Tea Party, Occupy: grass-roots movements find political turf

Local activists haven't gone away; they are focusing on issues

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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photoSteven Lane/The Columbian Occupy Vancouver supporters wave signs Thursday, as they do most weeks, at Mill Plain Boulevard and Fort Vancouver Way.

Last fall, about 700 members of the 99 percent flocked to Esther Short Park, some waving signs against corporate greed and some even shouting through megaphones.

It was the largest showing of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement in Clark County, but since then, enthusiasm for the cause has dwindled.

"Interest has declined," Occupy Vancouver member Don Steinke said Friday. Now the Vancouver chapter of the group has split into loosely connected factions that focus on separate issues. There's an advocacy group calling for a state-run bank and a community rights group fighting against an increase of coal trains in Clark County, for example.

Loss of interest isn't a new concept for political movements.

Numbers also dwindled for Vancouver's Tea Party movement, which arguably had its greatest enthusiasm in 2009 and 2010. Now the local Tea Party, also known as We the People Vancouver, has fewer members, and those members also overlap with other conservative movements in Clark County.

Both the Occupy Vancouver political movement and Vancouver's Tea Party movement have evolved, their organizers say.

Sometimes it even appears they've evolved in similar ways. Both groups are less about rallies these days and more about substance. Their numbers might be smaller, but those loyal members in their ranks are more sophisticated in their approach to advocacy.

"Attendance might be smaller, but participation is up," We the People Vancouver member Tom Hann said on Friday. "We've transitioned from waving the signs outside of City Hall to submitting solutions inside of City Hall."

Occupy evolving

The Occupy Vancouver movement was overshadowed by the national Occupy Wall Street movement taking place in larger cities across the country, including Portland. Media gravitated to images of young adults camped out in city parks, and of their interactions with police.

In some cases, Clark County activists didn't realize that the city across the Columbia River from Portland had its version of the movement, Steinke said. Instead, they traveled to Portland to take part in the larger protests.

Occupy Vancouver has hosted a number of local events, however. A handful of people gathered in Esther Short Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to read King's statements about economic equality. The group participated in a lecture at Washington State University Vancouver to discuss the millions of corporate dollars being funneled into political campaigns. And every Thursday, a small group of Occupy members still waves signs in downtown Vancouver.

The group's most recent rally took place in May, when about 70 Occupy Vancouver and MoveOn.org members protested outside of a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. The fundraiser's special guest and star attraction was Republican House Speaker John Boehner, whose budget policies raised red flags for those in the Occupy movement.

Steinke said he envisions Occupy Vancouver's future role as serving as an "umbrella organization" for specifically focused, like-minded groups. Many who have been involved in Occupy are also involved in MoveOn.org, a left-leaning nonprofit focused on community activism.

Occupy Vancouver members also have formed subgroups that seek to reform campaign finance, protect homeowners facing foreclosure, and ask citizens to put their money in local banks rather than nationwide chains, according to Occupy Vancouver's website. Some of those smaller groups are more active than others, Steinke said.

"Occupy has changed into another phase where the groups that they motivated to start working are working, and the one that's working the most is the community rights movement," he said.

The community rights movement is modeled after activists in a Pennsylvania town who fought against a proposed corporate hog farm in their community in the 1990s, Steinke said. The group worried the farm would harm the environment and local property values, and passed city ordinances that helped the citizens stand up to the company proposing the hog farm.

Similarly, "the people in this town have to have rights -- rights to clean air and clean water and quality of life," Steinke said. "Our strategy in the community rights movement is to find an issue that galvanizes the community and then ask that the city council supports an ordinance that stops that issue."

Meetings for the community rights group have been drawing about a dozen people lately, Steinke said. The people who do show up have become quick studies on the legal issues surrounding their cause.

"We're becoming junior lawyers," Steinke said, adding that Occupy rallies were simply a starting point. "What does a big rally do? It doesn't accomplish anything except to motivate people to start something. It's then what you do afterwards."

Occupy Vancouver members want the Vancouver City Council to require stricter studies of the impact caused by coal trains traveling through Vancouver in order to get to coal terminals proposed elsewhere in the state. The group hasn't yet succeeded, Steinke said.

Tea Party movement

In 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party movement was in its heyday. Several Tea Party candidates were elected to Congress in 2010, tipping the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives from Democratic to Republican.

In Clark County, We the People Vancouver hosted a number of rallies, including a "hands off my health care" protest outside the Vancouver office of then-Rep. Brian Baird. They hosted discussions on light rail, and last summer they hosted another rally to tell Rep. Herrera Beutler to support federal spending cuts.

The group vetted political candidates to see how politicians' views stacked up against Tea Party values. In August 2010, Dino Rossi, then a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, visited Vancouver so We the People could grill him about his stance on issues relating to the U.S. Constitution.

The group still hosts candidate forums, but "we're kind of all over the place," We the People Vancouver Chairwoman Lynda Wilson said. It still comes together once or twice a month, but its members are active in other conservative organizations, including the Clark County Republican Party and the newly-created PCO Liberty Alliance.

The PCO Liberty Alliance -- PCO standing for precinct committee officer -- formed this year to take on what it calls an "establishment mentality" within the Republican Party. That alliance includes some libertarians, Tea Party members and conservative "values voters."

"Three of our board members are now on the Clark County GOP board," Wilson said. "We have a few of our board members who are members of the PCO Liberty Alliance. … We all meld into so many of those groups. If they're constitutionally grounded, then we're all for it."

We the People Vancouver supports limiting government to the boundaries outlined in the U.S. and Washington constitutions, Hann said. He added that the government should be able to do things on its citizens behalf, especially in cases when it's more efficient for the government to do so, but "we don't give them the authority to do everything or anything they want."

Vancouver's Tea Party, like the city's Occupy movement, has divided into groups concentrating on more specific issues. Some of those political topics include local transportation, property rights and the federal government's impact on school curriculum, Hann said.

The group also likes to bring in experts to teach about the government, including classes on the Constitution and lectures about ballot initiatives, Wilson said.

"We have educated ourselves on different aspects of government and how it all works," she said. Members "get involved in projects that affect our community. We pay attention to the laws and ordinances."

She described the group as "low-key but still effective."

Nationwide efforts

On a national scale, it appears both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements have had an impact on the messages being used this campaign season. The Republican Party's platform, unveiled at last month's Republican National Convention, calls for a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. It also advocates for preventing the government from balancing the budget by raising taxes.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party's platform advocates Wall Street reform and lobbying reform. It also calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen United decision, which allows corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to make unlimited campaign contributions. It's a court decision the national Occupy Wall Street movement has been fighting.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.