RALEIGH, N.C. — Best known for vociferous protests and confrontational placards, members of tea party groups across North Carolina are starting to channel their energy into more traditional political efforts: choosing candidates for upcoming elections.
After building a movement fueled by vocal gatherings, they are embarking on a quick civics tutorial. As they exchange articles on political strategy, economics and other policy issues, they are learning from each other the nuances of organizing.
“We all realized that rallying for the sake of rallying had run its course, and that in order to make a political change we would have to enter the political realm,” said Erika Franzi, a 37-year-old mother of four from Weaverville who founded the Asheville Tea Party.
“If you’re not effecting change at the ballot box, there’s no teeth in what you’re saying.”
It’s a potentially transformative moment for the nascent movement, which in large part prides itself on a lack of prominent leadership and its support for limited government power and spending.
At least one expert says there’s a risk as tea party chapters evolve into directed political advocacy organizations: Exchanging some of the thrill and informality of protests for chores usually performed by political parties or special interest groups could deflate the passion that built the movement.
“This is very much a classic problem for social movements,” said Kenneth Andrews, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched how civil rights and environmental movements have found staying power. “You may be trading one type of influence for another.”
Nearly a year after the conservative protest effort took off at tax-day rallies nationwide in April 2009 to express ire at federal bailouts, the tea party remains largely a bottom-up movement in North Carolina.
There are dozens of mostly autonomous local groups with a combined membership in the thousands, based on the size of their e-mail lists. At least 20 groups plan to hold “tax day” rallies this month – evidence of a loose confederation with “loosely assembled common goals,” said Nathan Jones, a 37-year-old Winston-Salem resident who is the primary organizer for the NC Tea Party, with membership mainly in the Triad and areas west.
The more established groups, tired of only being known for airing their grievances in city parks or outside county courthouses, are shifting focus to specific political races as May 4 primary elections approach. Several members are running for Congress and local offices themselves.
NC Freedom, with its 5,000-strong e-mail address list appearing to be the closest thing to a statewide tea party organization, recently held a forum in Raleigh for candidates in three congressional races. Organizer David DeGerolamo said it won’t issue endorsements.
Next weekend, the Cape Fear Tea Party and other southeastern North Carolina groups plan to gather at a Wilmington library to match its 200 members to work with candidates. To prepare for the election season, members have been reading up on policy and political strategy.
“We’re vetting the candidates, finding out who’s who,” said Tom Naramore, a 44-year-old high school civics teacher from Burgaw and Cape Fear Tea Party leader who is helping with the research.
The Asheville group held a debate last month with the six Republican candidates seeking the 11th Congressional District seat held by Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, who was invited but didn’t attend.
Some Asheville Tea Party leaders researched debate rules and watched old presidential debates to find a template. About 175 party members graded the candidates and endorsed Murphy ophthalmologist Dan Eichenbaum. He’ll be getting a contribution from the Asheville group’s political action committee.
Other groups are avoiding endorsements and instead asking candidates to fill out questionnaires to help members decide who best represents tea party ideals, organizers said. While adherents include registered Democrats, former Libertarians and unaffiliated voters, leaders acknowledge their views align most closely with tenets of the Republican Party.
Several conservative-leaning groups are putting on “tea party summits” next month to teach political newcomers how to run phone banks and organize get-out-the-vote efforts, but tea party activists remain intensely independent. Members argue they have been burned before by Republican leaders who ran up the national debt when the GOP held the majority in Congress.
“We’re not falling behind some dynamic, charismatic leadership,” said Robert Cressionnie, a 52-year-old Rocky Mount resident who helped found the Tar River Tea Party, which held its first meeting late last month. “We don’t want some slick-talking politician co-opting the whole movement.”