By Emily Wagster Pettus/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi has plenty of fed-up-with government conservatives who write letters to the editor, post comments on websites and attend rallies to protest what they see as federal intrusion into Americans’ private lives.
Several tea party groups have sprung up across the state in the past year, but trying to pinpoint the number of people involved is difficult, largely because the groups aren’t setting formal structures for membership.
“It’s a grass-roots organization. We don’t want to create a hierarchy,” said Rocky Ruello, who lives in the Jackson area and has been communications chairman for The Mississippi Tea Party, which hosted a rally and march April 17 in Jackson.
In recent interviews with The Associated Press, some leaders and spokesmen of tea party groups around the state said they don’t want to become traditional political parties that would field their own candidates or raise money to fund campaigns.
“We do not aspire for a political party at all. Explicitly no,” said Bill Ford of Como, vice chairman of a group called The Tea Party of Mississippi, which, despite the similar name, has a separate website from The Mississippi Tea Party.
“We plan to do one thing and one thing only,” Ford told AP. “We are going to hold the feet to the fire of the politicians who do not uphold the Constitution and do not uphold the promises of being representative of us.”
Mississippi does not require voters to register by party affiliation, so tracking the number of people who consider themselves Republicans or Democrats is also a bit tricky. But the major parties have formal structures across the state with county and state executive committees, and they have a record of fielding candidates and winning or losing public offices.
Republicans have the most to gain if tea-party conservatives turn out in droves to vote in elections because the tea partiers clearly aren’t enamored with the Democratic leadership in Washington. Ford said he believes President Barack Obama is “a Muslim Socialist.” (Obama has said publicly that he’s Christian.)
Mississippi Republican Party chairman Brad White said in February that tea party groups helped gather signatures for a petition that’s putting a voter identification initiative on the November 2011 ballot.
“Without the tea party, 9-12 and other patriot groups, we couldn’t have been successful,” White said. “We need to be embracing them and encouraging them to join the party of their beliefs.”
That’s not to say that the tea party folks love all the Republicans.
At a tax day rally in Jones County, the Laurel Leader Call reported that one person toted a sign criticizing big federal spending by Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Thad Cochran.
Some tea party members are more emphatic than others in expressing their views — and others, frankly, have tried to distance themselves from the more vocal participants.
A photograph published in The Sun Herald showed a man at an April 15 tea party rally in Gulfport wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: “Barack Obama Sucks.” The Clarion-Ledger published a photo of a man holding an upside-down American flag — a sign of distress — from an April 17 tea party rally that started at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds and moved to the state Capitol.
Grant Sowell, a tea party leader in Tupelo, said he believes “the liberal media” have unfairly portrayed the movement as racist.
“What we find is, overwhelmingly, most of your tea party activists are outraged by the one idiotic guy in the crowd who comes up with a sign that does not represent the movement,” Sowell said.