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April 15th, 2011

The Evolution of the Tea Party in Iowa

By Kevin Hall

It was two years ago that thousands of Iowans joined disgruntled citizens across the nation in one voice.  The message was loud, clear and directed at lawmakers in the Iowa Capitol and in Washington, D.C.  “Stop growing government,” they demanded.  Two years later, no one can deny the Tea Party’s message has resonated.

The media has spent much time and effort trying to define and label the Tea Party.  The truth is, the Tea Party cannot be clearly defined or placed into one specific group.  It is true that many people who consider themselves Tea Party members are longtime conservative activists.  However, the movement spurred into action many people who had never paid attention to politics before.

The Tea Party has no real leader.  There are no membership dues or sets of rules that must be abided by.  It is a group of everyday citizens who demand more from the government.  More, that is, by doing less.  The Tea Party is founded upon the individual freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.  Simply put, Tea Partiers want government to get out of the way.

In Iowa, there are several Tea Party groups across the state.  Along with the Des Moines Tea Party, organizations are very active in places like Dubuque, the Quad Cities, Cedar Falls, southern Iowa, and Spencer.  There are also Iowa organizations like SOAR, which are very similar to Tea Parties.  Each group is autonomous and very loosely, if at all, affiliated with the others.  “The Tea Party name has become so generic,” said Des Moines Tea Party founder Charlie Gruschow.  “It doesn’t represent any one group or organization.  It’s like an amoeba.  The Tea Party has many different shapes and forms.”

For many people, the birth of the modern-day Tea Party was spurred by a now-famous rant from CNBC financial analyst Rick Santelli.  That’s how it happened for Charlie Gruschow.  “I was watching TV one day and Rick Santelli was on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and said ‘We need a Tea Party movement’. That’s what kind of kicked it off for me.”

One month later, on March 22, 2009, Gruschow and three other activists got together to organize the first Tea Party rally at the Iowa State Capitol.  It was scheduled for Wednesday, April 15, 2009.  Tax Day.  During the early afternoon and in the middle of the week, an estimated 4,000 Iowans took time off work, or school, to fill the grounds in front of the Capitol.  The event was a remarkable success, especially considering the planning had begun just three weeks prior.  “We picked up on the momentum that was spreading across the nation,” Gruschow said.

The mood was definitely anti-politician.  As a handful of Republican legislators descended down the Capitol steps to watch the rally, a speaker announced, “Here come the politicians”. There was a loud chorus of boos from many in the crowd.  However, many people I spoke to afterwards were appreciative the lawmakers took time out their schedules to attend the event.  State Senator Brad Zaun was one of those lawmakers.  “It was a special event, that I had my younger kids participate in,” Zaun said. “It was exciting because as a youth you heard about the Boston Tea Party, and now this same outrage came to Iowa for the first time.”

Those legislators were not openly campaigning during the Tax Day rally.  Since then, more and more politicians have tried to use the Tea Party and its rallies for their own benefit.  Last year, then-gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats shook the hands of as many attendees as he could while his staff handed out yard signs.  This year, presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain have been granted opportunities to speak during the Tax Day rally.  “When I founded it, we were fed up with both political parties,” Gruschow said.  “We decided that we were not going to have any candidates or politicians speak. And we didn’t for two years.”

Inviting candidates to speak at Tea Party events caused a falling out between Gruschow and other members of the Des Moines Tea Party.  Last summer, he stepped down as head of the group.  Other frustrations with Gruschow’s leadership grew from allowing Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center to do both the invocation and speak about one of IFPC’s programs during the 2010 Tax Day rally.

The infusion of social conservative issues and religion was quite a change from the inaugural year.   Although the first Tea Party rally in Des Moines came less than two weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, there was very little talk about that decision or any other social issue.  The messages on the hundreds of signs Iowans carried that day were overwhelmingly about the bank bailouts and government spending.

During the weeks leading up to the 2010 rally, it was discovered that the IFPC had received more than $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.  Inviting their leader to speak at a rally seemed completely at odds with the Tea Party’s message.  The day after the 2010 rally, Gruschow defended the inclusion of IFPC at the event.  “I support IFPC and proudly will proclaim that,” he said in an email.  “This is one group of activists not only in Iowa but across America that is attempting to get the truth out and oppose the radical left socialist, progressive and liberal agenda in our country.”

The crowd size for the 2010 Tax Day rally at the Capitol paled in comparison to 2009, with estimates between 1,000-2,000 attendees.  Gruschow and a handful of other activists are organizing this year’s rally, to be held this Saturday, April 16th at the State Capitol.  The Des Moines Tea Party, as well as several other organizations, will have booths set up at the event.

Organizers hope the inclusion of two likely presidential candidates will encourage more people to turn out for the event.  “If you’ve got a Governor Pawlenty coming into town, or Ralph Benko or Mike George or Herman Cain, if we can draw some attention to Des Moines and all these Tea Party activists in Central Iowa, why not use them to get the people revved up?” Gruschow said.  All presidential candidates were invited to speak at Saturday’s event.  Cain and Pawlenty were the only two who accepted the invitation.

Gruschow says he expects the Tea Party movement to continue to grow and believes it will play a major role in the 2012 Iowa Caucus, as well as the general election.  Although a lot of Republicans have received the message, the Tea Party’s work is not close to being finished.  “People are still very, very upset about what’s going on in government, including last Friday’s decision on the budget deal,” Gruschow said.  Those voices will manifest themselves again on Saturday.  Politicians in Iowa and around the nation discount the Tea Party at their own political peril.

Photos by Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

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