BANGOR, Maine — Despite gallons of newspaper ink, hours of air time and untold clicks in the blogosphere, the effect of the tea party movement in local and national politics remains to be seen.
Even as supporters gathered Friday in Nashville, Tenn., for a National Tea Party Convention, some question whether it’s a movement at all, or rather a collection of isolated protests, just like similar events for any of a million other causes. Tea party organizers in Maine, though, say the influence of the events is not only enduring. It’s building.
“I have seen more people at political functions than have ever been there before,” said Lois Bloomer of Hermon, who ran two tea parties in Maine last year and has organized today’s Penobscot County Republican Caucus.
“There’s something definitely in the wind,” she said on Thursday. “People are stirred up.”
The concept of a tea party is familiar to most any student of American history. In 1773, colonists in Boston threw cases of tea into the harbor in protest of a new tax imposed by the British government. Last year on April 15, Tax Day, tea parties were held across the United States, including Maine, all trying to advance the same ideals: free markets, smaller government and lower taxes. Bloomer and others say they’re gearing up for more tea parties this April, including talking them up at Republican caucuses.
Though Republicans are considered by many to be more fiscally conservative than Democrats, especially in Maine, the tea party movement is not a Republican movement, said Pete Harring of Standish. Harring runs the Web site MaineRefounders.org under the moniker of Pete the Carpenter.
“I believe that both parties have melded into one,” said Harring. “They don’t care what the people have to say. The Republicans are just as guilty as the Democrats and people are starting to wake up and say ‘stop spending our money.’”
Andrew Dodge of Harpswell has helped organize tea parties in Maine and is also a media relations consultant for a national group called Tea Party Patriots. He agrees with Harring that the tea party movement has stimulated people of all political persuasions.
“A lot of people are fed up with both parties,” he said. “The tea party movement has gotten people to get up off their butts, stop yelling at the television and do something. It will be interesting to see if the whole movement musters people to vote and raises Maine’s voter turnout.”
Dodge predicted that the tea party movement will become as widespread and influential as the hippie movement of the 1960s. He even went as far as to say that some of the same people are involved.
“Some people from the hippie movement are re-engaging in politics,” he said. “They’re waking up and realizing, ‘I’m a conservative.’ It’s about government getting off our backs.”
Arden Manning, coordinated campaign director for the Maine Democratic Party, rejected the notion that many Democrats in Maine are supportive of the tea party movement.
“I wouldn’t agree that it involves any Democrats, or many of them,” said Manning. “The general principal [tea party activists] are espousing is from the far right wing of the Republican Party. Historically it’s not uncommon for a party to shift away from the center.”
Manning said in Maine, the actual number of tea party activists represents a fraction of the population.
“Mainers in general are very mainstream, middle of the road politically,” he said. “It’s a small group of people in Maine who are on the right of the Republican party.”
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said there is “a lot of division” among academics on the significance of the tea party movement.
“I’m not sure if I’d be ready to qualify it as a movement, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it as insignificant, either,” he said, adding that there is evidence of growing sentiment against government in general, whether it’s caused by the tea party phenomenon or not.
“There’s a high degree of anger and frustration with government right now,” he said. “The tea party is tapping into that. Will it have an impact on electoral outcomes and party movement? It’s too early to tell at this point.”
Regardless, Pete the Carpenter is convinced that there’s growing unrest.
“I’ve been a Republican my whole life but right now I don’t feel like a Republican,” he said. “This is not a party thing. It’s a we the people thing.”