Cobb County's tea party at forefront as momentum builds

Michael Williams, a former Domino's Pizza manager, moves through a room filled with Cobb County's Georgia Tea Party members. He alternately shouts and lowers his voice. He waves his arms and points fingers.

The people clustered at the front of the Marietta library and numbering close to 100 are in step with the charismatic and 24-year-old Williams. There is the retired Navy man, the technical writer, the local photographer. Many wear T-shirts with phrases such as "God Bless America" and "Support Our Troops."

Every Thursday night, this tea party faction meets among the books and periodicals, hosting a sizable gathering rare for any community group. Cobb County, with its emphasis on conservative values and politics, has become a stronghold for the tea party and similar organizations. People are caught up in a movement that just this week ousted a Delaware congressman from a senate bid and eliminated a former New York congressman from a governor's race, and earlier scored victories in Alaska, South Carolina and Utah elections.

"They believe it is the job of citizens to aid in government," said Joel Aaron, a coordinator for a comparable conservative group, Americans for Prosperity in Georgia. "They research. They look at budget numbers. They look at legislation. They ask critical questions."

As the November general election approaches, the Cobb tea party faithful have accelerated their political agenda. They took a 13-hour bus ride to attend the Glenn Beck rally in Washington. They say they are better organized and more motivated than ever.

They talk of blocking the federal health care overhaul in Georgia.

They demand tougher state enforcement over illegal immigrants.

They have access to a "war room" at the state Capitol to deal directly with politicians.

"Who here loves their country?" Williams calls out.

Big cheer.

"Who here is totally psyched and energized about the way the country is going?"

Silence.

"Who's ready to do something about it?"

Another cheer.

Georgia played a strong role nationally in forming the tea party in early 2009, and Cobb remains one of the biggest and most persuasive chapters among the state's more than 125. Members of the county Republican party helped form the Cobb group and sponsored its first event.

The mandate for the Cobb movement mirrors that of many tea party groups -- championing smaller government and fiscal conservatism, and fighting illegal immigration. This metro Atlanta group and others like it are expected to drive a higher turnout in the November election, largely to the benefit of Republicans, political experts say.

"You have all these people out there agitating and going to meetings and bringing people to the polls," said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. "It could fuse into a force for Republicans and some Libertarians. It's going to be a boon."

Even Democrat officials have allowed that Republican forces in Georgia appear more motivated to vote than before, driven in part by tea party rhetoric.

"Anger motivates people," said Eric Gray, Democratic Party of Georgia spokesman, noting that Republican turnout was stronger in the Georgia primaries. "I absolutely acknowledge that the Republicans seem more fired up."

At the same time, Gray said Democrats are launching several field offices around the state, hoping to counter the expected Republican turnout.

"This will be the largest field effort the state party has ever done," Gray said. "Democrats can get motivated, too."

Cobb's tea party group does not endorse candidates, but has become more active in state politics. Williams, who led last week's meeting, has emerged as a key organizer. The younger man, who graduated this year from Kennesaw State with degrees in theater and business, deeply believes that the federal government has grown too big and become too intrusive in people's lives. His phone is filled with the contacts of conservative activists. He can quote liberally from the U.S. Constitution.

Williams wears a white polo shirt emblazoned with the Georgia Tea Party emblem to the meeting. He also wears a name tag and lapel pin further advertising his affiliation. He has plans to open his own video game store, but not before political changes occur.

"I have no intention of starting a business if the government is going to bleed the life out of it," he said.

Williams said he is living in historic times. He is so familiar with the work of Sarah Palin and Beck that he sometimes calls them by their first names. He describes Palin as not unlike "one of my aunts, like she could come to Thanksgiving dinner and fit right in."

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, said tea party sentiments could have a greater impact in the November election than the summer primaries. For example, the largely Republican support was divided among several candidates for governor in the primaries, whereas that political backing could be more focused among the narrower field in the general election.

Georgia already has a strong conservative streak among Republicans, so tea party groups have not tried to establish themselves as a rival third party, Bullock said. Considering that much of the tea party angst is directed against Democratic policies, the UGA educator expects those motivated by this message to go to the polls and largely vote Republican.

Support championed by the tea party has inspired people who felt alienated from the political process, Bullock said.

Tea party leaders say they are stepping further into state and local politics, but some Democratic leaders suggest the party members have failed to hold their state and local officials accountable.

"The condition of our state is bad, and they need to remember that the Republicans have been leading our state for the past eight years," said Gray, the Democratic Party state spokesman. "I don't know why they are not blaming their own leaders."

Debbie Quillin, 47, an Acworth mother, is among those who've been politically inspired by Cobb County's tea party message. At the same time, she has directed much of her anger at national figures, not those in the state.

"People in Georgia are not making the decisions that are changing my life," she said.

She is motivated to go to the polls in November and expects to vote Republican.

As the tea party meeting in Marietta wraps up, the group talks about their involvement in Friday's Constitution Day Festival at Marietta Square, sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity. Volunteers come forward.

Ralph Yoos, 63, of Powder Springs, will bring a big ladder. Randy White, a Marietta technical writer, will don a founding father costume.

Williams tells everybody that the speaker at the next meeting will address illegal immigration. The meeting breaks up. Except it isn't over for everyone.

Several tea party members simply move to the Marietta Diner to continue with strategy, to keep the movement rolling.