An Atlanta tea party rally, 10 years later

In this AJC file photo from April 15, 2009, tea partyists pack Washington Street in front of the state Capitol.

Combined ShapeCaption
In this AJC file photo from April 15, 2009, tea partyists pack Washington Street in front of the state Capitol.

Precisely 10 years ago today, workers were throwing up a pair of stages at the front of the state Capitol.

One was for Sean Hannity, who would offer the color commentary on Fox News. The other would raise up the firebrands who would spark the internal rebellion within Republican circles known as the tea party.

Thousands of older, mostly white Georgians flocked to the Atlanta protest the next day, one of 300 nationwide. It was April 15, the deadline for filing federal income taxes. Attendees didn’t number 20,000, as would be claimed that night. But the Capitol crowd was large enough to roil Georgia politics for years to come.

The tea party is why we’re still arguing about health care in Georgia. One can theorize, and many do, that the tea party is the reason we have Donald Trump in the White House today.

On Monday afternoon, the 10th anniversary of that first tea party gathering in Atlanta will be marked with another, smaller rally — this one on the newish Liberty Plaza. That’s on the Downtown Connector side of the Capitol. U.S. Sen. David Perdue will be there. He’s up for re-election in 2020, and perhaps will wear the blue jean jacket that helped him win in 2014. Ralph Reed, another Trump champion, will be there, too.

The messaging will be different than it was 10 years ago. The 2009 protesters, who modeled themselves on the Revolutionary-era Boston tea vandals, decried a federal government they said had lost touch. Remember that in 2009, Democrats controlled the White House and both wings of Congress. Being on the outside was suddenly fashionable.

One of the Atlanta speakers was former U.S. House majority leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, whose Freedom Works operation was a primary organizer of many tea party groups around the nation. Before he took the stage, Armey addressed charges of artificial grassroots. “I plan to tell everybody they need to make it clear it’s their gathering,” he said. “It’s not organized by big shots in Washington.”

With President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Great Recession still with us, and a federal bailout of banks and other industries underway, the tea party was all about the federal debt that was about to sink us.

“I look at the Congressional Budget Office analysis, which for years was the gold standard in terms of predicting what the deficit and the impact on the economy economic plans are going to have, and they’re telling me that the numbers are not sustainable,” Hannity told a local reporter that day, tossing in words like “collapse” and “frightening” as well.

But that concern has dropped away. Likely because of a 2017 tax cut, pushed through by the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, that will add nearly $1 trillion of additional debt over the next decade. Debt and deficits have become unpleasant topics.

Instead, Monday’s rally will be about “stopping socialism”, said Debbie Dooley, who helped organize the 2009 event and is putting together Monday’s as well. She’s posted helpful suggestions for signage, including this one: “Socialism brings mass poverty, oppression, and tyranny!”

It is important to note that, despite the fact that the 2009 stage was dominated by men that night — remember Joe the Plumber? — the Atlanta rally was organized by a group of socially conservative women who were at the Capitol that session, working their issues.

Dooley was one. Then there was Jenny Beth Martin, a Cherokee County housewife who would be quickly swept into the national movement. Virginia Galloway, working for the anti-tax group Americans For Prosperity, was another (and is no relation to the author). Ten days out, when Fox News announced it would televise the Atlanta event (and others), it was Galloway who took charge of raising the necessary $25,000 to put on the event. She’ll be one of Monday’s speakers.

There were many others. But of those three, Dooley is the one who has stuck closest — to Atlanta, and the disruptive ambitions of the tea party.

“The tea party set the stage for Donald Trump. We railed against the Republican establishment. We were not fans of the Bush family and their influence in the Republican party,” Dooley said in an interview this week.

“Up until that point, the environment was that if you’re Republican, you don’t criticize other Republicans. I think the tea party changed that dramatically,” Dooley said. “At the first few tea parties, people were just as upset at the Republican establishment as they were at the Democrats.”

Dooley has indeed been a disruptor — a description she also uses for Trump, whom she endorsed in 2016, long before other tea partyers fell into line. In 2014, Dooley set up camp in the House district of Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat him. In 2018, she campaigned against two Republican incumbents for the state Public Service Commission, for their support of continued construction of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle.

For four years, the Atlanta Tea Party had two co-equal leaders. One was Dooley. The other was Julianne Thompson, a former congressional aide and ex-communications director of the Georgia GOP. She wasn’t there for the Atlanta rally, but joined soon afterwards. “After the bailouts and what seemed like government spending out of control, I became an activist in the movement,” Thompson said.

She became a witness to the most important shift in the tea party movement in Georgia. As the recession smoothed out, a new focus was placed on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Thompson was the tea party representative on an advisory panel, set up by Nathan Deal in 2012, that urged the Republican governor to drop plans to set up state-sponsored health care exchanges that would help connect the uninsured to insurance companies.

“At the end of the day, no one could really articulate why we shouldn’t do it,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant who was Deal’s director of communications at the time. “But everybody was terrified of looking like they were embracing Obamacare. The politics of the moment required you to be outraged about anything that fell under Obamacare.”

That paralysis extended to the ACA’s provision – downgraded from a requirement by the U.S. Supreme Court – that states expand their Medicaid rolls to include those whose income put them slightly above the federal definition of poverty. In Georgia, that would have covered some 650,000 of the uninsured.

That fever may have passed. Last month, the Legislature gave Gov. Brian Kemp permission to move in the direction of expanded health care coverage, but how far he’ll go remains an unknown.

It could depend on how a 10-year-old tea party movement defines socialism on Monday.