It was the most unexpected thing. Jenny Beth Martin was visiting members of Congress in Washington last November when someone called her name.
“Could I have your autograph?” she was asked.
Flustered and a little flattered, Martin scrawled her name across a protest placard her admirer held. Then, to be sure her newfound friend remembered why they were in the nation’s capital, she added words that have become synonymous with political discontent: “Tea Party Patriots.”
Others approached with the same request. Some knew she was to be featured in “Tea Party: The Documentary Film.” Others said they remembered her fiery stand earlier that year outside Congress. Still others said they had heard about her.
It’s a safe bet many more have heard of her now. Time magazine recently named Martin one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The April 29 issue listed the 39-year Woodstock resident among a group including household names from President Barack Obama to Lady Gaga.
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In introducing Martin, Time wrote, “Every revolution needs icons.”
Icon? For Martin, the term is like a new pair of dress shoes: shiny, but not comfortable just yet. Three years ago, she was a mom caring for twins while her husband ran a temp agency. Then the business went bust and the Martins lost their home. Jenny Beth Martin found her voice, and has given it to a movement profoundly unhappy with Congress, the president and the general direction of life in the United States.
In the past year, her celebrity has taken her to Washington, New York, Philadelphia and other places where people want to see one of the few luminaries of a movement that prides itself on its lack of stars. So she books her flights, a surprised traveler.
“I never intended this,” she said recently. “I guess I just raise my hand too often and volunteer constantly.”
Becoming a believer
Martin may owe CNBC commentator Rick Santelli a big thank you. On Feb. 19, 2009, he stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and blasted Obama’s mortgage bailout plan. “The government,” he yelled, “is promoting bad behavior!” Then, with a nod to U.S. history, Santelli said he should host a “Chicago tea party.”
Tea party. In suburban Atlanta, Martin heard that phrase and felt something stir. She got busy the next day, organizing Atlanta’s first tea party protest. On Feb. 27, Martin and others stood in the rain outside the Georgia Capitol with signs reading “Repeal or Retire,” a message to Congress to drop the economic stimulus plan.
Martin stepped up her e-mails and phone calls, sharing her belief. She and others planned a protest for April 15, the national deadline for filing income taxes. Someone, Martin isn’t sure who, coined the name “Tea Party Patriots.” In June she incorporated the group as a nonprofit political action organization. She is its CEO.
Its principles, she said, are simple. It wants the government to embrace fiscal responsibility, calls for a constitutionally limited government and urges free-market economics. An umbrella organization, it now claims 1,800 chapters with 15 million members.
The April 15 protests, held across the country last year, made a splash. And Martin, who coordinated speakers’ appearances at the Atlanta protest, made a discovery.
“I enjoyed it,” said Martin, who’d tasted politics a few years earlier working with the Georgia GOP. She wanted more.
Staying on meassage
On Sept. 12, 2009, about a half-million people descended on Washington for a “9/12” tax protest organized by Fox News personality Glenn Beck. They turned eyes to the stage, where a youngish woman addressed them in a Southern drawl.
“We were not loud enough in February, in April, in July,” said Martin. She turned to the alabaster buildings where lawmakers gather. “Can you hear us now?!”
Martin thinks her life changed at that moment. The Tea Party Patriots became a wave of believers, with Martin riding its crest.
And while the movement she helped start has caught fire, it has also drawn fire. Some extremists, including white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, have sprung up in and around it. Opponents of gay marriage and abortion have tried to ally themselves. Martin is emphatic: These folks weren’t invited to the party.
“We do not discriminate,” she said. The movement, she said, includes Democrats as well as Republicans, blacks as well as whites. “We all love this country passionately.”
There’s also the assertion that the organization has a disproportionate number of “birthers” who claim Obama was not born a U.S. citizen so is in the Oval Office illegally.
Martin sighed. “The governor of Hawaii said he [Obama] was born in Hawaii. That’s good enough for me.
“This is not about President Obama,” she said. “This is about the issues.”
Personal boom and bust
The daughter of a Methodist minister, Martin graduated from East Rome High School and attended Reinhardt College, where she met the handsome president of a fraternity. She went on to UGA, and he did, too. Lee and Jenny Beth Martin wed in 1992.
She got a job programming computers with Home Depot. Lee founded Indwell Corp., specializing in supplying temporary workers. They bought a five-bedroom house in a Woodstock subdivision. They had twin Lincoln Navigator SUVs, a yard service, a club membership. She quit her job and in 2003, gave birth to a boy and girl. Things looked good.
Then Indwell failed, prey to a faltering economy and what Martin described as her husband’s unscrupulous former business partner. Lee Martin took out loans and used credit cards to try to keep Indwell operating, she said. In 2008, he filed for bankruptcy, with tax debts alone of more than $680,000.
By filing for bankruptcy, the Martins avoided paying debts to some creditors. They still owe the IRS and state.
“We’ll have to pay them,” said Martin, who has not shied from talking about the family’s financial misfortunes.
These days, her husband repairs computers. As head of the Tea Party Patriots, Martin draws a monthly salary of about $6,000. “I didn’t start this to get a job,” she said.
The house is gone; so are the Navigators. The Martins bought a $2,100 heap, which recently broke down. Last week, they started getting around in a $27-a-day rental car.
“One of the most influential people in the world?” she asked. “We can’t even afford to buy a car.”
‘A sort of everywoman’
Martin does not have a posse, does not court the limelight. Her ordinariness, supporters say, is part of her appeal.
“She’s a sort of everywoman,” said California lawyer Mark Meckler, the Tea Party’s national coordinator.
Meckler thinks Martin’s appearances across the nation, as well her role in “Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” caught the attention of Time’s editors.
She was a perfect choice for the movie, said Luke Livingston, executive producer of the 105-minute film. “She’s a real hero of the movement,” said Livingston, also of Woodstock. He compares her to a “shepherd, making sure everybody has a place [in the movement] and can get activated.”
Julianne Thompson of Suwanee, a coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, recalls the 9/12 rally in Washington, and watching Martin electrify the listeners, she said.
Martin, for her part, seems a little embarrassed by such uproar.
“This,” she said, “is a grass-roots movement. We’re all leaders.”
Yes, but some people stand apart from others. Someone has to be the most influential.
For the Tea Party movement, for the moment, that someone is Jenny Beth Martin.
Can the Tea Party Patriots change the face of American politics? Jenny Beth Martin believes they can.
Some experts, though, aren’t convinced they will. Other such movements, they say, have flowered briefly, only to wither without making much of a difference.
“Ultimately, they will fade out,” predicted Steve Anthony, a lecturer at Georgia State University and the former director of the state Democratic Party.
The organization, said Anthony, may see its ideals co-opted by a larger party — in this case, the GOP — and fizzle out. “If they are any good at all ... one of the two major parties will take their issues over,” he said.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia since 1968, noted that other leaders have reached out to disgruntled voters in the past. In 1964, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater appealed to unhappy conservatives; eight years later, George McGovern turned to discontented liberals in his bid for the White House. Each failed.
The tea party movement’s test, he said, will come in the elections this November. Its grade will be posted the next day, when political watchers tally the win-loss record of candidates the Tea Party Patriots endorse.
“A year later, we may look back and say, ‘The tea party was much ado about nothing.’ ” he said. “Or we may not.”
How we got the story
After Time magazine listed Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin of Woodstock as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, reporter Mark Davis sat down with her for a two-hour interview. He spoke to others in the tea party movement, to political experts and to friends and acquaintances of Martin’s. He also did other background research and reviewed court records detailing the Martin family’s bankruptcy.