Some of my favorite people are tea partiers. I really do enjoy talking to them, and I had a blast talking many of them today at the tea party rally on the Capitol Square, in the lead-up to a program that included an appearance by the Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin.
The pro-Palin crowd filled only part of the King Street entrance, from the steps to about 50 feet from the Hans Christian Heg statue. And although there was some spillover of tea partiers to either side, the rally was dwarfed by the counter-protesters who filled the back end of the entrance and spilled into the street.
Still, it was a considerable presence, and it was interesting to ask the tea partiers why they made the journey.
"I think it's time again for the people to stand up for what's right," said Jeff Kuhn of Chenequa, near Hartland, a member of event sponsor Americans for Prosperity. Kuhn, who came to the event with his wife, Pam, gestured to his fellow tea partiers, saying "This is the taxpayers," and then to the counter-protesters: "They are the takers."
Elaborated Pam, "They're the freeloaders. We have too many government workers."
Jeff Kuhn's sign, adjusted for punctuation, read, "Palin, the perfect president for American's Prosperity." Pam's sign included a checklist of some of recent accomplishments, including "David Prosser - Re-elected," "Dem Senators - Humiliated" and "Union's Thugs - Neutralized."
Jill Tenpas of Sheboygan County attended the rally with her daughter and a large sign, "Cut Baby Cut!" She was quite completely serious about this.
"I think people who are well-off and getting screwed," Tenpas told me. "It's not their job to get the government out of this screwed-up mess," by raising taxes. "It's time to cut some programs -- with a machete, not a scissors."
What programs does Tenpas want cut?
"I'd like to see them get rid of Planned Parenthood," she told me. "And the National Endowment for the Arts," which is "useless." Also the Environmental Protection Agency.
Why the EPA? Because "there is nothing we can do about this planet going down the toilet. The end times are coming, in my opinion." She said cutting back on gas guzzlers and imposing emission controls is "not going to make any difference." In her view, "It's all about screwing taxpayers."
The person next to Tenpas eagerly joined in, calling the operative theory of climate change "Gore-bull warming." Tenpas agreed, saying the notion that the planet is getting warmer "has never been proven." Apparently, the planet is "going down the toilet" for unrelated reasons.
Bruce Powers of Madison, an employee of Dean Clinic in Madison, was driven to attend by a different set of issues. "I'm here because it's time for Judge Sumi to get her act together," he said. "Let's get this stuff done." By "stuff," he meant the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker, whom he thinks has "the best plan of any governor" for getting the state out of "debt."
Well, the state of Wisconsin has a looming budget deficit but it's not actually in debt. Isn't that more accurate? Not according to Powers. "We're so much in the hole," he said, disputing claims by former Gov. Jim Doyle that the state has a surplus. "That's what I don't like about you guys," he said, meaning the media. "You are so out of touch with reality."
Powers went on to report a disturbing encounter with "liberal Democrats," which he said happened the day that the 14 Senate Dems returned to Wisconsin, in early March: "I was spit on and punched. The police were right there. They didn't do a thing." That's because of the instruction he said Mayor Dave Ciesleswicz gave Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, to not arrest protesters.
The sign carried by Powers read "Madison does not support MTI," the local teachers union, which he described as "money-grubbing thieves. They don't care about educating our children. They care about an agenda."
Paula Quinn of Hartland was on hand with a sign that read, "Thank you! Gov Walker for standing strong for Wisconsin taxpayers." She's a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at the local food pantry, her church and elsewhere.
"I'm here to support the tea party," said Quinn, who prefers smaller government and considers what's happening in the nation "a government power grab." She said "people on the other side" -- the counter-demonstrators -- "want larger, more controlling government. If what they want came to fruition, we would have a completely totalitarian society."
Really? You betcha. "They're in favor of shared wealth -- take from the workers and give to those who don't work.""
But don't some of the people in the counter-rally -- teachers, police and other unionists -- technically work? "Most of them are students," Quinn asserted, "or bussed in from out of state. And don't pay taxes." Quinn contrasted this to her own situation: "I would be considered rich and pay a lot of taxes. I pay above and beyond my fair share."
Rick Blood of Lake Geneva brandished a large sign saying "This is what democracy looks like," an expropriation of one of the mantras of the anti-Walker movement. "I don't think they should be in the Capitol building, tearing it up. I don't think that's democracy."
Blood said the Walker's supporters constitute "the majority," against "the loud minority" of opponents. He said the anti-Walker forces may have more demonstrators, but don't have more voters, a fair point.
Sharing a "Stand with Walker" sign were a couple from Niagra, Wisconsin, near Iron Mountain. Their names are Debra and Daniel Walker. I asked if they were any relation. "I wish, I really wish," said Debra.
"We are the taxpayers," she explained. "The teachers are not taxpayers. The teachers do not pay one cent of tax." I was confused by this but Daniel Walker clarified: "They get paid by our taxes and then they pay their taxes." So it's really like they don't pay any taxes at all.
"I want my country back, and I want to them to start using the Constitution," said Debra Walker. "They're trying to take our gun rights away."
Really? Who is trying to do this? "Obama. Hillary. The Democrats."
What is her basis for saying this? "Have you read the health bill?" Debra Walker asked me, and I admitted I hadn't. "There's a provision in there." At this, Daniel Walker leaned over and told her this was incorrect. "Or not in there," she corrected.
Debra Walker nonetheless thinks her gun rights are in jeopardy. "They want all guns registered," she told me. "They want to know how many guns you have in your home. That's none of their business!"
Daniel Walker chimed in, citing the massive drop-off of violent crime he said followed Bernard Goetz's 1984 shooting of some youths who accosted him on a subway. "And that was just one person! What if everybody was armed?"
At the front of an informal line of demarcation between tea partiers and counter-demonstrators was a knot of sheriff's deputies and police -- attending not on duty but as protesters, on the anti-Walker side. Facing them and screaming into their faces was a man carrying a large sign that said, with some letters written backward, "Unions is Hitler."
The man was furious, calling the supremely calm police and other counter-demonstrators "a bunch of neo-Marxist commie fascists!" He was trying to get other tea partiers to join him: "Come on up here!" One rather large tea party attendee appeared at his side, demanding of the counter-demonstrators, "Who's paying you?"
Mr. Hitler Sign was apoplectic. "I'm not afraid of you!" he screamed at the counter-demonstrators. "None of us are afraid of you. It stops right now." He turned to his fellow tea partiers: "We should all be doing this right now. We should be confronting them right now!"
Mr. Large, his only follower, responded with a more modest request: "We should be finding out who's paying them!"
I walked away to talk to a young man who was at the event selling bumper stickers. Mike Peters of La Crosse supports the tea party message and is a big supporter of Gov. Walker.
"I like Scott Walker," he told me. "He surprised me. I didn't think he would go through with this sort of thing but I like that he did."
Peters, who helped set up a tea party chapter in La Crosse, said he ordered his bumper stickers online and had sold about 40 so far, as the rally was about to begin. "You can get a lot of truth on a bumper sticker."
I asked about one of the stickers: "Impeach them All!" Is that really a defensible position? Peters, who says he can only think of a few elected officials he wouldn't like to see impeached, Ron and Rand Paul among them, admitted the sticker contained "hyperbole and a little sarcasm."
As do all political movements, great and small.