In Montana, ‘tea party’ revolution begins with a pot luck
The goals of the “tea party” movement are much discussed among the punditry – reform the Republican Party, take on President Obama’s healthcare plan, elect Ron Paul president. But for some tea partyers on the Western front of the movement, the mission is clear: Restore the Constitution.
Here in the “Tractor Country” community of Ronan, Mont., a group known as Calling All Conservatives is ramping up. A monthly meeting on Tuesday brought out more than 300 people. Inside the Ronan Community Center, a couple of things are clear – mainly, it's packed.
People mill about tables stacked with books to help you plan for a failure of the electrical grid. There's a sign-up sheet for the “10th Amendment Working Group” (named for the amendment reserving to the states all rights not explicitly outlined in the Constitution). Along the far wall, folding tables crowded with dozens of potluck dishes abut a display selling the book “The Gun Laws of Montana.”
The people who've come out range from their late 70s to their teens and, although they chat as musicians play acoustic guitar and mandolin, they're not here just to socialize. They want to talk serious politics and debate constitutional theory.
In Montana, 300 people at any political rally in February could be considered a decent showing. Add to that the fact that Ronan’s population is about 1,800 (the entire county tops out at about 26,000), and you get a sense this is a group not to be ignored.
Nationally, the tea party movement is a loose affiliation of independent groups with a hard-to-define central mission, but in Ronan the focus reaches beyond short-term politics.
Big picture and big goals
Anyone who might expect a debate about whether to back Sarah Palin in 2012 would be surprised to learn that, at the community center on this night at least, discussion of John Locke is more common.
“[O]ur goal is to peel back the onion of unconstitutional legislation that has been heaped on throughout the past 100 years to restore our state and our country back to the Constitution,” said Terry Backs, chief organizer of the Ronan group. “We want all concerned Americans regardless of affiliation to jump into the trenches with us, so we can take back our country from progressive Democrats and Republicans who have steered us away from limited government, and into the bloated and corrupt system that currently exists."
Interestingly, no one here even mentioned the contentious Tea Party Nation convention held in Nashville a few days earlier. When pressed, one activist, Brett Matson, sighed, “Everybody was disappointed by the discord coming out of that meeting … mainly because of the fight over money. But I hope that people hear our call for a return to a constitutional government.”
Many tea party adherents, including those at the Ronan meeting, see their calling as one more tied to the Founding Fathers than the 2012 campaign. On Tuesday, as people balanced plates of chicken and chocolate cake on their laps, the keynote speaker focused on none other than the commerce clause of the US Constitution.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, drew rounds of applause for his pending legal battle with the federal government over the Montana Firearms Freedom Act.
Citing the US government’s use of the commerce clause to regulate industries, including firearms, Mr. Marbut’s group lobbied Montana to enact a law in 2009 that seeks to limit federal control of locally produced weapons. “Basically our law says if it is made in this state and used in this state and kept within this state, you keep your federal paws off of it,” Marbut said to another round of applause.
Guns and the Constitution
Tennessee passed a similar law and 22 other states are considering such legislation. But Marbut said his real goal is the legal fight, and he has already filed suit to test the law’s constitutionality.
Marbut acknowledges that the Montana law is tailored to focus the debate around the Constitution – and therefore omits protection for Montana-made machine guns. “I did not want this whole debate to be about machine guns,” he said.
Yet these activists – many of whom have never been involved in politics before – are not driven solely by a desire to wrestle with the feds in court. More often, they speak to the desire to get involved on the ground level. For Mr. Matson, who cites the Ron Paul presidential campaign as his reason for joining Calling All Conservatives, local action is key to a larger future.
“It has to start at the local level, and we have to be active here for it to move up to the state level and, we believe, to a national movement,” he said as he stood before maps highlighting the voting precincts and population trends for Montana’s Lake County.
Eighty percent isn't enough
Another motivator: holding elected representatives accountable. Rick Jore, a former state representative who switched from the Republican Party to the Constitution Party in 2000, outlined the “Freedom Index” ratings for the state’s two senators and single representative in Congress.
The crowd groaned as the two Democratic senators were scored: Sen. Max Baucus voted for constitutionally limited government only 10 percent of the time, and first-term Sen. Jon Tester scored a lowly 5 percent, according to Mr. Jore. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) scored an 80 percent, but that wasn’t all that satisfactory to this crowd.
“Eighty percent is not bad, but I don’t think it is unacceptable to expect our representatives to stand up for our Constitution 100 percent of the time,” Jore said to some of the loudest applause of the night.
So what’s the overarching message for candidates gunning for the support of tea party activists in this plot of Tractor Country? They’re in no mood to compromise. After all, warned Jore, consensus “is the process where everyone gives up what they believe in for something no one believes in.”