Election 2012
6:28 pm
Thu July 12, 2012

Arizona Tea Party Activists Say They're Back

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 6:37 pm

Maricopa County, Ariz., where 3 out of 5 Republicans in the state live, has become a hotbed of Tea Party activism.

That's where the head of the Original North Phoenix Tea Party lives. His name is Wesley Harris, and he used to manufacture precision rifle barrels. These days, his son runs the business, while Harris spends most of his time as a full-time Tea Party activist.

Running Against Disenchantment

The first rule of Tea Party activists: You do not talk about being a Tea Party leader. No one person speaks for the movement as a whole. But in his personal experience, Harris can trace the ebb and flow of enthusiasm in his community.

He looks fondly on that period back in 2009 when he first started holding meetings under the Tea Party mantle, and when they outgrew their first meeting space in two weeks.

"We've had huge events here," he says. "When we get more Tea Parties together, you know, we number in the thousands."

Harris says that after the 2010 midterm elections, conservatives became disenchanted with the leaders they elected — many of them with Tea Party support — which helped give the Republican Party a majority in the House of Representatives.

"Attendance fell off. People started to get complacent again. Apathy in this country is a tragedy," he says. "If my ox isn't being gored, I don't care. And that's what you found after the election in 2010, when we had, quote, a 'new order,' at least in the House. We saw quickly that that new order didn't perform up to our expectations nor up to their promises, and so as a result, people started to become disenchanted."

But, Harris says: "Obamacare has regenerated it. People are starting to rally back to the Tea Parties because of these kinds of things going on. And the fact that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, pardon the English, but that's it."

Harris cites the national unemployment rate, the California cities that have had to file for bankruptcy, the federal agencies he says that have long overreached in power.

But mention immigration, and Wes Harris really lights up. Tea Party activists rallied around the hard-line immigration enforcement cause embodied in the state's controversial law, SB 1070.

While the Supreme Court last month struck down three out of four provisions under scrutiny, the most popular provision with conservatives — allowing police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops — was upheld.

"Ninety percent of 1070 is in place," says Harris. "The Obama administration has couched it as though it were a great loss. It was not a loss. It was a profound victory."

Harris says the government's reaction to the ruling has reinvigorated conservative activists.

"I am not a fan of Sheriff Joe Arpaio," the hard-line Maricopa County sheriff who has made a name for his tough immigration stances, says Harris. "I've known him for years. I am a fan, however, of some of the things he has done and tried to do. And I take great exception to the federal government coming down on that one individual. ... So these are rallying points for Tea Party people or activists like myself."

It's a much-needed boost after a flurry of Tea Party-backed candidates had a tough time last fall in Arizona. Not only was the author of the SB 1070 immigration law, former Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, recalled from office, Tea Party-supported challengers to the Phoenix City Council flopped, and the mayoral candidate who courted their votes was similarly trounced.

Arpaio, who has long enjoyed Tea Party support, is facing a lawsuit over racial profiling and a tough re-election campaign.

Refueling For November

But Tea Party conservatives remain a coveted demographic in several contests this summer, including the race for Arizona's U.S. Senate seat.

At a trendy Scottsdale steak restaurant, a couple of dozen Republican women gather for a meet-and-greet with Senate candidate Wil Cardon, a boyish-looking Republican businessman.

It's a well-connected group with many active in the state Republican Party or with Tea Party chapters. There are summer dresses adorned with rhinestone pins of elephants, and one lapel sparkles with a "Romney 2012" brooch.

Cardon's opponent in the Aug. 28 Republican primary is six-term Rep. Jeff Flake, who is well known in the state. Both candidates are constantly trying to outdo each other's conservative credentials.

While some of the women here are still undecided, they do seem poised to jump into action one way or another.

"I think the Tea Party is gone to ground, and we are just as strong, just as motivated as we were during the Obamacare legislation. We're still supporting candidates, and we're in there fighting," says conservative activist Susan Leeper.

"I think there are a number of us who were very disappointed with the immigration ruling. It's been put on the back burner right now by the Obamacare ruling. It's still an issue because there are other states that have immigration laws that were modeled after Arizona, and I think it's still an issue, but it's not in the forefront," Leeper says.

At the end of the day, the top issue for Leeper, Harris and others who identify with the Tea Party is getting President Obama out of office.

New voter registration numbers released by the Arizona secretary of state's office show that while Republicans have steadily gained supporters over the past two years, the number of registered Democrats has fallen off by more than 50,000 people in the state.

So conservatives are still very much running the show, at least for now.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

This week, we're hearing from grassroots organizers in Arizona about the changing political landscape there. The Supreme Court's ruling on the state's immigration enforcement law, SB1070, is the catalyst for much of that change. Yesterday, we heard from Latino community activists who say it could help them get out the vote. Today, we'll hear from the Tea Party.

My co-host Audie Cornish is in Arizona this week. She met with some Tea Party conservatives and found that immigration is also a hot button issue for them, but it's not the only one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROADWAY)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So we're here in Phoenix, in Maricopa County, where three out of five Republicans in the state actually live. As a result, it's also become a hotbed of Tea Party activism in the state, and so we decided to check in with one of the leaders of these groups. His name is Wesley Harris and he's head of the Original North Phoenix Tea Party.

WESLEY HARRIS: This is where I do most everything, in here.

CORNISH: We're in Wes Harris's study, the shades drawn to keep the heat out and the air-conditioning in. A bright yellow sash printed with the slogan: Don't Tread On Me and a button that says I'm a Tea Party Leader lay draped over a lamp. The walls are covered with diplomas, photos and antique firearms.

HARRIS: Oh, that was my wife's father's father's shotgun.

CORNISH: Harris used to manufacture precision rifle barrels. These days his son runs the business. Now, Wes Harris spends most of his time as full time Tea Party activist and I want to stop and say here: The first rule of Tea Party activists - you do not talk about being a Tea Party leader. No one person speaks for the movement as a whole.

But in his personal experience, Harris can trace the ebb and flow of enthusiasm in his community. And he looks fondly on that period back in 2009 when he first started holding meetings under the Tea Party mantle, when they outgrew their first meeting space in two weeks.

HARRIS: We've had huge events here. When we get more Tea Parties together, you know, we number in the thousands. Sometimes quite a bit less, especially after the last election, everybody kind of - the balloon deflated. And people got, well, gee we won this big one. We didn't win anything, really.

CORNISH: So what do you mean when you say that the balloon deflated?

HARRIS: You know, attendance fell off. People started to get complacent again. Apathy in this country is a tragedy. If my ox isn't being gored, I don't care. And that's what you found after the election in 2010 when we had, quote, "a new order," at least in the House. We saw quickly that that new order didn't perform up to our expectations, nor up to their promises. And so, as a result, people started to become disenchanted.

ObamaCare has regenerated it. People are starting to rally back to the Tea Parties because of these kinds of things going on. And the fact that the country is going to Hell in a hand basket, pardon the English, but that's it.

CORNISH: He cites the national unemployment rate, the California cities that have had to file for bankruptcy, the federal agencies he says that have long overreached in power.

But mention immigration and Wes Harris lights up. Tea Party activists rallied around the hard-line immigration enforcement cause. And while the Supreme Court ruling struck down three out of four provisions under scrutiny, the most popular provision with conservatives - allowing police to check immigration status during routine traffic stops - was upheld.

HARRIS: Ninety percent of 1070 is in place. The Obama administration has couched it as though it were a great loss. It was not a loss. It was a profound victory.

CORNISH: So then, in effect, has the air been sucked out of the room for that issue for you? Or do you find people are coming back to your organization?

HARRIS: Oh, they are. They are without a doubt. I am not a fan of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I've known him for years. I am a fan, however, of some of the things he has done and tried to do. And I take great exception to the federal government coming down on that one individual. And so, these are rallying points for Tea Party people or activists like myself.

CORNISH: And it's a much needed boost after a flurry of Tea Party-backed candidates had a tough time last fall. Not only was the author of the SB-1070 immigration law, Russell Pearce, recalled from office, Tea Party supported challengers to the Phoenix City Council flopped, and the mayoral candidate who courted their votes was similarly trounced.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's long enjoyed Tea Party support, is facing a lawsuit over racial profiling and a tough re-election campaign.

But Tea Party conservatives remain a coveted demographic in several contests this summer, including the race for Arizona's U.S. Senate seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

WIL CARDON: How you guys doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good, how are you?

CARDON: Good.

CORNISH: At a trendy Scottsdale steak restaurant, a couple dozen Republican women gather for a meet and greet with Senate candidate Wil Cardon, a boyish-looking businessman.

SHARON CRANE: Hi, I'm Sharon Crane.

CARDON: Nice to meet you.

CRANE: Thank you. Nice to meet you. Are you sure you're old enough to do this?

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: It's a well connected group with many active in the state Republican Party or with Tea Party chapters. There are summer dresses adorned with rhinestone pins of elephants and one lapel sparkles with a Romney 2012 broach.

Will Cardon's opponent is 6-term Congressman Jeff Flake, well known in the state. Both candidates are constantly trying to outdo each other's conservative credentials. While some women at today's lunch are still undecided, they do seem poised to jump into action one way or another.

SUSAN LEEPER: My name is Susan Leeper, and I am a Conservative activist.

CORNISH: If Wes Harris worried about apathy Leeper, who identifies with the Tea Party, says they were just refueling.

LEEPER: I think the Tea Party has gone underground and we are just as strong, just as motivated as we were during the ObamaCare legislation. We're still supporting candidates and we're in there fighting.

CORNISH: With the Supreme Court ruling over the couple - there were two key Supreme Court rulings for Arizona. There was health care, of course, which is something that Tea Party activists have been very vocal about. But also, the state immigration laws for Arizona. How do you think these issues have affected things for activists, such as yourself?

LEEPER: Well, I think there are a number of us who were very disappointed with the immigration ruling. It's been put on the back burner right now by the ObamaCare ruling. It's still an issue because there are other states that have immigration laws that were modeled after Arizona. And I think it's still an issue but it's not in the forefront.

CORNISH: What are the issues you think are taking over?

LEEPER: Well, the economy and certainly the health care law. It's not just about access. It's not just about lower costs. It's the overwhelming takeover of this health care system by the government. If you wanted to improve health care for the country, that was not the way to go.

CORNISH: At the end of the day the number one issue for Leeper, Wesley Harris, and others is getting President Obama out of office. And new voter registration numbers show that while Republicans have steadily gained supporters over the last two years, the number of registered Democrats has fallen.

So, conservatives are still very much running the show here, at least for now.

In Phoenix, I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: