Lots of folks frequent the King of Prussia Mall. In fact, members of the local Tea Party & 912 Patriots have occupied the same corner of Route 202 and Mall Boulevard every Saturday since 2009.
“I haven’t been in that shopping center in three years,” says Berwyn’s Lou Flanagan on a blustery early December afternoon. “But I’ve been on this corner for 1 ½ years.”
While four college kids collect money on a nearby corner to “Help Kids Fight Cancer,” one banging the top of his tin can like a bongo, David Adamski has other ideas. The president of King of Prussia’s satellite Tea Party waves a high-flying “Don’t Tread on Me.”
“We represent the right to make decisions for ourselves,” he says.
Mark Driver, a Phoenixville resident who’s a member of the Valley Forge Tea Party, wields a handmade sign. One side reads, “Listen to us. Stop spending. Cut the debt.” The other, “Honk for Tea Party and Lower Taxes.”
Last year, Norristown’s Maggie Roddin began hosting her own twice-a-week radio show in New Jersey. Today, she’s wearing a classic red-and-white Dr. Seuss hat. Perhaps the red represents the federal deficit, and the white the white-collar sin of spending so freely (though the theory doesn’t come from her).
“There’s a lot more to his books than entertainment; he was a smart man,” Roddin says of Seuss, before turning sarcastic. “But all anyone needs to know today is that the government will take care of you.”
The grassroots proliferation of Tea Party affiliates is sweeping the nation—and the Main Line and its western suburbs are caught up in it. Besides King of Prussia and Valley Forge, there are organized affiliates in West Chester and Exton, not to mention a strong contingent in Delaware County that meets in Aston.
The Valley Forge Patriots have gained hundreds of supporters since first coming together in the spring of 2009. Now with 150 members, the King of Prussia group began steering committee meetings last June. By August, they were meeting monthly. The Exton and West Chester groups have about 700 members combined, and the Delco group almost 500.
The co-founder of the King of Prussia unit, Flanagan says he’s heard a rumor of interest in a separate group in Narberth. He calls the central and upper Main Line “fertile territory.” “We’d like to be up and down the Main Line,” he says.
The Patriots claim no political affiliation other than their own. Among the goals listed on their fluorescent-yellow pamphlet: stopping wild spending, cutting taxes and reducing the size of government. They’re out to replace an “awful” healthcare law and protect “every inch” of the nation’s borders. They support free-market capitalism while working to stamp out the “crony” variety.
The Patriots and their supporters seek to halt Socialist “redistribution.” They lobby for judges who adhere to the U.S. Constitution, and for kindred souls who respect and uphold traditional American values and customs.
But that’s not the way the Patriots are often portrayed. Joe Panas says opponents have developed all sorts of mistaken impressions. Largely, the mainstream media has lambasted the Tea Party. Philadelphia Inquirer editorial cartoonist Tony Auth, who lives in Wynnewood, drew some ire.
“I didn’t know him before, but I got to know him after we were depicted as Neanderthals, bikers and racists,” says Panas, who lives in Valley Forge. “We are representatives of all [political] parties and races, and we embrace all religions. When I confronted Tony, he was pleasant, but defensive.”
Panas first dipped into politics in 2000. But when he contacted his local Chester County Republican committee, he was told, “Write a check, but don’t bother us.” He wanted to do more. For Bush 2000, he worked phone banks and drummed up support at the polls, then did the same in 2004. “After 2008, when [the Tea Party] erupted, I finally found my home,” he says.
Tea Party support of Republican Party candidates went a long way last fall, but Panas explains that the Tea Party does differ on several traditional Republican Party points. “They’re not in favor of smaller government,” he says. “They don’t adhere to constitutional principles. They want a strong foreign policy. But I also see a change [in the works] regarding these traditionally strong Republican stances.”
There may come a day when the nation removes the word staunch before Republican. For the moment, the progressives, Panas says, have awakened a sleeping giant in the American public by trying to push the country too far left and too close to socialism.
“The only good thing about socialism is that it works until the money runs out—and it will run out,” says Panas, whose two-sided sign pledges, “Want Lower Taxes? Get Involved.” and “The Government Has Only Your Taxes to Spend.”
“They have set off a time bomb,” he adds, as a passerby rolls down a car window and slowly and smugly proclaims, “We hate the Tea Party!”
To which Roddin replies, “That’s OK to hate us. We’re standing up for your right to hate us.”
Local Tea Party organizers have promised to continue rallies until far more Americans are aware and energized. Since the election, signs have concentrated on those “awful things” that must be repealed, replaced, stamped out or otherwise trashed. “We’re starting to get better organized,” says Flanagan, who owns a business-to-business marketing agency. “Last year, we were amateurs.”
A curious Flanagan first attended a sidewalk rally at a courthouse corner in West Chester in April 2009. “I had to find out what kind of people were attracted to a rally, or who would show up with signs and draw a crowd,” he says. “I realized that this was something none of these people had ever done before. They weren’t making bomb threats, and they certainly weren’t professional agitators. One Russian businessman who fled the Soviet Union said he saw things happening here that were all too similar to why he left Russia.”
Flanagan’s early contributions included a 30-page pre-election healthcare resource kit. Later, he knew from attending Valley Forge chapter meetings that Saturday rallies had to be part of the plan. “There was so much pent-up energy,” he recalls.
Attendance at Route 202 and Mall Boulevard peaked at 50 in September 2009. Now, a typical Saturday crowd is 12. Additional satellites, with their own agendas and events, have popped up and thinned the herds elsewhere.
“There are more opportunities and options,” says Carl Namiotka, who is a southeastern regional coordinator for Tea Party activity. “We’re just more spread out. There are over 12 affiliated groups in this region, but they’re all as independent as hell.”
The common denominators, Flanagan says, are commitment, common sense and a good heart. And he insists that this political movement is cross-generational and cross-cultural.
“What used to happen is that we had to seek others out, but now they seek us,” says Namiotka, who often makes a sports analogy: “We welcome everyone, but for too long, this country has been based on the guys who are season-ticket holders. For too long, they have been the only ones allowed to cheer at events.”
Namiotka has been busy expanding into Philadelphia, mostly through the churches. It’s been an uphill battle. “Most in Philadelphia are conservatives, but they always vote liberal,” says Namiotka. “Then the government leaves them nowhere else to turn. That’s where we come in. In the city, they’re never going to completely trust the Republican Party, so it’s a matter of the alternative we can provide.”
With state politics in the hands of the people the Tea Party campaigned for, the focus has turned to local government, school boards and township supervisors. There’s also an increased effort to recruit minority membership.
“I feel like educated people are going by the wayside,” says Driver, a Republican committeeman in Phoenixville. “We need to pay attention to what’s going on. There’s no common sense in spending anymore. It’s not about getting elected again; it’s about doing the right thing.”
Holding a rolled-up American flag as he leaves the King of Prussia rally, Driver notes that he began rallying on tax day 2009, at what he called the largest demonstration the borough of Phoenixville ever had. More than 300 gathered at the corner of Bridge and Main streets. “That was the explosion of the [local] Tea Party movement,” he says. “People are fed up.”
Sometimes, so is the opposition.
“We receive gestures from many motorists—usually a thumbs-up or horn honk,” Flanagan says. “Sometimes, I receive a gesture that must mean I’m No. 1. Anyhow, the ratio was six or eight to one in our favor when we started. But it’s risen to 20-35 to one in recent months.”
Just then, fellow Patriot Steve Brod reports the “onset of a new gesture,” then purses his lips as if to spit. “First, she gave me the thumbs-down, and I waved back,” he says. “She waited. I glanced back and waved again, and she must have thought, ‘This guy just doesn’t get it.’ Then, she spit. I thought only guys expectorated; they do it all the time. But when it’s directed at you from a woman, it’s a little different.”
One time, Flanagan says, both driver and passenger offered the double-finger. “Yeah,” he says, “the quadruple-finger.”
“I was astonished when a woman first gave me the finger,” adds Brod, admitting that he carries pepper spray—though he hasn’t used it.
“The word is determination,” Flanagan says. “We’re out to have a long-term impact, no matter who has the guts to bad-mouth amateurs who get involved in politics.”
To learn more, visit 912pa.com.