The Flagler County Tea Party Movement drew 228 people at its monthly meeting tonight in the cafeteria of Flagler Palm Coast High School, exceeding by eight its April tally. “Wouldn’t the Republican club or the Democratic club love to have this number of people at their meeting?” crowed Linda Hansen, whose name tag identified her as a committee member of the local version of the national phenomenon.
When the congregation finished the Pledge of Allegiance, it cheered. When it heard about a proposed new tax or the possibility of increases in property taxes for some, it booed, and when it heard its de-facto leader, Tom Lawrence, say the group needs $3,000 more dollars to put up a $5,000 Tea Party billboard on I-95 for three or four months, a few hands went up, contributing donations. Other milestones: the local group has notched 409 people on its mailing list and 37 registrants on its website.
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The group’s most immediate plan: putting together and mailing out questionnaires to every candidate running for local office. By the group’s July 20 meeting, candidates will have been ranked according to the movement’s principles, and scorecards produced for each, which will be handed out that day: the highest ranked wins the group’s endorsement (though that word was never used). “And the thing that we are going to do that I think makes our group very different,” Lawrence said, “post election we’re going to monitor all the candidates and check your votes, and see if they’re really walking the talk.” Lawrence, who was not describing anything different than what interest groups — right, left and in between — have been doing since the founding of the Republic, was greeted with Bursts of “sounds great” and a round of applause.
He then turned over the microphone to Anne Martone, who riled up the crowd with a pledge to take on the Flagler County School Board if it changed its policy on community uses of school buildings.
“There was opposition,” Martone said of her group renting the cafeteria, “and we’re not going to get into the opposition, but right now the opposition has taken it to the point where the school board right now is determining as to whether we will be able as a group to continue to use this building to meet.”
Martone was overstating the issue, then being outright inaccurate about it even as she added, moments after targeting the board, that “our responsibility when we come to these meetings is to inform and update.” Martone’s characterization of the board’s discussions on school buildings was neither informed nor updated.
Brief opposition flared from the local Democratic Party over the tea partiers’ use of the high school—until the school district pointed out to the Democrats that they had used the district’s own meeting room at the new government building in Bunnell for their meetings in the past. The school board took up the issue in a workshop earlier this month, and again this morning, but the result of both meetings was to broaden the board policy on public uses of school buildings, not narrow it: the tea partiers might have to leave Flagler Palm Coast High School’s cafeteria, but only because the board will set the government services building’s large meeting room as the primary place where civic and political groups may meet, to accommodate their size and interfere as little as possible with students and school activities. There is no intention on the board’s part to restrict uses of school buildings based on political affiliations. Lawrence was informed of the fact while Martone spoke more confrontationally of the group’s intentions. He never corrected Martone’s characterization of the board’s direction.
Beyond the requirements of accuracy, Martone was more eloquent when she described “the wonderful thing about the tea party movement is that it’s personal. Once you become a nationwide organization, then you’re viewed as becoming a third party. That is not what the Flagler County tea party or any of the tea parties that we see is about. We do not want to be a third party. We want to work with both parties or for candidates who meet criteria of the tea party.” She added that the reason the party movement “is so great is because it’s grass roots, we’re close to home. If we go regional or if we go national, then we’re going to be bound by a platform that may not be good for Flagler County.”
Other than gripes at the school board, meeting participants were also critical of the Palm Coast City Council’s veer toward building a new city hall as well as a proposal by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce to add a new property tax levy for the next 20 years to finance commercial-building construction. The chamber wants that proposal placed on November’s ballot for a referendum.
The crowd was strikingly homogeneous: silver-haired or balding, moneyed, and close to universally born either during the Eisenhower administration or on its periphery. A few elected officials were in attendance, including Gail Wadsworth, the Flagler County Clerk of Court, county commissioners Bob Abbott (a Republican) and Milissa Holland (a Democrat), both of whom are running for reelection, and Florida House Rep. Bill Proctor, the St. Augustine Republican. The four officials outnumbered the minorities at the meeting: two black faces were in the crowd, one of them belonging to committed Democrat who was there to inform herself.