Local News

April 16, 2012

Local tea party groups hope to be watchdogs over government

DALTON — In the final minutes of this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly, lawmakers inserted a provision into a hunting and fishing bill that would have allowed the state ethics commission to withhold some complaints against public officials and to waive penalties for some politicians and lobbyists who miss deadlines to file financial reports.

The bill sailed through the Senate before government watchdog groups realized what was happening and began to protest. The House of Representatives voted down the bill.

“That is not rare,” said Dalton Tea Party member Ed Painter. “That’s how they put things in there that most people aren’t aware of, and even after it’s done most people don’t know it. That’s why we are trying to inform the grassroots what’s being done and how it’s being done.”

Local tea party activists say they have become watchdogs over local and state governments, with members keeping an eye on the General Assembly and regularly attending local government meetings to report back on what is happening.

Dalton Tea Party organizer Naomi Swanson said the shift in focus from rallies and demonstrations, which are how the tea party movement made its mark when it formed three years ago, is deliberate.

“We’ve found that it was time to put down our protest signs and get to work,” she said. “We’ve gotten to work locally. We’ve gotten to work at the state level. We still rally, but we are picking and choosing now, fine-tuning our message.”

Typically, between 80 to 110 people attend the Dalton Tea Party’s monthly meeting and about 40 attend the Murray County Tea Party Patriots monthly meeting. Attendees hear from local members and outside experts about measures of interest at the local, state and national levels. Local elected officials often attend the meetings as well and answer questions from the members.

“The only hope we have of changing things is to hold politicians accountable for what they do,” said Painter. “Accountability and transparency are key.”

Murray County Tea Party Patriots Director Linda Fowler says the most popular meetings tend to be those that feature elected officials. That group recently hosted a forum for Murray County sheriff candidates that was attended by about 50.

“You can tell by the questions that people ask that they are paying attention,” Fowler said.

Swanson also points to the work local tea party activists did getting the General Assembly to pass a health care compact law last year. That law calls on Congress to allow Georgia, and other states that join the compact, to regulate their own health care markets. Tea party groups across the country have endorsed the health care compact concept.

State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, was one of the authors of that law, and shortly after it passed last year he gave credit to local tea party activists for bringing the compact idea to the General Assembly and lobbying for its passage.

“There’s no way this would have passed without Naomi (Swanson) and Ed Painter (of the Dalton Tea Party) and all the other people who came to the Capitol and met with, I think, every member of the General Assembly, the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office,” he said. “They worked tirelessly for this.”

Painter also developed a plan to create a new congressional district in Northwest Georgia after census results gave the state an additional district last year. In a special session last year, the General Assembly did create a new district with lines close to what Painter and other local tea party activists had lobbied for.

This year local tea party members also backed a law that would have kept offices that are currently elected in partisan races from being switched to nonpartisan elections, saying voters deserve to know the party affiliations of those they vote for. That law did not pass this year, but the tea party members say they will continue to press the issue next year.

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