Local Tea Party Leader Disses National Tea Party Convention

By Chris Kissel February 11, 2010

Keli Carender, who teaches basic math to low-income adults in Seattle, hangs out in Capitol Hill bars on the weekends, and does improv comedy, also happened to organize the nation's first tea party protest last February. (I covered it for PubliCola.)

And Carender, 30, who blogs under the name "Liberty Belle," was supposed to be in Nashville this weekend for the much-hyped Tea Party convention. But she says she has qualms with the way the convention was billed. Even though organizers in Nashville gave her a speaking slot, and comped her ticket to the convention (all other attendees had to pay $549), Carender didn't go. She's in the process of returning the money her friends raised for her plane trip and hotel room—she wouldn't tell me how much but said it was "exactly enough."

Carender—who has long, wavy brown hair and wears hipster glasses—was featured in the New Yorker and on NPR in their coverage of the Tea Party convention this month as one of the founders of the national movement. Like some convention-resisters within the Tea Party group, she doesn't want the movement to be co-opted by the Republicans (or anyone else, for that matter). Likewise, the Tea Party Patriots, a national tea party group feuding with the convention organizers (Carender affiliates with them) emailed their members last week shunning the convention. “We the people are smart and will not buy any tactics by politicians to use or co-opt us or the movement,” the message said.

Carender also thought the ticket price was prohibitively high. And in her opinion, the convention got off message. "I think all the national security stuff was probably not a good idea," she said of Sarah Palin's address, which Carender called a "pep speech.'" ("I like Sarah Palin," she added. "I don't consider her notes written on her hand a gaffe. I think using teleprompters and a podium to talk to sixth graders and at a meeting with 12 other people a la Obama is way more embarrassing.")

Carender just wishes Palin would have stuck to what she thinks is the uniting message. "Over all, the Tea Party [movement] is about fiscal issues," Carender says.

Carender's Tax Day Tea Party in Downtown Seattle last April.

Carender's original February '09 protest—it was actually pre-Tea Party, and she called it a "Porkulus" protest against President Obama's "socialist" stimulus package—was given national attention by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin. Since then, Carender has organized several more tea parties in Seattle.

She also got attention at Rep. Norm Dicks' (D-WA, 6)  town hall meeting in Bremerton this summer—during a comment session, she waved a $20 bill in the air, saying "come and get this $20 bill and use it as a down payment on the healthcare plan." A YouTube video of the incident was circulated widely.

Carender says the point was just to "put [Dicks] on the spot." She clearly likes to get a rise out of people. Like the time she dressed as Alice in Wonderland for the Tax Day tea party she organized, and went onstage to sing "Obama, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz." Carender says she just wants more people to be politically aware, but she also gets a noticeable kick out of performance protest. And of pushing liberals' buttons. Besides acute fiscal anxiety, that may be the one trait that unites Carender and the tea partiers above all else. I was going to watch Palin's speech with Carender at a Seattle bar, but she skipped town to Bremerton to visit her parents instead.

Last week's national Tea Party convention was organized by a social networking Web site called "Tea Party Nation," a for-profit group that, in the days following the Nashville gathering, announced the creation of a political action committee. The PAC would rally tea party support around GOP candidates in tight races.

"I'm glad they put on their convention, but let's not call it 'The Tea Party convention,'" Carender says. Carender and the other local tea partiers say the Tea Party movement should include members from all political parties, particularly conservative Democrats and Libertarians.

Carender says she works better with the Tea Party Patriots, which has been much less eager to align themselves with the Republicans. The Tea Party Patriots say the effort to distill the movement into one group, especially under the GOP and particularly under a figure as divisive as Sarah Palin, will alienate those drawn to the Tea Party's unanimous message of fiscal conservatism.

"Governor Palin does not represent the Tea Party movement," says Sally Oljar, a 55-year-old graphic designer and a regional representative of Tea Party Patriots who helps Carender organize tea party protests. "We are not composed of just Republicans. The Republicans can say whatever they want to, but that's not the way things are."

Locally, Tea Party activists are putting forth a handful of candidates for national office, all of them Republicans. Matthew Burke, a candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat currently held by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA,1) and a proud Teapublican, told a small meeting of Carender's Young Republicans group that the national Republican party had called him and told him not to run.

Liberty Belle Vs. Norm Dicks.

Steve Beren, who spoke at Carender's first rally and who ran against Seattle Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA,7) last year and in 2006, is running the Senatorial campaign for Art Coday, a Teapublican and one of seven Republican challengers to Sen. Patty Murray. He says he hasn't heard anything from the national party, although that might be due to the fact that Coday's odds of beating Murray are decidedly slim.

Beren was enthusiastic about Carender, and called her "a true leader," but refused to acknowledge her as a leader of the movement. "Our movement here is virtually identical to the others across the country, in that it's not united under a single person."

Carender says she has no desire to run for office. "My main thing is that I want people to be educated. I want people to read the constitution." And she's going to continue organizing tea parties, blogging, and working with the King County Young Republicans. "I'm just a total patriotic nerd," she said.
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