Writings and observations


Tea Partiers in McMinnville, Oregon/Stapilus

National hype notwithstanding, our observation of local Tea Party events over the last year has been not a rise but rather a gradual slippage. This isn’t a national survey, of course, but local observation seems to bear that out.

Last summer, when Representative David Wu held a town hall meeting in McMinnville, Oregon, hundreds of Tea Party people jammed a city center and made themselves furiously heard. About the same time, in larger communities often reached the thousands. Each event we’ve seen since then, though, has been a little smaller, and a little more sedate.

Today was a beautifully sunny and temperate spring day – perfect for an outdoor event – and it was of course Income Tax Day, and the Yamhill County Tea Party group had set up at 4:30 p.m., just in time to catch the maximum number of people for the upcoming event to participate or observe, in front of the city library.

They drew about 50 people, maybe 60 depending on how far from the main group you go, along a city block. About half held signs.

Apart from the numbers, what else was missing was the sheer fury of last year. There were no Hitlerized pictures of President Obama this time (the only specific reference to him was a sign saying, “Impeach Obama for Treason”). There wasn’t anything violence-tinged, and there wasn’t any conspiracy-theory stuff. Were they concerned about the Tea Party “infiltrators” – had a message gone out to tone things down a bit? Or were they just toning down naturally? Or, had some of the more extreme folks drifted away?

The signs were almost all simple and generic: “One nation under God,” “Save Our Constitution,” “Invest in America – Buy Congressmen,” “Free markets not free loaders,” “Tea Party patriot.” There were a few signs for Republican candidates, mainly for local office, and a few blasting Democrats (“Wyden consider this your going away party”). Few had much issue orientation; one urged “Not another 1 cent for bailouts,” but there was nothing about health care – a remarkable shift from a few months ago.

Just wasn’t last year’s tea party.

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Close elections seem to bring out the desperation especially, in some cases, in those on the wrong end of them. Maybe here’s one way of thinking about close calls: When a race turns out to be really close, ask whether anyone else on the ballot – someone not in a close race – is making a strenuous argument that something in the election process went seriously wrong. If not . . . that probably tells you something.

In the Coeur d’Alene city council election of last November, incumbent Mike Kennedy was challenged by Jim Brannon (though only lightly mentioned in most accounts, there is a partisan subtext: Kennedy is a Democrat and Brannon a Republican). The result was extremely close, giving Kennedy a lead of five votes. There’s a legal avenue for doublechecking such small margins: The recount, which would have been entirely appropriate in a case like this.

Except that Brannon concluded that “The recount would run the same ballots through the same machines by the same people,” and so went on a hunt for other glitches in the system which might reverse the result.

Elections systems are not perfect, no more than any other human endeavor, but Idaho’s generally and Kootenai County’s specifically for many years have not been the scene of any significant allegations of election fraud, and the other results in the Coeur d’Alene elections of last fall have not been challenged. Brannon hired an attorney (Starr Kelso) and even a private investigator to find out if someone may have cast an improper vote. A few scraps have emerged, but nothing systemic, and there’s no indication how the election might have been affected if at all. It’s nowhere close to the “Coeur d’Alene Watergate” one blogger would like to conflate it to. (The case Republicans made after the 2004 Washington gubernatorial contest, probably even closer than this one statistically, was likely stronger than this, but still pretty weak and ultimately dismissed in court.) The case has gone to court, has gone through a series of judges each recusing from the case (the count now seems to be at judge four), and the legal bills are piling up. You have to sympathize with Kennedy on that: “I regret the process in which a person can be sued personally just for winning an election.”

Therein is a risk, and a reason for people outside of Coeur d’Alene to take note: In the case of close elections, deeper pockets (whether those of the candidate or the candidate’s allies) can keep the legal cases coming, with the very real risk of eventually driving out of the process those with less money to spend. The election process itself looks at this point not perfect but essentially clean, but the challenge to it is raising some dark issues.

Brannon has also called for re-doing the election, an option that he should know is no option at all: There’s no provision for it, no legal way to do that. (Just as there wasn’t nationally in 2000, when a lot of Democrats would have like that presidential election re-run.) You run an election, you count the numbers, and that’s that.

On a (self-selecting) web poll, the Spokesman-Review asked, “Why is Jim Brannon pursuing his election lawsuit against Mike Kennedy?” “Sour grapes” pulled 78% (74 votes), and “Wants to correct election problems” 22% (21 votes). Brannon’s plea that “I’m not a sore loser” seems to be getting less traction.

After close to half a year of this, that’s not hard to understand.

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