April 14, 2010 for Medill Reports
by Josh Lederman

CHICAGO — Underneath the flurry of potent emotions ignited by every mention of the tea party, underneath the rhetoric and talking points, underneath the posters, protests and pundits, there is a movement anxiously trying to reinvent itself — and stepping on its own toes in the process.

Spend a few minutes listening to tea party activists and you will hear of the pejorative reputation they feel they’ve been unfairly assigned by the media. But listen for a few more minutes and you may hear the penchant for the provocative slowly regain control of their message.

The tea party movement in Chicago is determined to shed itself of the social indictments that have cemented its label as a right-wing fringe movement. Yet it seems held captive by the self-awareness that its speedy rise to political prominence is the direct result of its willingness to speak in contentious tones.

“You hear people say it’s racist, it’s ‘birthers,’ it’s because Obama is black — Conservatives are color-blind,” said Bill Morgan, who lives in suburban Chicago and says he is involved in the movement at a grassroots level. “These people have been given a bad rap because the issue really is fiscal responsibility.”

That elements of the tea party have at times said things the mainstream has found incredibly offensive is not a matter of opinion. That the media has focused too much on those elements at the expense of policy-oriented activists and unfairly bestowed upon them a negative reputation is entirely a matter of opinion. But embrace it or reject it, it’s because of those elements that a movement that didn’t exist a few years ago is now a household name.

“The anger and the rhetoric, some of which is organic or legitimate and some of which is somewhat irrational or conspiratorial or racist, that combination of things is what keeps it on the radar,” said David Goldberg, assistant professor of political science at the College of DuPage. “If it’s just a group of people saying, ‘We’re concerned about the deficit, we’re concerned about spending,’ they’d be one in a pantheon of actors.”

And tea party activists know that truth well.

“Controversy definitely gets attention,” said Amanda Kardos, a Chicago resident who works in the music industry. “But I want to make clear we are not a bunch of racists like the media makes us out to be. We don’t see in black and white, we see in red, white and blue.”

Yet at a tea party event Tuesday – the first Kardos attended – of almost 30 people, the only black attendee was a television reporter covering the event.

“In my eyes I see Obama as oppressive to black people because of all the entitlements,” Kardos said. “I don’t think they understand the issues. I think they’re ignorant to the issues.”

Kardos said she believes government benefits such as welfare will prevent African Americans from escaping a poverty-stricken predicament.

“How are they going to lift themselves out of it?” she asked. “They’re going to take what’s given to them because ‘free is good,’ but they don’t ask where the money is coming from.”

At the heart of the tea party’s inability to abandon the less desirable aspects of its reputation is the fact that it prides itself on being a grassroots, bottom-up movement where all are welcome – including those whose beliefs and statements may alienate the mainstream.

“They have to decide if they’re just this amorphous big tent of people who are angry about different changes in American society, [because] there’s a limit in what you can do with that,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritusof political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “You’ve got to come up with a narrative that hooks together in a way that has a broad appeal in terms of not only racial but also economic and class lines,” he said.

For Steve Stevlic, who coordinates Tea Party Patriots Chicago, that means regularly bringing in new blood to the movement. Although the conventional wisdom is that the tea party movement has already attracted everyone it’s going to attract, Stevlic said, the recent health care overhaul has prompted a whole new batch of activists to flock to the movement.

“When [the Democrats] scheduled the vote, that’s when people said, ‘uh-oh,’” Stevlic said.

And he believes the characterization of the tea party as militaristic and violent is unfounded.

“I would hazard to say that the tea party movement is one of the most peaceful we have seen in American history,” he said. “They’re the most civil people you’re going to find.”