Split atop the RI Tea Party

Tea Time
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 30, 2009


Tempest in a Tea Party? Or something more?

The Rhode Island Tea Party, a right-wing assemblage best known for its tax day rally against government spending on the State House steps, was until recently run by three women — Colleen Conley, Marina Peterson and, to a lesser degree, Nan Hayden. But no more.

On a recent Monday, the triumvirate gathered for a brief meeting. And when it was done, Peterson was out. "It was one, two, three," says Peterson, an online bookseller from Bristol. "The meeting lasted 18 minutes and that was it."

What happened, exactly? It depends on who you ask.

Peterson says Conley bristled at her attempt to get more people involved in an overly centralized decision-making process. Conley says Peterson wanted an organization so loosely knit that it would hamper the Tea Party's attempt to shift from protest movement to coherent political force.

Both women insist the rift is not indicative of some larger weakness in the tea party ranks. "The Tea Party cannot implode because it's a movement, it's not an organization," says Peterson.

And the group, spiritual center of the state's small conservative insurrection, has shown signs of progress since word of a split in the leadership began to filter out to members.

The group held its first open meeting at the Warwick Public Library a few weeks back and managed to draw some 180 people. "It was like a corral of wild mustangs," says Conley. "I was very impressed. Lots of ideas."

An action plan that came out of the gathering calls for a series of town-based tea parties engaged in citizen audits of local finances and statewide "issue committees" that will study education, labor and other topics.

Conley says a new social networking Web site, riteaparty.ning.com, has already sparked the formation of a panel that will keep an eye on state legislation and another focused on outreach to seniors.

But if the Tea Party seems to be weathering the split at the top of the organization, that divide does point to a larger concern.

Tea Partyers, here and across the country, are a proudly anti-establishment, individualistic bunch. They are, indeed, wild horses. And getting them to run in the same direction, to form the sort of coherent political force that Conley envisions, will be no small task.

The philosophical battle that played out among Conley, Hayden, and Peterson is shorthand for a battle playing out across the movement. And it is hard to see how that movement reconciles its rebellious instinct with its new, institutional aims.

The membership has proven uncomfortable with the idea of teaming up with the local GOP, or any political party for that matter. And Tea Partyers are divided over whether to focus their animus on Smith Hill, Capitol Hill, or some unwieldy combination of the two.

But Conley says the Tea Party will be ready to shake up Rhode Island politics in the new year. To have an impact. To move beyond this little hiccup.

On the docket, among other things: the announcement of a replacement for Peterson.

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