Who’s in the Florida Tea Party?

BY Larisa Epatko  April 16, 2010 at 1:09 PM EDT

If you watched any television news Thursday, you likely saw swarms of Americans — some holding signs, some dressed as 18th century revolutionaries and others in casual wear — protesting government spending.

The Tax Day protests marked a year since similar groups in the anti-government spending movement emerged on the national stage to rally against President Obama’s stimulus package and the financial industry bailout enacted during the George W. Bush administration.

But who are the people in the Tea Party movement? Television footage tends to focus on the costumes and most radical protest signs. As part of our Spotlight City coverage in Tampa, we spoke with several people from the disparate groups and political organizations that comprise the Tea Party movement in Florida to get a better sense of who’s spending considerable amount of their time fighting government spending. For many of the activists we spoke with, being part of the Tea Party is almost a full-time job.

Although some media coverage of protests by Tea Party groups show a seemingly monolithic entity, a closer look reveals that people in the loosely organized movement have a wide range of experiences in political activism. And they don’t all agree on how exactly to harness the movement’s anger at government into success at the ballot box.

We spoke with Sharon Calvert, president of the Tampa Tea Party, who said she is helping to organize rallies and protests because she is worried about how government spending might be jeopardizing her children’s future.

Tom Gaitens is a field organizer with FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has helped create some of the Florida Tea Party groups. He described how the movement started and what role he played in getting the Florida movement off the ground.

You’ll also meet Fred O’Neal, who founded the Florida Tea Party — a political party — in an effort to organize the decentralized mass of conservatives who want to do something about government spending. His political party now faces a lawsuit over the Tea Party name by groups who say he is trying to hijack the movement.