Lack of Unity Dooms One Montana Tea Party, May Speak to Wider Problems

BY Erin Cole  February 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM EST

Welcome sign over Main Street in Ronan, Mont.; Flickr Creative Commons photo by LeeinWashDC

Six weeks into the new Congress, the Tea Party caucus continues to be a vocal presence in Washington, calling for deeper program cuts to balance the federal budget including opposition to defense plans supported by the GOP establishment.

But as Patchwork Nation has noted in the past, the Tea Party organizations are less an organized movement that loose affiliation of interest groups often with very different aims and little holding them together. That description has proven true here in the small Tractor Country community of Ronan, Mont., where the sudden rise and equally stunning collapse of one local Tea Party organization offers a look at some of the challenges the groups face.

Grass Roots Under the Big Sky

Montana seems like a place made for the Tea Party. For years, it has lured people who wanted more than anything to be left alone, especially from the federal government’s reach.

Terri Backs was one of those residents who had become frustrated with both political parties. Although the resident of St. Ignatius, a small town south of Ronan, says she had been concerned with politics before, the 2008 election brought these feelings to a head.
“I sat around and fretted and complained and moaned to my husband about how bad things were and then I realized I need to stop complaining and start doing something about it,” the retired accountant said.

After attending a Tea Party meeting located nearly 100 miles to the south in Hamilton, Backs wanted to replicate the organization in Lake County. Although Patchwork Nation has found that Tractor Country locales are not usually Tea Party hotbeds, she thought Ronan would be different.

A recent Wyoming transplant, Backs wasn’t sure of how to find possible supporters for the new group so she doggedly went through the archives of two local papers and found 20 people who had written letters to the editor over the course of several months expressing concern about the direction the country was headed. Backs sent letters asking if they were interested in helping her get a group started.

The result was Calling All Conservatives, a group designed to target “the erosion of traditional American values and principles.”

The response was impressive. More than 300 people packed the small Ronan Community Center last year in only the group’s second meeting.

The Danger of Success

But even as they were helping conservative candidates win local races, divisions were emerging. At the post-election meeting on Nov. 9, the political tone had changed. The group, now called Citizens Acting for Liberty, had a new website and leadership, and far fewer members. Only about half the number showed up to celebrate their electoral gains and discuss what was next.

That evening, Tim Baldwin, a former Florida state prosecutor, spoke about how the states could restore their liberty. Baldwin moved to Montana last year and he and his father, Chuck Baldwin — best known for running in 2008 as president on the Constitutional ticket — have embarked on a speaking circuit in northwest Montana.

Baldwin received hearty applause when he accused Montana of “becoming a whore” by accepting money from the federal government, but was met with a more skepticism when he advocated Montana’s secession from the United States.

“If we’re to follow this path here, each and every one of us is going to have to take up arms against the 3rd Infantry Division coming in from North Dakota with tanks and what are we going to do about it?” asked an audience member.
Baldwin said the federal government wouldn’t have the support to invade another state, but added, “You’re right. We have to be ready.”

After his speech, people wandered about tables set up for ham radio operators, Ayn Rand booksellers, constitutional study groups and the Oath Keepers, who all offered ways to become more involved and educated.

It was a far cry from the relatively tame pro-gun rights, limited government lectures from a year earlier.

According to Backs, some felt that the Calling All Conservatives group didn’t have enough political bite.

“A lot of folks thought they wanted to focus more on the politics and the candidates’ forums and the candidates and we wanted to focus more on educating citizens, so we split off,” she said.

‘We’re Like John Wayne’

In addition to Backs, five other people left Calling All Conservatives to form another group called Brushfires of Freedom. She said the group aimed to be solely educational and complementary to Citizens Acting for Liberty. Still, she worried that the smaller, highly dedicated membership was “preaching to the choir” more than educating fellow citizens. To get that she said, they would need to attract new members.

At the group’s Feb. 2 meeting, men and women stomped snow off their shoes before gathering to watch “Beware of Article V,” a film about the dangers of holding a federal constitutional convention, which was suggested to Backs by the Montana coordinator of the John Birch Society.

Following the screening, Backs, a petite woman with a pixie haircut, worried about their effort, “The biggest question facing our group is ‘How do you get people educated?’ Look at our attendance.”

The six attendees looked amongst themselves.

“We’re like John Wayne,” one of the men in attendance eventually said. “We’re independent and not used to banding together.”

And that might be the Achilles heel of the Tea Party here in Montana. In a Tractor Country county of fewer than 27,000 those who believe in the message of the Tea Party movement have multiple groups to join, from Backs’ education effort to the more activist Citizens Acting for Liberty to the John Birch Society to the borderline-militant patriot groups.

For Andrew Speer, one of the six at the meeting, the answer drawing the crowd is getting something done. Speer took over Calling All Conservatives after Backs left and said the group was already faltering.

In addition to Back’s group, Speer had his own organization, the Mission Valley Patriots, and has been leading a constitutional study group. He and his wife Diane also regularly navigate the roads that circle Flathead Lake to attend other groups.

Speer, Backs and other constitutional activists continue to circulate among the groups in this part of Patchwork Nation, seeking some mix of education and action.

As 2010 came to a close, Patchwork Nation cautioned, “By spring, expect the fissures to be more apparent” among the Tea Party activists. If Tractor Country is any indication, spring has come early to Patchwork Nation.

Erin Cole is a journalism student at the University of Montana.