they took pains to profess allegiance to the Second Amendment. Rep. Loy Mauch's anti-fluoridation bill failed. And some have distanced themselves from the loudest eruptions by Secure Arkansas, the group working to impose harsh limits on undocumented immigrants. Secure Arkansas blasted Republican leader Rep. John Burris. Though he supports their anti-immigrant legislation, Burris wasn't deemed sufficiently harsh in his criticism of Gov. Mike Beebe for opposing it.

The mainstream of the new Republican political force is no friend of illegal immigrants or abortion or just about anything proposed by President Barack Obama, particularly the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But a new dimension of the debate is the certainty that a small contingent of even more dedicated right-wingers — from the Tea Party to Secure Arkansas and other groups — will be heard, on the strength of noise level alone, at every branch of government, from the city up to the Capitol. Impact and longevity remain to be seen.

The Movement

Early one Saturday morning in January, approximately 40 people gathered in a conference room at KARN studios in Little Rock to learn about becoming a part of conservative talk show host Dave Elswick's "Eye Team," a group of citizen-journalists that would help Elswick and KARN keep an eye on the government.

Kerry Baldwin, of the nominally non-partisan American Majority group, led the discussion. The group listened with rapt attention as they learned how to set up blogs, Facebook pages and Wikis. They asked questions in response to Republican strategist Clint Reed's briefing on the legislative process. "Can't they just introduce a bill to cut spending?" one woman asked. "Just get them to stop building bike trails," someone in the back of the room joked.

Many in the room were affiliated with Tea Party organizations and were genuinely excited about the chance to learn how to keep their local politicians accountable. But a conservative outlook wasn't the only thing this group shared. Overwhelmingly, those who left their beds early on a Saturday to learn how to blog about the government were white (save for one man) and, with the exception of conservative blogger Jason Tolbert and a couple of others, between the ages of 45 and 65.

They seemed to share a common feeling — a defensive and pervasive dread that things were not going the way they should, that times were changing too fast and something had to be done. Given the demographic represented, it seemed strange. After all, older, white, Christian Americans are, historically speaking, the least-oppressed group in the country's history. But their frustration, their feeling that they had been backed into a corner or that someone had taken their place in line, was real.

Statistics bear that out. Angie Maxwell is the Diane D. Blair Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She, along with other faculty, recently conducted the first ever Blair Rockefeller Poll, a nation-wide survey of 3,400 adults aimed at understanding political behavior and attitudes. Maxwell says the results, which have not yet been released, tell us some interesting things — some expected, some counterintuitive — about who makes up the Tea Party.

"Only 8.6 percent of self-identified Tea Party members are unemployed," she says. "That breaks down into both people who say that they've been laid off temporarily or have permanently lost their jobs. So this is obviously under the national average which is somewhat counterintuitive because some pundits say that this is a group that has been disproportionately affected by the bad economy. That lower unemployment number surprised me. It seems — and this is speculative — it's not that they have been disproportionately affected by the economy right now; it's that they really have a fear of falling. That who they are and what they represent is on its way out. And I think Obama symbolizes that to them in a lot of ways. That kind of fear is very, very real and it will cause people to become very politically active."

What else do we know about the Tea Party? According to the poll results, 10.6 percent of the population self-identify as members. Of those, 85 percent are Christians, 91.4 percent are white, 63.2 percent are over the age of 45 and 57.8 percent are male.

Some other things that might not come as a huge surprise: Tea Party members are extremely opposed to gay marriage and gay adoption, nearly 68 percent think President Obama's religion is something other than Christian and when asked questions about the future (Will things be better in a year, for example) Tea Party members were the most pessimistic group surveyed, even more so than African-Americans in the South, the demographic with the highest unemployment rate.

Things you might not have known? One general impression is that the Tea Party movement is a Southern thing. It's not. Maxwell says it's a national movement and people are just as likely to identify with the Tea Party in the North as the South. And according to the polling data, they're the most politically sophisticated group as well.

"We had a panel of questions in the poll that asked facts about the government," Maxwell says. "In this particular poll, we asked for three different people's jobs: Joe Biden, Eric Holder and John Roberts. The Tea Party members get those answers correct almost two to one over the rest of the population. You've got to be pretty engaged to know the name of the attorney general."

So why is this important? Maxwell says the rise of the Tea Party is likely to have huge implications for party politics in the United States.

"If what's really driving this is a reaction against Barack Obama, whether it's because he's another Ivy League educated politician, or mixed race, or whatever he represents to them, when he's out of office in 2013 or 2017, then we will see the Tea Party trickle down and fall apart. So that's important to Democrats and Republicans. It's important to Republicans because you don't want to move so far towards the Tea Party that you lose the middle. If you move that far to absorb them all and then they dwindle and disappear, then you're so far right the question becomes can you still capture the middle?

"On the other hand, if what's driving them is not a reaction against Obama, if it's real issues that defy any presidency, then they do have to be absorbed into the Republican Party and the GOP is going to have to make that shift or compete with them. So it's important to know what's driving them. Not because we want to point a finger and say, this is a racist movement, because that's not the purpose. But Obama is a trigger for them. If Obama supports it, or his name is on it, the Tea Party is overwhelmingly against it."

The [Bike] Path to Socialism

In December, a group of Tea Party activists led by Debbie Pelley of Jonesboro rallied behind an issue they saw as critical, one that might eventually take the small college town toward communism or socialism: the creation of bicycle paths.

A town forum was held to discuss the possibility of using federal grant money to create bike paths connecting different parts of the city, including the mall and sports facilities. But the comments made at the meeting were about something else. One woman said, "I think this means that in the future we'll all live in small communities and compounds." Another man said the government had no place to force citizens "to have a community where we can all live, work, and play."

"I think it's socialism, communism, yes, when you get a dictatorship involved," Pelley said during a phone interview. "If you go back and read the agenda that the communists have written, it sounds exactly like the same verbiage that the Smart Growth group is putting out. The reason I see it as socialism and communism is they're deceiving the people... So, they're deceiving people and making people think that bikeways are for recreation and they're not for recreation at all. It's for transportation."

David McAvoy, author of the blog Blue Arkansas, covered the meeting and posted a video to YouTube that has since racked up nearly 4,000 views. He says that as the meeting went on, it became clear what was motivating those who showed up to speak against the bike paths.

"I had an epiphany while I was filming that video," McAvoy says. "These people were being driven by fear. Fear is an emotion. It's irrational. When you're overwhelmed by that, it does something to your mind. It impacts your ability to make rational decisions and assumptions. These people were up there carrying on about this stuff that had no basis in reality or fact. Anybody that could put two and two together could sit there and listen to this stuff and put it together and say, 'This doesn't make sense.' "

Pelley disagrees though she does admit that what she sees as a U.N. plot to force people into cities is a little scary.

"They're trying to make us fear things by saying that global warming is going to destroy the world and all that sort of stuff and they put out all the things to fear. I don't think we deal in fear half as much as the leftists do," she says. "When you're looking at the department of transportation's website and what they say, how can you not recognize that? On the DOT's website, they say that when you do streets, you have to do complete streets. You have to include bike ways and walk ways. How is that frightening anybody if that's the truth? If that's the truth then they should be frightened."

At a later Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, the bike path plan was approved without much fanfare. McAvoy says it should serve as an example to those who wish to fight back against harsh right-wing rhetoric.

"I think there's going to be a little bit of a backlash," McAvoy says. "I would hope that reasonable people would be willing to band together with those of us who are progressive. We have to work on getting mobilized to combat this in our politics. We've shown in Jonesboro, which is not a progressive community by any stretch of the imagination, that we can push it back here. That tells me it could be done anywhere."

Reasonable regulation

Late last year, at a public hearing in Perry County held by Central Arkansas Water to discuss possible land-use regulations in the Lake Maumelle watershed, a woman stood up to ask a question of CAW director of watershed management Martin Maner.

"Mr. Maner do you have sustainability on your website?"

"I said I don't think we do, but I'm not sure," Maner says. "And she said, 'You're either stupid or lying.' After the official public hearing presentation, I was asked to come back up and answer some questions and elaborate. Then she got up again and she said, 'Mr. Maner, you can take your Marxist-Leninist philosophy, put it in your secular humanist briefcase and take it back across the Pulaski County line.' Is that not rich or what?"

Tea Party politics could come into play in Pulaski County as government and water utility officials try to come up with a plan to implement some form of land-use regulation in the watershed, a source of drinking water for 400,000 Arkansans. Shane Stacks, a Tea Party-backed Republican is serving his first term as a member of the Pulaski Quorum Court, the county governing body. Attempts at establishing a land-use plan in the past have been met with some resistance from a quorum court reluctant to place too many restrictions on property owners in the watershed.

The watershed issue has landed in the sights of Secure Arkansas, the anti-immigration group whose focus has broadened to other issues. In an email sent to Secure Arkansas members in late December, Jeannie Burlsworth, founder of the group, warned of U.N. efforts to meddle in the watershed.

Burlsworth wrote, "This is about a new political system is [sic] called "Sustainable Development/UN Agenda 21." Sustainable Development is the infrastructure being used to transfer America from a Republic into a Fascist, Communist order. If this watershed policy is instituted under the regional program, it will destroy our traditional state boundaries and usher in a transformed system of governance that abolishes private property. This will enable the globalist water masters to start working towards achieving centralized World Bank objectives which will severely limit our individual water use. Regionalization is Communism and this is a political method to advance economic Fascism. If you care about property rights and individual freedom, you must attend one or both of these meetings."

"Agenda 21 is an agenda by the U.N. to promote sustainability," Maner says. "And if you don't have sustainability, with our population expansion, it's not going to last. It's just common sense, but they think it's a plan to take people's land away from them."

For people who have worked to protect the water quality in Lake Maumelle, this is the cause of some concern. Kate Althoff is part of a group called Citizens Protecting Maumelle Watershed. How the quorum court looks at the issue will be key to passing meaningful regulations, she says.

"This is shaping up to be quite an interesting process that will come up this spring," Althoff says. "I've been to the public hearings and it's amazing how some people connect these dots in their heads. There's no logic to it. But they've been very effective in lobbying, getting citizens to lobby their elected officials. I'm concerned now that we're showing up on their radar because they're going to lobby the quorum court, which was very reluctant to go into this kind of land use planning in the first place."

Stacks said he's been told by numerous people to keep an eye out for any U.N. influence on what happens in the watershed. He is, like most conservatives, concerned about protecting property rights, but says he believes the county can find a balance between letting property owners do what they want with their land and protecting water quality.

"If you're going to mess with people's property rights then you better make sure there's a darn good reason," he says. "And make sure it's as limited as possible. Only do what's absolutely necessary. Do not increase government unless it's absolutely necessary. The plan that I've read so far, I'm not saying it does or doesn't do that, but I'm not convinced it's a perfect plan. They may be trying to mess with people's property rights a little bit too much. If someone says, you can't have a junkyard and you can't have a pig farm right next to Lake Maumelle, then yeah, that makes sense... When it really comes down to it, am I going to allow the watershed to get polluted just so the property owners can do anything they want without regard to the rest of society? No, of course not."

Lasting Impact?

Of course, the real question is what kind of lasting impact the Tea Party and other right wing organizations will have in the long run. The answer? Well, it depends on who you ask. Debbie Pelley says she's definitely not going anywhere.

"I don't have a crystal ball so I don't know," she says. "All I know is that where I used to have one or two people in the community that I could call on to do something, now I've probably got 50. So I think a lot of people are awakening and there's a good chance that it'll spread, that they'll be able to do the research and get the information out there. That's all I think we need for the conservatives to win, personally. I believe that liberals have to deceive the people to get their legislation in."

Maxwell says the lasting impact of Tea Party movement depends on what's driving it, but the movement is following a familiar third-party formula.

"Nobody is sure if this is a real third party that will continue to contend and run people as a separate group or if this is passing," she says. "It's obviously a real thing. And it fits a very specific third-party movement pattern to me and the data shows that.

"If you're mad, for whatever reason — whether it's legitimate or not — then your option in this country is to get with other people that are mad, form a party, educate yourself and vote. That's every single thing this group is doing. Let's organize. Let's vote so we're heard. That's the model they're using. If you were starting a grass-roots movement, then that's what you would do. It's following very recommended moves for third parties. You start running people at the low levels for candidates. Don't leave anybody running uncontested. It's very text book. And you will be taken seriously. So CNN is now airing their response to the state of the union. They doesn't happen unless you're organized and you vote."

Stacks admits that a large part of the Tea Party movement is a backlash against Barack Obama and what they see as too much change too quickly, but says the sentiment behind the movement will last for some time.

"I've been surprised to see that after the election, in some ways it even kicked up," Stacks says. "They said, 'The election's over, now the real work begins. We have to hold people accountable and we have to get ready for the next election cycle.' I think it's lasting. Ten years from now, will it still be called the Tea Party? I don't know. It might get absorbed into the larger consciousness where it's not as visible."

Last week, former Senate candidate Curtis Coleman spoke to a small gathering of Tea Party members at the group's monthly meeting, held at the Acxiom building in downtown Little Rock. He talked about the American Revolution, the increasing size of the government, the decline of personal liberties and warned against "black-robed revisionist judges" and legislators more concerned with "protecting their pecking order than protecting the private property and lives of our citizens."

"I believe that we stand at the edge of the cliff of socialism and we look down into the dry gulf of tyranny and despotism," Coleman said. "We must stand and say, 'We will not be pushed any farther down this cliff.' Many of you are being called racists, and bigots and Islamaphobes and homophobes and every other kind of phobe you can imagine for no other reason than you stand for a limited government, and for personal responsibility, and liberty and freedom guaranteed in the Constitution. And in spite of the criticisms, and in spite of the accusations, we must not be discouraged, we must not be deterred and we must not give up."

Everyone applauded and an "Amen" could be heard over the din.

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