Tea Party Grows Up, but Remains Grass Roots at Its Core

Tea party gathering brings older Americans together.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

The tea party movement turns 5 years old this month.

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At the Tea Party Patriots' fifth birthday bash in Washington, D.C., Thursday, many supporters are still as homespun as they ever were. Brown cowboy boots, white sneakers, glittered flag pins and denim – reflections of Americana – fill every corner of the Hyatt Regency hotel ballroom. Behind the podium, blue lights wash over the stars and stripes backdrop. Senators, familiar with the formality of Capitol Hill, do their best to play up their outsider credentials in the crowd.

“If you want tea party support, you are going to put miles on your car,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tells tales of being stopped by security guards on Capitol Hill for not wearing his official Senate pin.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks off the cuff, doesn’t even step behind the podium on stage. To a standing ovation, he takes his place casually as he leans into the Tea Party Patriots’ sign and plays up why maybe the government shutdown wasn’t so bad. He talks about wasteful government spending, studies on “squirrels on treadmills” and fraud.

The tea party is 5 years old this month. There is no doubt that the movement’s infrastructure has become more sophisticated than it once was. Outside groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth have emerged as major players, pouring money into primary elections, holding lawmakers accountable for fiscal conservatism. Five years later, however, the tea party supporters are no less committed to the cause and no less skeptical of big government. Before giving her name, Lori Sager, 65, pauses.

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“I don’t want the IRS at my door,” she says, a nod to the IRS scandal that rocked Washington in 2013, when tea party activists from across the country alleged the feds were targeting them. “It’s OK,” her husband Tim chimes in. “We’ve been audited before.”

The Sagers say they’ve noticed the tea party has grown “stronger and bigger and more powerful” since they first joined back home in Syracuse, N.Y. The couple was part of the inaugural march on Washington in 2009. The gathering, they note, that was so tidy, so mindful, so responsible that “there wasn't a single gum wrapper left behind,” Tim Sager says.

“We should have never left,” he says regretfully.

“We should have been like Greece and like Syria and what’s the latest one that threw out their government? Ukraine. They had sticks and stones. That is it,” Lori Sager says, finishing his sentence.

Looking around the room, the Sagers note how few young people are in the room, seats are filled with white and grey-haired attendees.

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“Young people are working,” says Lori Sager. “We can take the time off. Then it is our job through the knowledge we have gained to bring it to [young people.]”

Wearing a purple Lacoste sweater, Ronen Elefant is an exception to that rule. At 34, he says people his age don’t recognize the dire economic situation the U.S. government is in.

“I just strongly believe in the principles that make up the tea party,” Elefant says. He works in the health care industry and says he’s seen the negative effects of the Affordable Care Act first hand. “Part of it is just I am an old soul, but if you know the principles and have a little more life experience, you see [the tea party] is probably the right way to go.”

Gatherings like the one Thursday still attract large and energetic crowds from all corners of the country. The signs and posters as strongly worded as ever in President Barack Obama’s second term. One man with a cane wears a long-sleeved screen-print t-shirt that reads  “Obama, Liar, Radical, Marxist, Socialist, Tyrant, Subversive.”

The speakers Thursday, however, were more diverse than in the past. Hispanic lawmakers and black tea party activists were interspersed at the podium throughout the day.

“The make-up of the tea party has changed. That is evidence that we are not racists. We are not homophobes,” says Tom Balek, who came from South Carolina with his wife to join the thousand others. “We are mainly interested in leaving something for our children and grandchildren. Leaving them with a $17 trillion debt is not something we can be proud of.”