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The Tea Party in Iowa

posted on March 4, 2011

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Tea ... taxed enough already.  The political philosophy is resonating with voters but it raises questions concerning where it goes from here.  A conversation with the man credited with founding the Iowa Tea Party, Ryan Rhodes, on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: What is known as the Tea Party is already a political phenomenon.  It is so loosely structured that it defies the laws of politics ... that elections are usually won by highly organized campaigns fueled by lots of money.  Yet the Tea Party, with not much more than strongly held principles and voter discontent emotion, came away from last November's elections with surprising victories and momentum in some cases.  The effects of that philosophical momentum are being felt in state legislatures and Congress right now.  Some say the Tea Party is a party really within a party, staunch fiscal conservatives mostly within the Republican Party.  But questions persist relating to political heredity, political muscle and political longevity.  We're getting insight today from conservative activist Ryan Rhodes who is now co-chairing Iowa's Tea Party.  Mr. Rhodes, welcome to Iowa Press.


Rhodes: Well, thanks for having me.  And I want to clarify, I founded the one group, I certainly can't be credited with founding the entire movement.  That goes to all the thousands of people who came up to the Capitol the first April 15th and someone who is actually my co-chairman now, Charlie Gruschow, did a fantastic job really getting that first event set up and doing a lot of the work and he had a board of other people as well.  But it's really sprung from there so I want to make sure it's not me taking the credit but I'm just trying to help it reach its next phase.


Borg: We'll get into that with questions from Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.


Glover: Mr. Rhodes, I'd like to talk about the role the Tea Party movement has played in Iowa politics.  Some say it has played a positive role for republicans by energizing the conservative wing of the Republican Party.  Others wonder if it has sparked some divisive type primary fights.  What role do you see the Tea Party playing in Iowa politics?


Rhodes: I think it is a really positive role.  I'm not sure that it is necessarily 100% good for the republican party, as somebody said, I don't think it hurts it because there will be primary fights with people that aren't standing on principle and I think it is more important to stand on the principle and the founding documents than it is to go and say we're automatically voting for someone just because they're in a party.  The Des Moines Register did a poll actually where the most support for the Tea Party comes from the independents and I think that is a credit to t he fact that we're not just going to kowtow to some party, we are going to actually hold both of them accountable and though there's some of them that have found a little bit of a home in the republican party I think the democrat party is just as welcome to be fiscally responsible and follow the Constitution and put up those people as well.


Glover: But you would agree that most Tea Party activists would be aligned with the Republican Party?


Rhodes: I would agree that they have been the benefactor of much of what has happened as you saw with the wave of people being switched in the House, Congress and in our state legislature.


Glover: And if you look to the future what role would you like to see the Tea Party movement play?  If you have played this kind of a role of energizing that wing of the Republican Party, how would you like to see the Tea Party evolve?


Rhodes: Well, one of the things -- and we have just kind of recently announced and we'll roll more out with a press release and a Web site as we're getting it up and running, we're going to be having a Web site March 15th -- we have teamed up with an American Principles in Action and the gold standard to advocate sound monetary policy and we'll be having a few, you know, three or four or five different issues that we want presidential candidates to address.  But more than anything that bus tour, the goal of it is to take all of the little small local groups in Iowa and help them facilitate in training and precinct organization so their activism can go beyond what they have necessarily done.  We really want to build local groups, not just kind of try to come in and say hey, we're the big guy or something because it's really not the case.


Henderson: For viewers who may be tuning into the Tea Party for the very first time, perhaps you could tell them what the Tea Party is and why you got involved.


Rhodes: The Tea Party is really a set of people who have said our politicians have overreached, they are no longer representing us and in a lot of cases the average citizen just didn't feel like they were, they could be part of this process or that they had a voice.  So, you've seen a whole new generation I think of leaders that is starting to come out of this.  You have people like Kent Sorenson, who in many cases has really exemplified the principles.  Glen Massie, Kim Pearson where regardless of the belief they're going to be honest, they're going to tell you where they stand and they're going to stand firm.


Borg: Now these people that you have named are state legislators.


Rhodes: They're all state legislators.  I think Secretary of State Matt Schultz is another one who really, I mean, he was at one of our first rallies, he filled out our petition as well.


Henderson: But why did you get involved in this?  What motivated you?


Rhodes: What motivated me?  I got motivated a little bit earlier than that when I actually ran for state office as a student in Ames, well for state rep.  But it was something I said I didn't like some of the policies of Bush, I didn't like the policies of Obama.  The fact is whether it's the republicans or the democrats doing it we have to cut government, it is an unsustainable path for my future and the future of our country.


Henderson: I attended, last spring, an event which was billed as the Iowa Tea Party Convention, at which a woman who cared deeply about the abortion issue walked out, she talked to me for a little bit and walked out and felt the group wasn't addressing that issue enough to her liking.  Is there a tension within the Tea Party movement between fiscal and social issues?


Rhodes: There may be a focus on some fiscal issues but we welcome everybody to address, to come up and bring the issues that they have with their legislators.  It may be the abortion issue, it may be the marriage issue or the judicial issue and if they have, if they don't feel they're being listened to that is a big factor.  We want all the people to come up, to be able to promote the principles of liberty and our founding in the Constitution.  As far as just being a one issue thing I think it's much broader than just one issue in any realm.


Borg: I go back to when I introduced you and you sort of disavowed being the founder of the Tea Party.  The case in point here is that the Tea Party is so loosely organized who hardly know who is in charge.  Is that going to change?  Are you going to develop an organization?  You say you're moving toward a Web site now, that seems to be a little bit more organization.


Rhodes: Well, this is just for the tour.  Basically there's going to be some organizational things and there are certain groups that are very highly organized in their community.


Borg: Can you survive without organization?


Rhodes: I think long-term sustainability you're going to have to have lists of people that you can get out and really help activate in those areas so that in your community whether it be at a county auditor level or at a state rep level or even take that county and organize it for some candidate of your choice there's going to have to be an organization.  I don't think there's going to have to be one overarching organization because it would defeat the purpose of what a lot of the bottom up is with the Tea Party.


Glover: And let's look to the future and some of that organization.  The 2012 presidential campaign is already beginning to take shape, candidates are starting to come out here.  There is a big event this coming week with some republican presidential candidates.  What role do you anticipate the Tea Party playing as 2012 begins to unfold?


Rhodes: Well, while we still have to secure commitments on people coming out and work around presidential schedules, because they are very busy, I do believe even on this tour where we're going to be going around training people we'll also be having candidates come out.  And our goal is not to have candidates say, come support me because I have a few of the principles, but that we are advocating for a set of principles that says, you come to us and you need to hear yourself to us, not us to you.  So, instead of it just being an identity politics it is a principle based politics.


Glover: So, you're going to ask candidates to come out and answer questions to your group and then you anticipate endorsing?


Rhodes: No, we will not endorse.


Glover: Throughout the campaign?


Rhodes: No, we will not.


Glover: And will you pick candidates who you say, we simply can't support this candidate?


Rhodes: To my knowledge at this point I think the Tea Partiers will do that themselves as we'll put their different interviews on the Web site, if they are unable to make the bus tour part of the Web site is a chance to still answer the five minutes of questions and we'll be able to put that on the Web site for everybody to see.  And if they choose not to be a part of it or not to address any of this then that is telling as well.


Glover: And talk to these candidates, how important a force is the Tea Party in the republican universe of a presidential campaign?


Rhodes: I think it's going to be hugely important not just in the republican universe but the fact that there's democrats and independents who are very dissatisfied with the current administration which has essentially caused a lot of this movement in their overreaching policies and when you have that you may very well have a whole new set of thousands if not tens of thousands of caucus goers that were not there before.


Henderson: I'm wondering if the Tea Party has a bit of a conundrum about 2012.  If you look at the candidates of 2010 which were Tea Party favorites, Rand Paul, who is now a United States Senator, the fellow in Wisconsin who knocked off Russ Feingold, a businessman up in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, those folks did not have a history of serving in elected office.  But if you look at our past presidents you have to go all the way back to Herbert Hoover to find somebody who had not served in public office before being elected to the presidency.  How do you reconcile that impulse among the Tea Party movement to support people who are outsiders with the idea that American voters sort of like to have someone who has a little bit of experience in government?


Rhodes: Well, I think it's a whole new idea where instead of just having experience in managing a bureaucracy we want experience in creating growth, not by the government, but saying we're representing somebody who can actually go out and say this business, this can function outside of the government, we don't have to have a million subsidies.  As a matter of fact, what happens is the subsidies have created a market where it is unfair to this person or this person and so then you have a market where they need to subsidize something else like between oil and ethanol, both are subsidized.


Glover: Let's get back to your track record, you were active in the last campaign, tell us your successes.


Rhodes: Well, I think the entire debate, for instance, I personally actually worked for congressional candidate Dave Funk in the primary, I think the entire debate got shifted in that even Brad Zaun and I'm sure Jim Gibbons and some of the other people that ran will tell you that they had never heard quite the idea of people walking up to him and going, well, what are you going to do on the Constitution.  And when that is the first question we have come a long way in our debate just in the primary of making candidates answer, well, are you going to adhere to the Constitution or are you going to come and make your own set of principles?


Glover: But you didn't win that election and, in fact, you lost that seat.


Rhodes: We changed the debate very much and I think it was a much closer seat and there's lessons to learn and we'll move from there.  But I would not consider it a loss.  We got a large portion of the electorate behind someone who was considered a Tea Party candidates.


Glover: What lessons?


Rhodes: Well, some of the lessons are in organization and mobilization and how -- look, the Tea Party is not behind just one person or one candidate.  I mean, Brad did actually go out and represent some of the very principles that we disavow.  So, it is not like our issue is lost because there was, like I said, no one Tea Party candidate ...


Borg: You're talking about Brad Zaun ... the nominee against Congressman Boswell?


Rhodes: ... the nominee against Congressman Boswell.  Now, I think obviously each campaign can learn from some different things and move forward and talking with Brad I'm sure he would do some things differently as well.  But while that seat was not, we did not pick up that seat I think there was a lot of momentum in the area where a lot of local Tea Party groups were focusing on state House races, state Senate races and we saw a huge impact in those areas.


Henderson: How do you address critics who raise this issue before the 2012 election, that the Tea Party movement was largely the creation of forces within the Republican Party who wanted to create this movement?  I think the term that they through around a lot was astroturfing.  How do you address that criticism that this isn't a legitimate group, this is just a creation of republicans?


Rhodes: Well, I mean, one of those things is we have not been highly funded.  This bus tour is actually something where we had to go and seek out people who were like-minded to be a part of this but it's not something that the Republican Party has come and put up a bunch of money.  Case in point, what happened, the unions were busing people in, we didn't have buses, we didn't have any of that stuff.  That organization is much more essentially a get them out, pay for them to come up to the Capitol type of thing.


Henderson: You're referring to the rally that was held recently at the statehouse -- I wanted to ask you about that rally.  What struck me is that it was a rally specifically about a bill pending in the legislature that deals with labor law.  But one of the speakers at your rally spent some time discussing the danger of sharia law in Cedar Rapids.  Is there a coherent message on this and other issues from your group?  Or is it just such a disparate group of people who have varying views that you lack a coherent, unifying message?


Rhodes: Well, there are a lot of different views but I think the main coherent message and something that nobody really goes off of is the fact that we're indebted to the Constitution.  This is what we want to see pressed.  If politicians go up there and say the very first thing that we're going to find out and the only thing that really matters is does this follow the Constitution or does it not we'll stop reading the bill after that.


Borg: Let me get you to an issue just to see how you react.  There is a move to shift the cost of public education away from appropriations, you see it in school funding in the Iowa legislature for preschool, you see it in decreasing appropriations for state universities, to shift more of the cost to the user, to the consumer in tuition.  Is that a Tea Party philosophy?

Rhodes: Well, I don't think it's just a matter of shifting it to the student or what not and in the case of preschools, for instance, preschools we're taking them out younger and younger and there's not a whole lot necessarily -- there are wonderful preschool teachers but we can't afford that right now.  This is something that -- there's kids out there too that aren't able to go into preschool, they're a little too hyperactive, they're not ready for it ...


Borg: But the overall philosophy -- should the consumer for education be paying the bill?


Rhodes: Should the consumer -- I think there's a lot that can warrant that.  There's programs that work very well that were actually cut off, for instance, in D.C. where the vouchers worked much better where they could say we're going to take this money and we're going to go to the school of our choice and I think that is something that is inherent in how the Tea Party views this is having some kind of consumer driven market.  So, in that case you may even see where teachers actually get paid better because they have gone to an area and people are seeking them out more.


Glover: Mr. Rhodes, I'd like to have you sit back and think about this for just a second if you could.  If there is a dominant factor that I see in the Tea Party movement it is folks are angry.  What are you mad about?


Rhodes: Well, I don't know if it's angry, I think it's a matter of we're going to have our voice heard now and we're standing up.  Yeah, there's some angst and some people are upset about the fact that there's money being pulled out of our pockets where we've been heaped on this whole debt that we didn't ask for and it's just, it's growing bigger and bigger and bigger and wouldn't you be a little upset if somebody said, you know, I'm going to take this portion of your house or we'll just decide what we give you back in income.  It's just a matter of the thought process of how it's a little different. 


Glover: And we've talked a little bit about the role you played in the last election, there is another election coming up, in Iowa you know it never stops.  What is your top target in the next election cycle?


Rhodes: Well, I think our top target is, there's a few things -- one, we need to address eliminating waste in the government because there's a lot, there's a lot of redundant programs and things.  We need to repeal Obamacare period, end of story, absolute full repeal and then start from a whole new area.  That is something that I do not believe is negotiable.  We need to completely stop the cap and trade and the backdooring it through the EPA, that is detrimental to businesses.  When I sold radio I talked to multiple businesses who said, I will fire all my employees and make them if general contractors if this is the case because of the onerous regulations that will be put on my business.  We can not afford that as an industrial society.


Glover: Those are issues.  Talk about your top political target.  Is it the legislature?  Is it Congress?  Is it the caucus campaign?  Which one of those are you planning to focus on?

Rhodes: Well, I think there's, I think the presidency is always a top target especially since we are the first in the nation and we have a chance to make a serious difference there so that is a target.  But I think even a target closer to home is the fact that we, the Senate is just not, Senator Mike Gronstal is absolutely not listening to people and he has basically shunned the idea that any Tea Partier should be heard and that is not acceptable, 100 percent, and taking his power seat will be a major initiative.


Glover: So, you're going to target the majority leader of the Senate?


Rhodes: The majority leader of the Senate needs to go, period.


Henderson: So, have you recruited a candidate to run against him?


Rhodes: We have not.


Henderson: Do you intend to?


Rhodes: If we can find somebody I would love for them to come and give them any help we can in terms of volunteers and people getting out and even training as well.


Borg: What role do you think the Tea Party played in removing three judges from the Iowa Supreme Court?


Rhodes: I don't -- there is a lot of people in the Tea Party that really got behind that effort but I don't know that that's necessarily a Tea Party credit as much as, I mean, the grassroots of Iowa.  The Tea Party happened to have risen up and I think it did play a factor in them seeing, look, these people overstepped their bounds, it is one thing to say, you know, we believe this law conflicts with this law that the legislators put up.  It is another to go and say, we're going to create a whole new definition of something.  For instance, as far as the Tea  Partiers have an issue with that, that one of the things, it's like literally going out there and when that judge struck down the healthcare system, it's like him going and saying, well I'm going to create a whole new healthcare system just because I'm the judge and doing it.  That was really the issue at the center of this debate and I think why Tea Partiers did get involved.


Glover: Judges seem to get conservatives riled up and I've never quite figured that out why.  But there are those who suggest that the campaign to oust the three justices is an ongoing campaign and judges will continue to be an issue in the future.  Are you going to continue to press that?


Rhodes: I think we're going to have to see how their mentality changes but the fact is they are not an oligarchy, that they do have to, they are in check with the legislature and the executive.  I mean, we have three branches of government.  The case in point in this area was the judges actually went out and did something beyond their bounds and quite frankly I don't think Mark Cady has come back from that.  I think what his speech at the legislature, quite frankly, was very arrogant in that manner whether we're going to be ...


Glover: In what way?


Rhodes: In the manner of saying, well guess what, you people just didn't understand.  It was like talking down to the people and that is a real issue there.


Henderson: So, do you fault House republicans for failing to advance legislation that would change the process for selecting judges in Iowa?  And do you expect articles of impeachment to be an issue that Tea Party activists hope that House republicans embrace?


Rhodes: I think before any articles of impeachment or anything come forward if that's necessary I think the first thing is we need to change the process.  I mean, the fact is the process of selecting this has become very, very partisan in nature and if we don't change that to an extent and even maybe potentially make it a little bit more like our national ...


Glover: But the effort to change it failed.


Rhodes: Well, we, you know, we'll have to change and we may have to make that an issue as it goes but that is why we have elections and this was only one election in 2010.


Henderson: So, how long, you said Mark Cady, the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, was arrogant, hadn't learned his lesson, so to speak, from the 2012 election results ...


Rhodes: It wouldn't seem that way, yeah.


Henderson: So, how long does he get in your view to learn the lesson before Tea Party activists call for his impeachment?


Rhodes: Well, I think that will be to be decided as you go forward and as some of these things are implemented with a new legislature.  I can't say, I mean, we'll have to see.  Different issues arise up and down and some things have to be focused a little more on but I do think it's something of concern to a lot of people.


Henderson: Given the sizeable majority that republicans in the House have currently, there are 60 there compared to the 40 democrats who are in the Iowa House, are you pleased or not with the agenda that they have pushed forward?  Do you think they are too timid, that they haven't acted in areas that you would wish for them to act?


Rhodes: Well, I think there are a lot of people in that legislature of those 60 people that are pushing a lot of stuff that is much more, some of them are tougher cuts, some of them are a little bit more reigning things back in, but no matter what happens it seems to die in the Senate which is why Senator Gronstal is essentially stalling and just practicing shoving the legislature in a corner where the people can't vote on it.  At the very least vote on it, let us vote on it and then we'll determine whether or not the people in your caucus have voted correctly.


Glover: It strikes me that one of the dynamics that is playing out, if we can focus on the House for just a second because it is a republican House, an overwhelmingly republican House, there is a dynamic between the leadership of that House and probably the faction that you are aligned with, more conservative faction where the leadership appears to be reigning them in, steering them towards a more middle ground.  At what point o you try to convince leaders unleash these guys, let them go?


Rhodes: I don't think they necessarily have been stifling them.  I think there is a lot of different things that have been going on.  We have seen some of the very arguments play out on the radio or very much in the public eye and I do think at least that debate is happening in the House.  I mean, we're not even having that debate in the Senate, it's not even getting to the floor, it is happening in closed doors and behind the scenes and that is really what is angering people right now is once again we flipped an awful lot of people but we have one single person standing there in the way of progress and in the way of us having our choice of view.


Glover: Let's talk about Mike Gronstal for a second.  You dealt with the issue before, you'd like to target him but you don't have a candidate.  I've been around politics for a while and I understand you don't beat somebody with nobody.


Rhodes: That's true.


Glover: What are you doing to find a candidate?


Rhodes: Well, I think hopefully even with this bus tour as we're training local people maybe somebody will come up and maybe we can give them the tools to be able to go forward while we're not, as a group, we may not specifically be able to do that we will be enlightening people to the record that he has and hoping a candidate does come up.  But I think that is something that we're going to, I think you're going to naturally see a rise out of the fact that he's not listening to the people.


Henderson: Are you a candidate of the future?


Rhodes: I don't know, I can't tell you about that, I have no idea.


Borg: You'd like to reduce the size of government.  Are you fully behind what is in the legislature right now about downsizing government?


Rhodes: I think there's an awful lot of things in there that are very, very good steps and good starts.  We need to roll ourselves back in big time so that we don't have to -- our government is limited enough ...


Borg: Does it go far enough?


Rhodes: I think we can -- there's always plenty more of waste and of programs that are just not helpful and quite frankly keeping a lot of the, you know, the underclass essentially down.


Borg: One thing that we don't have enough of always is time.  We're out of time.  Thank you very much for being with us today.


Rhodes: Thank you.


Borg: A reminder that the Internet is your connection to our Iowa Press staff.  The e-mail address is listed below on the screen, it is  We'd like to hear your comments.  And we're fitting our Iowa Press programming into the Festival spectacular during the next couple of weeks so make note that next week's Iowa Press program airs an hour earlier than usual.  It will be Friday night at 6:30.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


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