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With convention in swing, Tea Party movement at boiling point

Demonstrators against President Barack Obama's national tax stage

Demonstrators against President Barack Obama's national tax stage a protest on Staten Island (April 15, 2009).

Staten Island members of the Tea Party movement protest last year. (Photo: Getty)

There’s a political tempest brewing in the teapot.

Members of the city’s Tea Party movement are steamed over this weekend’s national convention in Nashville, Tenn., headlined by Sarah Palin, charging it damages their grassroots conservative values.

“It’s going to be a commercial exploit,” said Staten Island activist Danny Panzella, 32. “It’s a chance for Glenn [Beck] and Sarah and other Republicans, who don’t have Constitutional values except when it suits them, to co-opt the movement.”

Tea Partiers, who often cast themselves as nonpartisan anti-establishment conservatives, are more influential than ever, some experts said.

They helped Republican Scott Brown seize the late Edward Kennedy’s longtime Senate seat in heavily liberal Massachusetts and propelled conservative Doug Hoffman to near-victory in New York’s 23rd Congressional district. Rob Ryan, a Hoffman adviser, said the results proved the Tea Party movement is “alive and working.”

But as some push to upend the Democratic majority by influencing this year’s races, others are weary of overplaying their hand in politics.

The convention has exposed divides in the movement. Several high-profile groups and speakers have backed out, calling the organizer’s for-profit status, $550 tickets and Palin’s $100,000 speaking fee a rebuff to the movement’s grassroots principles.

The movement, some local activists said, should stay focused on its founding mission — to serve as a counterweight to what they call the Obama administration’s rampant overspending.

“If you talk to 100 different local tea parties throughout the United States, you’ll get 100 different answers to what the tea party stands for, and I think that’s what the tea party’s all about,” said Frank Santarpia, 58, of the Staten Island Tea Party.

Keep the message simple, agreed Kellen Guida, co-founder of New York’s 10,000-member-strong Tea Party 365.

“Our platform is balanced budget, fiscal responsibility and that really is the uniting factor,” said Guida, 27, of Washington Heights. “The minute people insert certain personalities or other social values then people are really repelled.”

The Tea Party movement at the local level is meant to be reactionary and not a third party to rival the Republicans and Democrats, said Kurt Colucci, 33, who has spoken at several Tea Party rallies in Westchester.

“The best thing that could happen, the goal, would be to end the Tea Party movement, because if the goal is achieved — a fiscally conservative government — there’d be no need for these Tea Party rallies,” said Colucci, author of the forthcoming “A Taxslave’s Manifesto.”

Critics and observers of the movement insisted it’s not that easy.
David Neiwert, author of “The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right,” said the Tea Party brand has already been damaged.

“Everyone thinks it’s this benign entity, but it’s quite the opposite,” Neiwert said. “They certainly engage in violent rhetoric, threatening rhetoric around health care reform. They bring guns to gatherings.”

Tea Party activists are visible but their run is limited, said political expert Hank Sheinkopf, arguing that the skewed election results upstate and in Massachusetts were more about Catholic voters abandoning Democratic candidates than tea partiers bolstering conservative ones.

Asked to define the movement, Sheinkopf said: “Nice trademark, short lifespan.”

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