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Mad as Hell 

Why ex-Republicans, right-wing radicals and a few crazies love the Tea Party

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Thomas Dixon is a red-blooded American, a military man and a citizen who absolutely despises his government. The Spokane Valley resident despises what he sees as a tyrannical president and a new health care law that will lead to Soviet-style control of his countrymen. He detests the decline of his country’s values, and the rise of left-wing radicals. He hates the politicians in D.C. who call him an extremist and belittle him and others who share his concerns.

Dixon is a Tea Partier, and he wants his country back.

“I’ve never felt this way before. I’ve never felt like every morning I wake up and have to see what’s being said,” Dixon says. “And nobody’s saying the right thing.”

After 26 years in the Air Force, a tour in Vietnam and the command of 400 men and women in the first Iraq War, Dixon finally feels the need to speak up. After visiting Soviet East Germany and seeing Turkey ruled under martial law, he says now is the time to act. Otherwise, he warns, the country he spent a lifetime defending will be lost.

“I never really believed we had communists and Marxists in the government. But I do now. I’ve learned in the last year how much they want to modify our system,” he says, referring to Democratic leaders in the nation’s capital. “That’s why you’ve seen me more active. … We’re your mom and dad saying, ‘No!’”

Dixon is just one of thousands in the Inland Northwest harboring new fears of impending doom. He’s a member of the official Tea Party of Spokane and the 9/12 Project Spokane, two like-minded organizations that rose in the wake of the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama, the bank bailouts, the stimulus package and, most recently, health care reform.

The local Tea Partiers and 9/12-ers aren’t the only ones active here. As in the rest of the nation, Eastern Washington and North Idaho are home to a hodgepodge of organizations such as the Spokane Patriots, the Oath Keepers, We Are Change and the John Birch Society. And perhaps more alarming — and certainly more armed — are the Eastern Washington Lightfoot Militia and the North Idaho 21st Battalion of Light Foot.

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Thomas Dixon hands out Tea Party literature at the corner of East Sprague and University [Photo: Young Kwak]

These groups say they welcome anyone of like mind and, generally, that’s what they get: disaffected Republicans, libertarians and political misfits. To Democrats and progressives, Tea Partiers represent the most angry, ignorant, conspiracy-happy faction of the far right.

But for Dixon, who used to vote down-the-line Republican but now trusts neither party, there’s never been so much on the line.

“We are the last bastion of freedom, the only country in the entire world that has the freedom we have,” says Dixon (below), who taught anti-terrorism courses at the Air Force Academy. “If I had to be a terrorist, I could.”

Marie Callender’s on a Friday night doesn’t seem like a likely place to launch a revolution, but here Dixon is with about 30 other Tea Partiers of Spokane, surrounded by conservative literature, pitchers of iced tea and the occasional slice of pie. This is no school for domestic terrorists — it’s just another one of the group’s regular meetings, and at the front of the long oval table stands its president, Dann Selle.

With a backdrop of an American flag, Selle doesn’t breathe fire or warn of an imminent collapse of society. In fact, at this late-March meeting, there’s not one mention of Obama or socialism. Instead, the Tea Partiers are here to plan a rally, an April 15 sequel to their success on last year’s Tax Day at which hundreds gathered in downtown Spokane to protest what they saw as tax-and-spend big government. This year, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is headlining, followed by Washington state Rep. Shelly Short and local activists Darin Stevens and John Waite.

The event, Selle says, is mainly about education. But the group’s ultimate goal is to get more conservative politicians in government. Some local politicians who could benefit from the Tea Party:

State Rep. Matt Shea A Republican from Spokane Valley, Shea is the local Tea Party’s golden son. He has gone on the record stating his fear of Obama’s “sinister” secret army, which Obama allegedly (according to Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich and their ilk) created through Executive Order 12425. He thinks the feds are setting up concentration camps for political prisoners. And Shea has likened Obama to both Hitler and Stalin. “This is looking too much like the precursor to Nazi Germany and communist Russia,” Shea told nationally syndicated right-wing radio host Alex Jones.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich Though Knezovich isn’t speaking at the rally, he was invited to speak. (His presence at an October Tea Party event was noted in a Feb. 16 New York Times front-page article.) Knezovich, a Republican, says he respects the Tea Partiers as much as he does Republicans, Democrats and independents. “The Tea Party movement is an interesting movement,” he says. “This is a really across-the-board community effort. They don’t claim any political ideology.”

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers McMorris Rodgers won many Tea Party hearts at last year’s Tax Day demonstration, when she told the crowd that the movement wasn’t about her, the elected official, but about them, the activists. Her deeply conservative voting record helps, but her status as an incumbent doesn’t.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna After joining the 13-state lawsuit against national health care reform, McKenna attended a Tea Party rally in Olympia. “My name is Rob McKenna and I represent you,” he declared to the thousand people in the audience.

Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple Apple has won the support of many Tea Partiers in his run this year for the state Legislature — and he’s running as a Democrat. “I guess they paid attention to my votes. I’ve been very conservative on the taxes side,” he says. He, too, was asked to speak at Tax Day. “I made it very clear that I probably wouldn’t show up. … I haven’t any idea even where it’s at, if that tells you where I’m at.”

At Marie Callender’s, after a round of introductions — participants in the mainly white-haired crowd give their names followed by “taxpayer” or “concerned patriot” — the dirty work begins: how many balloons to purchase, where to place the banner and microphone, what volunteers should do during the Tax Day demonstration.

“It was suggested at the last meeting that we encourage people — it’s not mandatory, it’s not compulsory — to wear something red, white and blue,” Selle tells the group. “I put it out there. We will encourage that.”

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Local patriot group leaders estimate there are 5,000 people involved in the local movement. Here are some at the weekly Marie Callender's meeting. [Photo: Young Kwak]

Selle is an older guy who looks and gestures a bit like George W. Bush, though he’d probably hate that comparison. He’s a conservative but former Republican whose disillusionment began in 1994, after the broken promises of Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America.” It got worse with Bush.

“I was ranting and raving in the living room. Ask Tam,” he says, motioning to his wife. “‘If they don’t find those weapons of mass destruction.…’ I am convinced for the first time in my life that it was about oil, the economics.” And there was the expansion of the national security apparatus, a growth of government that did not sit well with small-government advocate Selle. “I’m an ex-Republican because of Bush,” he says.

Selle is not alone with his lapsed Republicanism. Many of the people interviewed for this article said something similar: used to vote Republican but can’t anymore; the GOP lost its way; John McCain or Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele or Bush ruined it.

But while Tea Partiers say they reject both major political parties, most continue to voice tepid support for the GOP.

With this growing faction of pissed-off and organized conservatives, the mainstream GOP should be very afraid, writes John Avlon, a columnist who was the chief speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential run.

In a Daily Beast article titled “The Scary, Growing GOP Fringe,” Avlon cites some frightening numbers about Republicans: 63 percent believe Obama is a socialist; 31 percent believe he’s “a racist who hates white people”; 24 percent believe he “wants the terrorists to win” and another 33 percent aren’t sure if he does or not.

Avlon — who also criticized equally kooky theories coming from the left during Bush’s presidency (a third of Democrats believed he knew about 9/11 before it happened) — concludes that the level of polarization in the country is “hijacking America” and leading to deep delusion. Such extreme polarization has led “some activists to confuse losing an election with living under tyranny.”

But not every Tea Partier is confused, or a former Republican. Take Kirk Smith.

If Selle is the seasoned, insightful veteran, Smith is the brainy upstart. Young — at just 35, his youth is a marked departure from many of his fellow Tea Partiers — Smith embodies a trait he also would likely bristle at: the Obama-era post-partisan.

He rejects social conservatism as divisive. Issues like abortion and gay marriage have no part in the movement, Smith says. It’s a libertarian, fiscally conservative, small-government movement. Evangelicals, stay away.

In a recent Inlander article, Smith said some of his fellow activists were considering supporting Democratic state Sen. Chris Marr this year just to keep an establishment Republican out of elected office. Many of his fellow Tea Partiers called for Smith’s head. He voted for Bush in 2000, but then voted for John Kerry in 2004. A vote, he says, for “divided government.” (A sentiment Selle shares, as he “prays for gridlock.”)

“We’re trying to influence everybody,” he says. “We’ve got two screwed-up parties. Pick one and get involved.”

All this — the extremism, the party disloyalty, the inconsistent voting patterns — is probably why the local Republican Party has trouble getting behind Selle, Smith and the gang.

“What can they point to? What things have they done?” asks Curt Fackler, spokesman for the Spokane County Republican Party. “I don’t think the local Tea Party, with the current leadership, is going to go anywhere.… They’re outsiders.”

A choice confronted the Tea Party early on: either form a third party or work from within the GOP. They chose the latter. Though they won’t use the words “change,” “transform” or “purify” (too clinical), the group wants badly to influence the Republicans.

Smith says at least a third of the delegates at the recent county Republican convention were Tea Partiers. Fackler disputes this.

“If that was their goal, they didn’t show up at the caucuses.… I cannot think of one person that is quote-unquote a Tea Party person who showed up at the caucuses,” he says. “Compare their organization and leadership to the Ron Paul organization and leadership. They showed up with thousands of people at the caucuses.”

That was two years ago, when the libertarian Paul rallied the right wing (and a great number of other anti-war Americans) and stormed the county and state conventions.

“Back then, 95 percent of our delegates were Ron Paul delegates from the county,” Fackler says. Smith, himself then a delegate and Ron Paul supporter, agrees, adding that “half the [party] platform got re-tooled.” Smith is still a GOP delegate.

Fackler says he respects the national Tea Party, with its involvement in campaigns, such as Scott Brown’s recent Senate win in Massachusetts. But the local Tea Partiers, Fackler says, wouldn’t even get involved in last year’s city council races.

“If those 2,000 [Tea Partiers] had picked up literature of [Spokane City Council candidate Mike] Fagan’s and put it on doors, Mike would have won,” Fackler says. “It’s a ground game. And they don’t want to expend their efforts on the ground game.”

It was this lack of action that splintered the local Tea Party in February, leading to the formation of the Spokane Patriots, the “action-driven Tea Party.”

It’s Saturday night and Mike Fagan’s standing on a United Nations flag in front of Spokane’s City Hall, with a bullhorn in his hand. This is what the “action-driven” part of the movement looks like.

Fagan, probably best known for his involvement with initiative-crusader Tim Eyman, is a founder of the Spokane Patriots.

“The mayor is using city resources to perpetuate the falsehood of global warming,” he bellows through the bullhorn. Around him stand fellow Patriots, gathered to protest Earth Hour, a global event intended to raise awareness about climate change by having people shut off their lights for an hour. Mayor Mary Verner said she’d support the event and turn off City Hall’s lights.

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So here they are, flashlights in hand, ready to re-light City Hall when it goes dark. Across the divide stand the mayor’s supporters, all looking a bit flummoxed over Fagan and his Patriots.

A bit too flummoxed. Even before Fagan really gets rolling on a tirade against the U.N., recycled oil, the EPA and other environmentally oriented conspiracies, he’s interrupted.

“Global warming will happen whether you think it will or not,” yells Paul Haeder, a camouflage-hatted environmentalist (and freelance Inlander commentator). Angry and aggressive, Haeder is running around, sticking his finger in Fagan’s face, trying to shout over the bullhorn and stir up the crowd.

Then the flashlight war begins. Someone on the pro-Earth Hour side begins to shine a red laser light on the Patriots. The Patriots fire up a huge handheld spotlight.

“Don’t point that red light over here,” warns Tim Carson, wearing a leather vest that identifies him as part of the Washington Sons of Liberty riders.

That light’s dangerous, you retard,” Haeder yells back, indicating the Patriots’ spotlight.

With that, Carson walks over and whaps Haeder in the face with his homemade sign, which says something about freedom.

His nose bleeding a tiny bit, Haeder yells, “Call the cops!” Then, “Nobody likes a teabagger!”

Meg Doherty helped found the Patriots after she and a handful of people realized “the Tea Party leadership was very insular. … It just seemed like we were wasting time, wasting potential.

“We need to bring it to a local level,” Doherty continues. “The Earth Hour is a great example. Our taxpayer money’s being spent on this, but you can’t take on the U.N. You can take on our city…. You can bring people’s attention to it.”

Doherty says we’ll see “more protests, more demonstrations, more sign-waving” in coming months.

One thing that she says you won’t see: violence.

While much has been made lately of the rising tide of Tea Parties and militia groups, Doherty — and almost every other Tea Partier spoken to for this article — rejects the connection.

“There are groups of people that are looking at a worst-case scenario and want to be prepared. And I can’t fault them for that,” she says. “But it’s sort of absurd to even talk about that. It serves no purpose. … People do talk about revolution, but I hear the words ‘Velvet Revolution’ [referring to the non-violent revolutions in Eastern Europe that overthrew governments by working through the existing system] and that’s really what this is. America has been asleep at the wheel, and we’re starting to wake up.”

Not everyone is so quick to dismiss the connection between the Tea Party and militant, anti-government groups.

According to a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, there was a dramatic spike in the number of active “patriot groups” operating in the United States in 2009 — a 244 percent increase. In Washington state, the center identifies 11 groups, including the John Birch Society, the National Association of Rural Land Owners, the Washington State Militia and We the People. The states with the largest number of groups are Texas (52), Michigan (47), California (22) and Indiana (21).

With last month’s bust of Michigan’s Hutaree group, people are on edge and national media are paying attention. Also last week, ABC’s Nightline got in on the action by profiling North Idaho’s Lightfoot Militia.

“The government should be afraid of its people so it doesn’t do stuff it’s not supposed to do,” the militia’s leader, Jeff Stankiewicz, says in the segment.

The ABC story suggests that the current militia movement is motivated mainly by the economy and relays early on that Stankiewicz is an “unemployed welder.” On his blog, Stankiewicz says this characterization is unfair.

“I had a job when I started organizing this a year ago,” he wrote. “I was the shop supervisor for a steel fabrication company with 20 employees and made 40K a year. I’m laid off right now because we are waiting on a new contract to come through. But I guess ‘unemployed welder’ sounded better to ABC.”

Regardless, says Tony Stewart, a local human rights activist, the country should be wary of the rise of patriot groups.

“We are going through a period that I have never observed before,” Stewart says. “There’s an escalation in rhetoric where people in positions of responsibility [such as national politicians] help incite those that are not in government.”

Stewart is quick to mention that there are many factions of patriot groups out there that all believe different things — some are political, some are militant and some are racist. And, he adds, the vast majority of Americans don’t engage with the Tea Party, let alone militias.

Still, he says, the collision of the first African-American president, the down-turned economy and issues surrounding immigration has made for serious times.

“When people act out of fear, out of anger and insecurity, this can lead to other tragic consequences,” he says. “We should be fearful for the entire country.”

Jess Walter — a local author whose first book, Every Knee Shall Bow, was about Randy Weaver and the violent confrontation he had with federal agents at Ruby Ridge in 1992 — says he’s concerned about the level of rhetoric in the nation now but doesn’t believe the militia movement of the 1990s will be repeated.

“Those groups are always around,” he says, referring to militant patriot groups. “But it’s cyclic. You have this moment in which the groups in the mainstream merge with groups out of the mainstream. … That’s the danger with the Tea Party, which consists of mainstream conservative folks who are acting out of frustration.”

Walter says he’s not really worried about Tea Partiers, who he believes will fade away after an election cycle in the GOP’s favor. But like Stewart, he believes the tone of the national political conversation is poisonous.

“One of the dangerous things is the level of political rhetoric coming from conservative radio. It’s meant to get out the vote… but the language can cross over to a call to arms for the radical right,” he says. “When mainstream politicians are saying things that can be distorted by the radical right, if your rhetoric includes metaphoric violence, that causes me to worry.”

Because of our area’s history with the Weavers and the Aryan Nations, Walter says, the Pacific Northwest is better prepared to prevent such a thing from happening again. And besides, the culmination of the ’90s militia movement — Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City — left most Americans unwilling to follow such a path again.

“I tend to not feel like the republic is in danger because of those groups,” Walter says. “Most mainstream Americans stop well before the violence.”

In the Air Force, Thomas Dixon did many things. He led security for the space shuttle landings. He went to war. And he guarded Air Force installations in Los Angeles during the riots in 1992, after the Rodney King verdict.

“[Riots] could happen very, very easily. Society can break down quickly,” he says, referring to one of his worries for the future. “That is a method that terrorism can take. … It doesn’t take long if you take out the power grid and people are left in the dark and then the next thing you find is you don’t have water and the transportation system breaks down. … It could take 24 to 48 hours for society to break down.”

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Thomas Dixon folding his flag at the end of a Tea Party meeting. "They woke up a sleeping giant." [Photo: Young Kwak]

Such violence, he says, would not come from the right. As for militias, he heartily rejects them.

“If they’re violent, they’re not part of us. You can only imagine the type of damage I could do … but that’s not who we are,” he says. “In my heart, I know they have absolutely nothing to do with the Tea Party. … They are so far to the right, they probably think we’re wimps.”

For Dixon, it is about change and saving the country from the “radicals on the left.” But his method is anything but revolutionary.

“What I hope is we’re going to find the right Republicans out there and we’ll elect them to office. … The way we will get things taken care of, and the way this country was built, was the constitutional way. We’re going to throw their asses out. … We’re going to get rid of you. Not just shut you down, but get rid of you. No cement shoes or anything — but they woke up the sleeping giant.”

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