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Sandpoint Tea Partiers seek fiscal conservatism

Staff Writer | April 21, 2010 9:00 PM

SANDPOINT - A sticker hailing President Barack Obama as a man of change decorates the bumper of an economy car parked in front of the VFW hall.

Inside the building, the talk is less complimentary of the president and focuses on change of another sort.

It is the first anniversary of the local Tea Party and more than 150 supporters or curious observers have come to listen.

A friend invited Larry Curtright to attend.

Curtright, in his late 40s, sits near the front of the assembly wearing an Air Force sweatshirt that his airman son gave him. Beside him is a man wearing Marine Corps red and gold.

Curtright calls himself conservative.

"I believe in individual rights," he says.

He opposes what he calls the administration's socialist agenda, and feels politicians in Washington, D.C., are deaf to what voters want.

"I don't want to be taken care of by someone else who thinks they know what's best for me," he says. "I disagree with their blatant disregard for the American people."

He cites the health care reform bill as an example of what is wrong in the Beltway.

"People were not in favor of it, yet the government spent months to pass it," he says. "It was clearly a partisan effort."

In that, Curtright is part of a growing and vocal national trend that pits voters who want less federal intrusion and better representation, against what they see as the status quo of PACs and partisanship in a Washington where insiders and politicians get rich, as the nation spirals into bankruptcy that the middle class is made to bear.

Doris Hunsaker, a tall, lean woman who is "pushing 70," was among the Sandpoint Tea Party movement's founders.

Conservative radio and television host Glenn Beck's nine principles inspired her to take action against what she believed was a corrupt government that had turned its back on the rules meant to keep it in check.

A few friends joined the effort that started, she says, as a protest.

"We got together and decided to have a tea party," she says.

A dozen people were expected to attend the group's first meeting a year ago.

"But we had 200 show up," she says. "We didn't know what to do."

Hunsaker, who moved to Sandpoint from Arizona, has for years been a constitutionalist: She believes that the authority of government derives from the people, and is limited by the Constitution.

The problems Americans face stem from the country's veering away from those commandments, she says.

"I've always been really concerned about our departure from Constitutional principles," she says.

For the past year, she says, the group has protested big-news items such as the government's auto and banking bailouts, health care reform and the stimulus package.

Sandpoint Tea Party member Pam Stout took the group's message on the road bringing a lot of attention and new members to the group. Since being the centerpiece of a New York Times article several months ago, Stout as a representative of the Sandpoint Tea Party has been interviewed by several national news organizations and has appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, as well as other television and radio shows.

Stout could not attend the anniversary event because she was in Monterey, Calif., tending to a sister who was recovering from surgery.

While she was there, she spoke briefly to the Monterey Tea Partiers.

Her message of fiscal conservatism doesn't fall on deaf ears, she says.

In California, a state facing deep economic challenges, her address was well received. Although she has been called the voice of the Tea Party Movement, Stout shrugs off the label.

"I see myself as a grandma from Idaho," she says. "When I am passionate about something, I usually can make my point."

The attention she has garnered has helped local efforts, Hunsaker says, but it is time for a change of direction.

"We need to move toward solutions," she says. "Basically we need to restore the Constitution."

The Sandpoint meeting came on the heels of a larger, better-publicized event across the border in Spokane on Tax Day that was attended by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.

Despite the whirl of publicity, good and bad, surrounding the movement nationally, Sandpoint Tea Partiers, would rather Pam Stout be their sole representative and not be compared to neighboring organizations.

"I was very disappointed with the Spokane Tea Party," Carl Stout, Pam's husband, says. "Sloppy jeans, a T-shirt with a gun sticking out ... That's not what this Tea Party wants."

Wearing slacks, a sport shirt and coat, Stout looks more like a golf cart salesman than a political activist. "We have to be responsible for our image," he says.

The attendees at Saturday's Sandpoint Tea Party first anniversary generally reflect the demographics of the group's founders.

With the exception of a handful of youngsters asleep on chairs and a few teenagers, the majority of the audience is either approaching retirement age or beyond it.

White-haired and soft-spoken, Mary Jane Henry looks like the woman who brings the best desserts to the Lutheran potlucks.

She is mannerly and kind, but also direct.

The group, she said has approximately 50 active members who are like-minded in their conservative values and who feel disenfranchised. They feel that government, their government, has been hijacked by politicians who disregard the principles they are elected to uphold.

Henry is careful to not cast the group's members under one umbrella.

They consider themselves patriots, believers in the principles of the Founding Fathers, and they see the U.S. as a Christian nation.

"You can believe what you want to believe," Henry says. "It doesn't matter what religion you are, but our Founding Fathers did not separate church and state."

The local group, she says, will not endorse a candidate.

It does encourage its members to research how a candidate voted and to know his or her beliefs before casting a vote, she says.

"We are going to pay extremely close attention to voting records before we work hard to put someone in office," she says.

The anniversary event includes several speakers covering topics such as the Federal Reserve, illegal immigration, and rallies the audience to get involved in bringing change to the political system.

Jim Polzin, a retired engineer from Blanchard who calls himself a history buff, gives a stirring invocation to past and present members of the armed forces. Next is a history lesson on the expansion of federal budgets dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and talks about term limits.

"How many of you can vote your own raise each year?" he asks. "For those who argue that only long-serving, experienced politicians have the skill to lead the nation, look how it's working out."

Like Hunsaker before him, Polzin, a stout man in a suit who uses a cane, gets a standing ovation from the audience.

The group is about educating the public, and its own members, and not the radical demagoguery that the media has tried to tie to Tea Partiers, Henry says.

It is about making changes first at the local level, and hopefully the state level, before changes can be addressed at the nation's Capitol, she said.

Mostly, it is about being heard.

"We believe we're having an effect," she said. "We're being listened to. That's what we want: To be listened to."

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